For a coach who has made his name on offense, Mike Riley spent a lot of time talking defense at his pre-spring press conference on Wednesday. Makes sense. The Blackshirts are enrolled in 3-4 101 this spring and need to pass to be ready for 3-4 202 this fall.
But if you read between the lines, Riley also outlined how much work lay ahead for the offense, too.
“We only improved offensively in one very important category [last year],” Riley said. “That category that we did improve on was great and that was turnovers. And maybe that was the main difference in our record. That’s how important the turnover facet is and we improved that area dramatically.”
Riley might be right about that. What was the difference between 6-7 in 2015 and 9-4 in 2016? You can note a couple of gains and losses — pass defense improved, run defense didn’t — but overall Nebraska’s numbers look pretty similar minus one: The Huskers were minus-12 in turnovers two years ago, plus-five in 2016.
“We did not improve productivity in any other way,” Riley said. “We want to improve all of the other parts being that efficient team that doesn’t turn the ball over, that takes care of the ball, and defensively gets the ball back and doesn’t give up big plays and points. And then offensively, our production, running, passing, everything, was less than average or average at best. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Riley’s not kidding. Check out the de facto punch list he offered for improvement on offense.
It starts with establishing some “identity runs,” something every coach wants but it doesn’t happen overnight. Tommy Armstrong Jr. may have come the closest to establishing those kind of runs a year ago and, of course, he’s not available in 2017.
“We don’t have Tommy’s legs, so what we have to do is be very aware of allowing the quarterback to succeed,” Riley said. “First of all the line has to do a nice job. Anybody in protection, whether it’s the line, the tight end or the back, they have to do a good job.
“Now with that we have to have things that help the line that then help the quarterback. If you have a quarterback who’s not going to be a primary runner like Tommy was then you better have a draw game, a screen game, you better have a quick game, you better have some stuff that helps the line and those things do. I love that style of offense, when we are going to be at our best, we’re going to be a good screen team, good draw team, we’re going to be a good quick team and then we’ll call in the protection and we will run the ball with some signature runs and we play action pass, and we take our shots. That’s what we want it to look like.”
That’s a pretty impressive buffet of offense. Will Nebraska be ready to execute all of those dishes by next September? The Huskers aren’t starting from scratch, of course. The screens and draws have been part of Nebraska’s offense the past two years, too, but they take on extra importance here in 2017 with less mobility at quarterback. Lee Corso’s voice from the old EA Sports video games is echoing in my head right now: “If you want to slow down the pass rush, you’ve gotta run SCREENS and DRAWS!”
Nebraska’s defensive transition will get plenty of attention, but after hearing Riley yesterday I’m going to say that by the start of the season the Huskers’ defense might be ahead of the offense.
Riley also touched on the other top topic of the spring — the quarterback race. You can get a quick recap of his comments on that here, but Riley said there was no rush for the staff to name Tanner Lee or Patrick O’Brien the starter this spring.
Brian Rosenthal of Huskers.com spoke to O’Brien earlier this week. On Wednesday it was Lee’s turn.
He’s a mature guy — Lee graduated from high school in 2013 — so he says all the right things about picking Nebraska over LSU, what drew him to Lincoln and the QB battle ahead.
The most interesting quotes, however, come from offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.
“It’s really fun to have guys who are football junkies,” Langsdorf said, “because you’re not calling them and saying, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you throwing?’ You’re not wondering if they’re studying their playbook or if they’re getting answers to their questions. You’re not wondering about that. You’re not trying to prod them into showing up. You’re almost trying to get them out of your office because they’re here so much.
“It’s kind of fun that way. Our best quarterbacks in our past have been like that. They’re in my office all the time. They’re always asking questions. They just like football. When you have that passion to play, I think it carries over to practice and games. That’s an important piece to being a good quarterback.”
Number of ways to read that comment. I’ll read it as Langsdorf is pretty excited about this season to come.
The Grab Bag
- Wide receivers coach Keith Williams was granted house arrest, which should allow him to take part in spring practice.
- Nebraska is No. 2 in the West Division in this set of power rankings from Athlon Sports.
- Western Michigan has raised concerns of alleged contact between P.J. Fleck and a former player.
- Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is fast.
- The Texas Rangers are opening an investigation into Baylor’s response to sexual assault claims.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.