Nebraska coach Mike Riley once again expressed his desire to establish a reliable ground attack Tuesday morning as he discussed his team's outlook heading into preseason camp.
Riley, speaking at The World-Herald's Big Red Today Breakfast at Anthony's Steakhouse, isn't sure that the Huskers can replicatea dominant bowl game performance each and every week this year. But with an inexperienced-but-promising offensive line that he spoke highly of Tuesday and a group of running backs that continues to improve, Riley thinks NU should have a run-first blueprint in 2016.
“We have to run the football,” Riley told about 300 fans Tuesday. “Physically, we want to impose our will. Running the ball is the best way to do that. So that is a major emphasis of what we want to do.”
He's mentioned this before. All throughout spring ball, really. Riley wants Nebraska to have one of the league's top 3 rushing attacks.
The last time out, the Huskers ran 62 times for 326 yards in a win over UCLA at the Foster Farms Bowl. “That's a way to play a football game,” Riley said.
The philosophy does run counter somewhat to Riley's tactics at Oregon State, where he and his staff earned a reputation for developing quarterbacks and receivers. But the run game was always a priority, Riley said, even as they were setting passing records.
“I used to keep, right in the corner of my board, the number 16,408,” Riley said. “That was the total of the four previous running backs we had at Oregon State — an average of 4,000 yards a career for each one of those guys. So we had runners.”
Ken Simonton (5,044), Jacquizz Rodgers (3,877), Yvenson Bernard (3,862) and Steven Jackson (3,625) are the top four players on the Beavers' all-time rushing chart. They each played for Riley — although Simonton spent most of his career under Dennis Erickson and Jackson's Beaver tenure overlapped for just one season with Riley's second stint at OSU).
“We had runners,” Riley said.
Riley likes his options at Nebraska this year, too. The Huskers are set to begin preseason camp Thursday.
He said senior Terrell Newby, sophomore Devine Ozigbo and sophomore Mikale Wilbon will open training camp in a three-man rotation at I-back. True freshman Tre Bryant may join that mix, too.
The decisions regarding playing time, the depth chart and substitution patterns? Those can wait.
“We're just going to let them play and compete,” Riley said.
The guys who'll be tasked with clearing space for those I-backs collectively put together an encouraging set of spring practices, according to Riley. He said sophomore guard Tanner Farmer made a jump last spring, senior center Dylan Utter appears to be best suited for his new position after spending time at guard last year and junior right tackle David Knevel has made good use of the summer weight training sessions. Riley said the staff's been “intrigued” by sophomore guard Jerald Foster for some time and sophomore left tackle Nick Gates has already proven to be “a real good football player.”
The second-team O-line — Riley mentioned senior Corey Whitaker, redshirt freshman Jalin Barnett, redshirt freshman Michael Decker, redshirt freshman Christian Gaylord and senior Sam Hahn — has talent, too.
“Until we prove it, it's still a little bit scary,” Riley said. “That group still has a lot of proving to do. I'm really excited about it.”
Riley noted, too, that tight ends, H-backs and fullbacks will all play a role in the rushing attack. NU plans to mix and match formations — which will open up more opportunities to showcase players like the three senior tight ends (Cethan Carter, Trey Foster and Sam Cotton) and the skilled fullbacks (junior Luke McNitt, junior Harrison Jordan and senior Graham Nabity).
Fullback Andy Janovich ran for 265 yards last season, after carrying the ball just three times prior to his senior season.
"The key issue is utilizing your talent, and how they fit," Riley said.
Riley was also accompanied Tuesday by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was on hand as well. Some notes from their hour-long interaction with fans are below:
>> Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has made strides in the film room with Langsdorf this summer. They've had a lot of one-on-one meetings, Riley said. Armstrong just seems more comfortable with the system, and its rules within the passing attack. Langsdorf confirmed this as well. Said Langsdorf: “Just being able to talk through a play and understand the concept, and the reads, and the progressions. All of it has just been light years from last year. I'm excited about that.”
>> Defensive tackle will be the biggest question mark for the Huskers heading into training camp, Riley said. Senior Kevin Maurice, sophomore Mick Stoltenberg, sophomore Peyton Newell, redshirt freshman Carlos Davis, redshirt freshman Khalil Davis and senior Logan Rath were all mentioned as likely contributors there. Riley compared the state of the entire defensive line to the linebacker unit from a year ago. There was uncertainty at linebacker before the season — then the group emerged as one of NU's deepest units. Perhaps that will be the story up front this year, too, Riley said.
>> Receiver is Nebraska's deepest position group, according to Langsdorf. The Huskers return their top four pass-catchers from a year ago — top six, if you include Carter and Newby. Plus, junior De'Mornay Pierson-El is coming back from injury.
>> Banker said his staff's most important priority this offseason was to examine why Nebraska allowed so many big plays defensively. He thought NU was effective enough on third down (its 34 percent opponent conversion rate ranked 24th) and stingy enough in the red zone (teams scored touchdowns 51.1 percent of the time, ranking 50th). But those big plays were game changers. The Huskers surrendered 77 plays of 20-plus yards. Only 14 teams allowed more.
>> The coaching staff met Monday about its redshirt plans for this year. At this point, there are five or six true freshman who appear to have a good chance at playing this fall, Riley said. He didn't mentioned anyone specifically.
>> NU expects to have 145 players on the roster by the time it plays its first game, Riley said. That's about 10 more than last year. NCAA rules limit the roster to just 105 for the first few weeks of August. The number jumps to 125 at the start of fall classes (Aug. 22). Riley plans to add 20 more walk-ons by the Sept. 3 opener against Fresno State.
>> Riley said the Huskers won't be splitting the team in half and essentially running two separate practices during this preseason camp (like they did in the spring). But at least early on this month, he does plan to isolate time at the end of practices to work specifically with the newcomers and young guys (he calls them the NYGs). They'll have their own separate team session, he said. Riley envisions a typical camp practice structure going like this: special teams, individual drills, unit-specific teaching periods, game-simulation team work and NYG sessions.
>> Riley wants recruits to look at Nebraska as an NFL factory. A place where you get the best on-field development, strategic and tactical instruction, weight room training, medical care and academic opportunities. “The training center of America.” That's what Riley calls it. NU's recruiting pitch is centered around that theme. That Lincoln's in the middle of the country, accessible from all corners of the U.S., and able to offer everything necessary for a worthwhile college experience.
>> It's possible that Nebraska will have a practice open to the public this month. Riley hasn't ruled it out. The conversations are ongoing, he said. There will be a day when he invites students to practice. As for the rest of Husker Nation? He's still thinking about that. But Riley did want to convey his gratitude to the NU fans Tuesday for their support. He mentioned the final Friday Night Lights camp in June, which drew an estimated audience of 2,500 inside Memorial Stadium. “You all play a major impact in the recruiting that we're doing, there is no doubt about it,” Riley told the crowd. “These kids really feel like you all know them. Probably more important, you all want them. They know it. The response — social media, all that — to our recruits that we are getting is absolutely a big deal. We're all in this thing together.”