Any time a school makes a coaching change, the impact of the decision is far-reaching. Suddenly, assistant coaches and support staff need to find jobs along with the head coach.
Hiring a staff is the first and possibly the most important thing a new head coach does. As we saw with Mike Riley, making the wrong choices can set you back and ultimately doom your chance at success with your new program.
When Riley arrived in Lincoln, he brought defensive coordinator Mark Banker, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, linebackers coach Trent Bray and special teams coach Bruce Read with him from Oregon State. He lured offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and running backs coach Reggie Davis back from the NFL ranks to join his staff once again. He hired wide receivers coach Keith Williams away from Tulane and defensive backs coach Brian Stewart away from Maryland.
Riley filled out the support staff mostly with his people like Associate Athletics Director for Football Administration Dave Van De Riet, Associate Director of Player Personnel Todd McShane and others.
The most notable Nebraska holdover was Kenny Wilhite, who had joined the staff as a regional recruiting assistant in 2014. When he arrived, Riley named Wilhite assistant director of player personnel. A couple of promotions later and Wilhite now serves as the director of high school relations.
For the most part, Riley replaced Bo Pelini’s entire staff. Will whoever replaces him in Lincoln do the same? The argument in favor of retaining coaches from the previous staff is that it could help ease the transition to the new coaching staff and perhaps help encourage immediate buy-in from the players.
Let’s run down the staff and see if there are any candidates for retention.
John Parrella (Defensive Line)
The first and most obvious candidate is Parrella, the former Blackshirt and NFL defensive lineman who has spent the last two years as the defensive line coach after replacing Hank Hughes in 2016. He lacked extensive experience when Riley hired him, but Parrella has done a good job on the field with young players like Carlos and Khalil Davis, Deontre Thomas and Ben Stille showing significant flashes this season. On the recruiting trail, Parrella helped bring in Deontre Thomas, Damion Daniels and outside linebacker Guy Thomas.
Parrella has shown he’s capable of doing his job at a high level and he’s a Nebraska guy through and through who understands the school’s traditions and would be a valuable resource for whoever takes over in Lincoln.
Kenny Wilhite (Director of High School Relations)
Wilhite isn’t a full-fledged assistant coach, but I’m including him here regardless because I believe it will be important for the next coach to keep him around. In addition to his administrative duties, Wilhite is the point man in terms of local scholarship and walk-on recruiting. Jaylin Bradley and Ben Stille are local kids that have played significant roles this year and redshirting freshman Austin Allen plus 2018 commits Masry Mapieu and Cameron Jurgens are among those in the pipeline looking to make a name for themselves down the road.
The Huskers have had a great year on the preferred walk-on market as well, picking up 2018 commitments from wide receiver Justin Holm, long-snapper Cameron Pieper and defensive end Ryan Schommer already, and Wilhite has been the driving force behind the local offers to 2019 prospects as well (Scottsbluff defensive end Garrett Nelson and York athlete Garrett Snodgrass have both already pulled the trigger).
Wilhite is another former Blackshirt that understands the tradition at Nebraska and his connections to high school coaches both in Nebraska and in the St. Louis area would be incredibly valuable to the next coach.
The Ace Recruiters
Keith Williams (Wide Receivers)
The first Williams is perhaps the most interesting case of the whole staff. Williams was part of Riley’s original staff in Lincoln, but he wasn’t among the coaches Riley brought with him from Corvallis nor was he among those who had worked with Riley before. Riley identified him as the best coach available for the position and went and got him.
Under Williams’ tutelage, Stanley Morgan Jr. set the school record for receiving yards and J.D. Spielman threatened it as a redshirt freshman who played running back and return man in high school. Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore both broke out after Williams arrived in Lincoln as well.
Williams was named a top 25 recruiter in 2017 by Rivals and helped bring Morgan, Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey to Lincoln and also secured commitments from Cameron Brown and Joshua Moore in the 2018 class. Keeping Williams could go along way in helping to keep this recruiting class intact, particularly with Brown and Moore who are both big-time prospects.
Now for the negative: Williams’ history of DUIs could turn off the next head coach who will likely not personally know Williams. While Williams is highly regarded as a recruiter and has done well, he’s also fallen short of the number of commits the Huskers were hoping for the last few years and has struck out with most of his top targets. Drops have been a big problem this season and the perimeter blocking has left something to be desired. However, his players – past and present – swear by Williams as a teacher.
The next coach will have a lot to consider when deciding whether to bring someone with him or to keep Williams around. After Friday's loss to Iowa, Lindsey, Spielman, Jaevon McQuitty and Morgan all came out in support of Williams on Twitter.
Donte Williams (Cornerbacks)
Williams just wrapped up his first season in Lincoln. He spent three years at San Jose State and one at Arizona before Riley hired him away from the Wildcats prior to the Music City Bowl last season.
Williams has a strong background as a recruiter, earning recognition from multiple outlets for his efforts at San Jose State and helping bring in a tremendous class at Arizona prior to his departure. However, with the uncertainty surrounding the program, defensive back commits Brendan Radley-Hiles and Chase Williams both decommitted and other targets that might have already pulled the trigger have been hesitant, leaving Mario Goodrich as the only one left in the 2018 class. The Huskers only picked up one commitment in the 2017 class as well in Elijah Blades, who never made it to Lincoln.
As for his on-field coaching, the cornerbacks position has been among the weakest on the team this season. Part of that has to do with the preseason injury to the team’s best corner in senior Chris Jones, leaving only underclassmen to play all the snaps for much of the season. However, the whole unit has struggled in both coverage and completing tackles. It is hard to know how much of what the corners are doing this year is through Williams’ tutelage as compared to a directive by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. The pass defense at San Jose State was a strength while Williams was there, but the Wildcats finished second to last in pass defense in the Pac-12 in 2016.
Perhaps Williams’ personnel preference in terms of how he coaches his players would be a better fit with the new coach than it was with Disco.
The First Year Guys
Bob Diaco (Defensive Coordinator)
After nearly every game and practice, Diaco has expressed confidence in his defense and its potential if given time, but it’s hard to see him getting that time after how poorly this season went (and it went about as poorly as it possibly could have). Diaco has had a great deal of success in his past, but he wasn’t the right fit for Nebraska at that particular time, and he likely won’t be the right fit for the next head coach either.
Scott Booker (Safeties/Special Teams)
Booker was a Notre Dame guy brought in by Diaco who was elevated to a full-time position after the passing of Bob Elliott. If Diaco’s out, he’s likely out as well.
Danny Langsdorf (Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks), Mike Cavanaugh (Offensive Line), Trent Bray (Linebackers), Reggie Davis (Running Backs)
These four have had varying degrees of success with their respective units and responsibilities, but they’re all guys who have had a lot of history with Riley. I have a tough time seeing any of them wanting to stick around to work for the guy who replaced their guy.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.