There is a definite sense of urgency in the Nebraska football program in 2017.
The full expression of the urgency came out during Mike Riley’s press conference yesterday but this has been building for some time now.
To me, this urgency started Dec. 5, 2016, when Nebraska made a move that a team like Alabama or USC would make. The hiring of Donte Williams, a young energetic coach with a tremendous reputation in the recruiting world was a signal that Nebraska is serious about bringing in the “Jimmies and the Joes.” The 2018 commit list that includes the 4-star trio of Brendan Radley-Hiles, Mario Goodrich and Chase Williams shows his prowess. Nebraska also remains in the mix for a number of highly-rated defensive backs for 2018 and beyond.
The next important date that signaled the urgency building within North stadium was Jan. 13, 2017. The hiring of Bob Diaco was important for multiple reasons. Riley parted ways with a longtime colleague, Mark Banker, which is always a difficult decision. In making Diaco the highest-paid assistant coach in school history it signaled to the college football world that Nebraska would pay what it took to bring in the best. I don’t bring up his salary for the reason some fans do because they think it’s why the defense should already be a well-oiled machine. I bring up his salary to underscore the point; Nebraska appears to mean business when it comes to improving the product on the field for its loyal fanbase.
There has to be player buy-in, leadership and accountability as well. Sophomore cornerback Lamar Jackson had some rough moments in Eugene but spoke Monday about the defense finding its way and what they can carry forward throughout the season.
“A lot of new faces, a lot of young guys including myself. Our identity is really just to fight and [have] resilience,” he said. “We are going to play four quarters, that’s what we work for all day, every week, so we are going to give it our all. At the end of the day, the game looked like a blowout but we made it a fight in the second half. So the sky is really the limit, we just got to keep getting better each week and we are going to be a good defense.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Mick Stoltenberg, Luke Gifford and Mohammed Barry following the loss to Oregon. There can be some solace in the idea that the players seem to “get it.”
The Big Ten West has not been full of world-beaters through two weeks. Perhaps the renewed urgency and extra frustration also stems from, in part, the coaching staff realizing the division is completely up for grabs.
Wisconsin is without star linebacker Jack Cichy for the season and Nebraska matches up well with the Badgers with the strength of the Blackshirts being stopping the run. Northwestern, the preseason dark horse to win the West got demolished by Duke this past weekend and plays Wisconsin then Penn State in back-to-back weeks to start league play. Iowa should have lost to Iowa State and needed overtime to win that rivalry game.
Even with Nebraska’s struggles so far, we haven’t seen enough from the other contenders in the Big Ten West to say that the Huskers shouldn’t be in the mix with them even in a “transition” season.
Need another example of urgency? Riley was asked a fairly benign question about what it means to play four of the next 5 games at home and responded in part with this:
“It doesn’t matter where we’re playing as much as how we play,” he said. “That is what’s important to me. I try to teach the kids that it’s no different. The bus picks us up out here and we end up at a hotel, there might be a plane ride in between, but we are going to end up at a hotel. And then there’s a stadium, lines in the field and then we play the game.
“We try to ingrain in our people that it doesn’t matter what time the kick-off is because in our world the kickoff will be from 11-to-7:30. That’s just the way it is, we can’t really dwell on that. It’s like I said, it’s great to have this stretch, I appreciate that. I think it’s a chance to build momentum but it’s really more about the football.”
That’s a pretty telling quote and last year the response would have likely been something to effect of “we have great fans and love playing in front of them.”
For all of the issues we have seen with the new defense and offensive consistency, there is time to work out the kinks before the meat of the league schedule. This is about Nebraska taking care of itself, but also about the steps they have taken to move the program forward coming.
It appears the players and staff realize it’s time to take things up a notch.