Let the record show that Mike Riley, Mr. Nice Guy, is pretty ruthless in his Nebraska years. At least he is when it comes to coaching changes.
Wednesday’s announcement brought Riley’s total number of surprising coaching moves to three since he arrived at Nebraska ahead of the 2015 season. Last year, he fired defensive line coach Hank Hughes, which was a surprise in that it happened after only one year. Then Riley let go of one of his long-time comrades, special teams coordinator Bruce Read, at the conclusion of the 2016 season. Read was public enemy number one among Husker fans this past season, but it was still at least a mild surprise given that Riley had never indicated he was aware of the angst or felt similarly.
Mark Banker’s ouster, however, might best be classified as a shock. Talking to a couple of people close to the program, nobody seemed to see this one coming. Nebraska’s defense, a sieve against the pass in 2015, got better in 2016. If Banker’s future was only about what happened this past year, he’s probably still in Lincoln.
But five of Banker’s past seven defenses, dating back to Oregon State in 2010, ranked 64th or worse nationally in total defense. The two that didn’t, 2016 Nebraska and 2012 Oregon State, each ranked 30th nationally. The Huskers’ 2016 defense addressed its major weakness from the previous year, but it was not a group that felt particularly dangerous. Long story short: Banker is probably a capable defensive coordinator.
The problem is that Nebraska needs more than capable. It needs a rock star, a mastermind, somebody who opposing offensive coordinators are scared to face, somebody with a vision rather than solutions.
Riley’s challenge now is to find that person.
So where do the Huskers turn? There is some pressure here to make a home-run hire. In fact, it seems like part of the explanation for why Banker was fired. Nebraska limped home in 2016. The record was better in year two, but there wasn’t that characteristic momentum of a program on the rise. One proven way to inject a little enthusiasm is to make a coordinator change.
That, I think, is what many will be looking for in this hire and that is its own sort of challenge. There seem to be two scenarios here, at least if the Huskers pluck from the college ranks. One, Nebraska opens the pocketbook and tries to get the best coordinator, that its money can buy; a proven guy. Problem with that is I’m not sure Nebraska can lure that type of coach away from what people would consider one of its fellow football bluebloods at this point. In a past life, maybe. Right now? Seems improbable.
Come up with a list of dream candidates and then honestly ask yourself if any of them are switching jobs. I tried that and didn’t come up with any names. There are former stars – Brady Hoke, Charlie Partridge – who might have some interest, but their stock isn’t really soaring at the moment.
Second option: Nebraska tries to find the coach who is on his way to becoming the proven guy, the guy who will become a star based on what he will do in Lincoln not what he has done elsewhere. The challenge here is that many of those guys have already made their moves. Todd Orlando went with Tom Herman to Texas. Mike Elko jumped from Wake Forest to Notre Dame.
There are still some out there. Would Josh Conklin, a Wyoming native, go from Pitt to Nebraska and bring some of that Pat Narduzzi defensive savvy with him? Do the Huskers go after someone like Erik Chinander? He was a walk on (bonus points) at Iowa (demerits) as a player, and is currently viewed as an up-and-comer as the defensive coordinator for Scott Frost at Central Florida (not sure how to score that). Those are the type of guys the Huskers could target.
But if Nebraska’s going that route, and I think it will either be that or the NFL, it probably won’t have to look far for its rising star. He’s already on the staff and was a Broyles Award nominee this year. Yes, we’re talking about linebackers coach Trent Bray.
That’s probably not going to scratch Husker fans’ itch for a big-time hire, but Bray is on his way to becoming a defensive coordinator somewhere in the very near future. He’s a proven recruiter and coach. Defensive coordinating is the family business. If Nebraska has to make a futures bet rather than buying a known commodity, I would be shocked if they didn’t make that bet on the guy they already know the best.
It rewards Bray for his achievements to this point. It gets around the potentially thorny issue of hiring a defensive coordinator but not having any open positions for that new defensive coordinator to bring in any of his own guys. It has the potential to offer a new identity for the Blackshirts while maintaining continuity. It just makes a lot of sense.
That said, if Riley’s two years at Nebraska have proven anything to this point it is to expect the unexpected when it comes to staff.
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.