Mike Riley Q&A: 'I feel good about the team and its energy for football'
Year Three at Nebraska is dawning for Mike Riley. And change continues to be an operative word.
Riley shook up his coaching staff after last year’s 9-4 finish, as the defense is undergoing a radical alteration from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 under new coordinator Bob Diaco, who was the head coach at UConn. The offense also will have a different look with quarterback Tommy Armstrong having graduated. The attack will now feature a more drop-back, pass-oriented signal-caller than the multi-dimensional Armstrong. Junior Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien are battling.
Fans will get a look at these changes this Saturday during the Cornhuskers’ spring game. I caught up with the 63-year-old Riley as he prepped to put the finishing touches on his third spring drills in Lincoln.
Q: How has the installation of the 3-4 defense been going under Bob Diaco?
A: I’ve really been excited about the process and the teaching. Bob is really a good teacher, an enthusiastic teacher. That has spread throughout the staff. There is a special enthusiasm by the coaches and players. I have been impressed with the amount of learning that has taken place. It has gone really well.
Q: Why did you think you needed to change defensive schemes?
A: I’ve always been intrigued by the 3-4. I grew up in it when I used to coach defense. When I was coaching in Canada (with Winnipeg from 1987-90), we were the only 3-4 team in the league and I like what we presented to the other teams. It was different prep. They had to adjust protections, it was different. And it was nice to be different. With modern day football and the versatility of offenses, a 3-4 provides you versatility and diversity in the looks and what you can do with it. And I like the fact you can recruit to more guys on your team that can play the entire game in different ways. You have one more of those 6-2, 225 guys who can run and be on the punt team and kickoff team. So, I like the personnel end of it, I like the strategic part of it. I thought it also fit with the availability of Bob. I had this thought, and his availability … I was able to get on it relatively early in his process of getting another job. The timing worked out well for the Huskers.
Q: How is the quarterback race shaping up between Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien?
A: It has been good. Tanner is a guy who is in the veteran status. He has played a whole season of football (at Tulane). At the same time, we wanted to make this as equitable a competition as we could. From the beginning, we flipped a coin as to who was going to take first snaps with the first team and we have alternated that. They both have had very good springs. We are getting close to a definition as to who will start, but I haven’t told the players or anyone publicly or even talked about it as a staff. We will probably make an announcement after spring ball. I like both of them a lot. We have two guys who can play and do a good job.
Q: How will this offense look different?
A: We never had a guy like Tommy (Armstrong). Our transition from the first year to the second year with Tommy made us go out of the box a bit and study to take advantage of his skills. I think we did OK with that. In the meantime, we learned some stuff about the run-option game we will maintain. But because of the skill set of the new quarterbacks, it won’t be as big of a priority. What we have to become is a team that strives to be a 70-percent completion team when we throw. We have to be very efficient. And complement it with a nice running game with our tailback and some of our receivers. We will miss that guy who when things break down can get us out of trouble with his feet. But we will have to help this new quarterback in a different way, with the draw game, screen game, quick game.
Q: Do you have a No. 1 running back with Terrell Newby gone?
A: We have a 1 and 1A right now. I thought the freshman from last year, Tre Bryant, was probably the leader and might still be. But Mikale Wilbon is a really talented guy who has not realized that talent yet. He has had a very good spring. And (Devine) Ozigbo has come on. I thought he was behind but has played better. We don’t have a No. 1 now, but we have some guys who will be pretty good players.
Q: Is this where you thought you’d be going into your third year in Lincoln?
A: I would like to say “yes.” With some of the stuff we wanted to establish football-wise and in the program, I feel good about the team and its energy for football. But when you are transitioning the skill set of the quarterback, are you as far along as you would be if this skill set had been there right from the start? Probably not. But we like the talent. This is going to be kind of like starting again. We have guys who are more capable as drop-back passers. I also know what that brings from a defense, so the efficiency has to be really good.
Q: You are 15-11 overall and 9-8 in the Big Ten. Are you feeling any pressure leading a program that hasn’t won a conference title since 1999?
A: Oh, no. One thing I have is perspective. I have been in it long enough to just focus on the immediate. I know what they want here. They want to get one of those trophies back. That is kinda why we came. I have a more realistic viewpoint of what we need to do football-wise in this league and with this team. And I have a better understanding of the recruiting we have to do and level at which we have to recruit. I know winning five games (before the bowl win) my first year, that’s not exactly the expectations. I think we did better. But I think we just found out more of what we have to do. I don’t feel any different now than when I did in my first year at Oregon State.
Q: What has Billy Devaney—the executive director of player personnel/special assistant to the head coach—meant to the program?
A: I love having him as a sounding board. I watch a lot of film with him. He has good perspective on our team. He is very helpful as we evaluate talent and placement of our players, looking at the future in players. All that. And he talks to a lot of these guys about what can be their primary dream. And that’s playing at the next level. He helps provide a roundness program and pattern for doing the right thing, going forward in football and life. He has been a big help for all us. It has been a great position.
Q: When you have a chance to eat in downtown Lincoln, what is your go-to spot?
A: I have been to a lot of places because I lived downtown my first year. Misty’s is a good downtown spot. In the Haymarket, I would advise going to Leadbelly. I like it.