Mike Riley has had many opportunities to move during his second stint as Oregon State’s coach. USC took a look at their former coordinator. So did Alabama, where Riley played for Bear Bryant.
After 11 seasons since his return to Corvallis, Riley made the move to Nebraska to replace Bo Pelini.
So what kind of program is awaiting Riley in Lincoln, and what are the prospects for his early tenure?
Here’s a look:
Offense (4): T Zach Sterup, T Alex Lewis, QB Tommy Armstrong, WR Jordan Westerkamp
Defense (7): E Greg McMullen, T Vincent Valentine, T Maliek Collins, E Randy Gregory, LB David Santos, S Nate Gerry, CB Daniel Davie
Riley will have a challenge ahead of him on offense as the Cornhuskers must replace three cornerstones of their offense in running back Ameer Abdullah, wide receiver Kenny Bell and offensive lineman Jake Cotton. Imani Cross should be poised to become the feature back, but he’s never had more than 85 carries in a season. On defense, junior defensive end Randy Gregory will be a candidate to go early to the NFL Draft.
How does a program win nine or 10 games every season without breaking through as a national player? Those recruiting numbers tell part of the story — a top half recruiting class in the Big Ten but rarely cracking the national top 25. Mike Riley was hired in part because of his ability to locate and develop talent from all over the country. Nebraska is in a precarious recruiting position now that it is detached from its traditional Big 12/Big 8 base, and Lincoln is not the easiest place for prospects to reach. Nebraska’s roster features 12 players from Texas and seven from Ohio. One or both of those numbers may need to be higher for the Huskers to compete on a national level.
Oregon State and Nebraska both run what might be termed a pro-style, but both have elements of the spread. Riley’s best teams have generally been balanced with a productive tailback — think of Steven Jackson, Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers. That system may be ideal for Nebraska, yet Oregon State was in the top three in pass attempts in the Pac-12 in three of the last four seasons. Both teams have run a base 4-3. Oregon State has developed solid defensive linemen over the years, something Nebraska has had in spades. If Riley brings defensive coordinator Mark Banker with him to Lincoln — it’s reasonable to assume he’ll be a contender to succeed Riley — the system may translate nicely to the personnel.
Nebraska’s players were vocal in support of Pelini when he was fired. Even before the change, the Cornhuskers stressed the Pelini they knew was not the same as his gruff public persona. Still, the move from Pelini to the affable Riley is about as dramatic a shift in personality as any.
What does the competition look like?
The Big Ten West should continue to be the weaker of the two divisions. With or without Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin does what it does with the run game and defense year in and year out. Iowa will lose a couple of key players (Brandon Scherff and Carl Davis) but expects to be a veteran team. Minnesota moves on without David Cobb next season. Next season’s schedule features Miami on the road and BYU at home in the non-conference, but its toughest Big Ten games (Wisconsin and Michigan State) are at home. And lucky for Riley, no Oregon or Stanford.