Mike Riley remembers where he was in 1997, when he first arrived at Oregon State and moved into a small office space with just enough room for nine coaches, a graduate assistant and a full-time secretary. “I can’t even know if I can name everybody in our staff meeting,” Riley said, only half-jokingly, after the Huskers closed the books on their first week of fall camp.
Year Three is always the make or break campaign. You spend the first season changing the culture, implementing your system and trying to get your team to buy in. The next season is about tangible progress. But in the third season? You better show some results. Riley is entering that pivotal year. His chair isn’t burning beneath him, but after a 2-4 close to a once-promising 2016 season, Riley is looking for answers.
He’s found some of them in an ever-growing staff and a little help from the NCAA.
In June, Bob Elliott, who had been hired by Riley to coach the safeties, stepped down from his position due to health reasons. Scott Booker, who had been serving as a special teams consultant, moved up to fill the vacant spot. The results have been positive.
“Love Scott,” Riley said. “The enthusiasm for the work, the galvanizing of the players in the unit has been outstanding. He’s a really energetic [guy].”
Despite his stepping down, Elliott remained with the Huskers as an analyst until passing away in July. In a short time, Elliott still had an impact on the Huskers, especially safety Aaron Williams and the secondary. With an open consultant spot to fill, Riley then turned to Gary Darnell, a longtime defensive coordinator. More positive results.
“I think that Gary is really good for me because I’ll say in the evenings, ‘OK what did you see today, what do you think about the team, where do you think we should emphasize things,’ “ Riley said. “I love talking to him and he spends the whole day in the office with the defensive staff so he’s a big part of opinions and thoughts.
“I think for what we needed, when everything happened with Coach Elliott, Coach Elliott brought an expertise and experience that was unique and we’re very fortunate now to have Gary to bring his expertise to us.”
Another thing helping Riley is the unexpected boost from the practice changes that came about over the summer. With two-a-days becoming a thing of the past and camp extending an extra week, Riley and his staff have found more time for player health.
Instead of position-by-position stretching sessions after practice, Nebraska has begun splitting up into three different groups, rotating to different stations throughout the week. One group takes an ice bath after practice. One goes through a lengthy stretching session with assistant coaches. The other works with resistance bands.
“You have a little bit more time to do stuff but this is probably something we should do anyway,” Riley said. “I think it might be better for these guys. It might physically be better. Because of that, we can spend more time with body maintenance than ever because we don’t have a practice at the end of the day.”
Without that second practice each day, something Riley said “there’s no reason” for him to endorse having, players instead get a second session of body maintenance in the evenings during the week.
“This is much more organized and much more thoughtful,” he said.
Add it all up and you get a pretty successful first week of camp.
“This has been just a really seamless, smooth week,” Riley said. “Maybe as much so as any that I’ve been in. I don’t want to speak in too dramatic a fashion, but really good. Guys [are] doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.