Nebraska offensive personnel fits Mike Riley plan


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nearly three weeks ago, Nebraska closed spring practice amid the usual spectacle as more than 76,000 fans piled into Memorial Stadium to watch the public unveiling of the Mike Riley era.

The fans felt like the story of the spring game. Riley, the 61-year-old coach whose career has spanned the World League to the NFL with 14 seasons at Oregon State, was wowed by the event.

“We think we have the greatest fans in college football,” Riley said at the time, “and they’re out to prove it all the time.”

But the stadium sits empty now as May approaches. Riley works in the offices high above the north end zone. His nine assistants tour the country in search of prospects.

The flurry of spring excitement is over, replaced by the long wait until August.

Here’s what remains, though, for me from the 15 practices of March and April: A sense that Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf fell into something fortunate and likely unexpected.

The conversion at Nebraska to a pro-style offense, just six weeks ago, appeared an immense challenge. No doubt, next fall will feature setbacks on the offensive side. At times, for every lurch forward, the Huskers figure to take an equal step back.

But after spring practice, the offensive transition looks considerably more manageable because so much of the personnel, recruited to Nebraska for work in a different scheme, unwittingly fits into the Riley and Langsdorf plan.

Look around the roster. I-back Terrell Newby, receivers De’Mornay Pierson-El and Jamal Turner -- even the untested Mikale Wilbon, Glenn Irons and Kevin Gladney -- possess the kind of quickness that plays right into the scheme used by Riley with success at Oregon State.

His most productive offensive units featured the likes of James and Jacquizz Rodgers at running back, Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks at receiver. At their best, those OSU teams lived on the playmaking ability of their elite athletes. They won battles in space. They thrived on the creativity of their coaches.

With the junior Newby, the post-spring favorite to start in the backfield, and Pierson-El, the indispensable sophomore who showcased his skills plenty as a star punt returner last year, Nebraska has weapons on offense to operate efficiently.

When receivers run the ball and backs catch it, the Huskers will be most dangerous next fall. The first spring under Riley, while mainly a period of introduction, told us that much.

“They try to spread the ball,” Turner said. “They try to get the ball to their playmakers. We’ll see how it goes. Sometimes, you just have too many good guys and everybody can’t touch the ball.”

It’ll be a work in progress.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that [Riley] hasn’t even put in,” Pierson-El said, “because he doesn’t want to overwhelm us.”

Nebraska needs a deep threat to keep safeties from cheating up to choke off the short passes and receiver sweeps. Jordan Westerkamp is most versatile as a wideout, and Brandon Reilly is a proven contributor. Alonzo Moore and Jariah Tolbert can stretch the field. The emergence of Cethan Carter at tight end is a requirement.

And quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. holds it all together. If he can’t distribute the ball to various options with consistency, the system crumbles -- even with talent suited to operate in Riley’s scheme.

The defense, on some days early in the Riley era at Nebraska, will handle a heavy load. But the enduring takeaway from spring, once the stadium emptied in April, indicates those days may be fewer than once imagined.