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COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA - A college football coachs work seemingly is never done, as showed in a nonpractice day staff meeting conducted Monday by new Nebraska Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley.(Editor’s note: Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who left Oregon State after 14 years last December, allowed Portland Tribune columnist Kerry Eggers to sit in on a regular football staff meeting Monday, Aug. 10, during the Cornhuskers’ training camp. This is Eggers’ account of the meeting.)

  • LINCOLN, Neb. — Monday is an off day for the players after the first four days of Nebraska’s August training camp, but not so for the coaches and football staff members. With the Cornhuskers’ first practice in full pads set for Tuesday, Aug. 11, new coach Mike Riley wants everything in order, so there is much to discuss.

    Monday’s 1 p.m. meeting is at the football coaches complex inside Memorial Stadium. Walls on all four sides of the rectangular recruiting room feature recruiting information, including a board with a list of 2016 offers, prospects and verbal commitments and a chart with visit dates of the recruits.

    Riley, his nine full-time assistant coaches, football operations director Dan Van De Riet, director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson, and director of football/recruiting operations Andy Vaughn take seats at the long table. Riley, like a corporate CEO, sits at one end, Van De Riet at the other. Perhaps 20 graduate assistants/managers and support staffers sit behind them around the room.

    Everyone is decked out in Adidas coaching gear and shoes, a departure from Riley’s long association with Nike while at Oregon State.

    “That’s been different for me, after so many years of a great partnership with Nike,” Riley says, “but the service we get and the relationship we have with Adidas is outstanding.”

    The atmosphere is comfortable and informal, the mood set by Riley, who probably takes himself less seriously than any Division I football coach in the country. He starts off by kidding grad manager Keaton Kristick — a former Oregon State linebacker — about some of the Nebraska players watching video of him during his playing days.

    Linebackers coach Trent Bray — a former OSU linebacking great — says he saw what the players were viewing.

    “Somebody posted video on YouTube from an Oregon State-USC game (in 2009) with the title, ‘Keaton Kristick is a dirty player,’” Bray digs. “That game where you got three personal fouls.”

    “Yeah, it was only one,” Kristick offers sheepishly.

    Bray: “It was two.”

    Kristick: “OK, it was two.”

    Laughter fills the room.

    “Problem was, (the penalties) came on third down, and we were coming off the field (without them),” defensive coordinator Mark Banker chimes in. “Keaton was a team guy.”

    It’s the kind of interplay that happens several times during the 75-minute meeting. Ribbing is administered and stories shared. Maybe it’s the result of the pressures coaches face during a long season. Humor helps take the edge off. Plus, Riley’s coaches and staffers clearly enjoy one another. A genuine esprit de corps is obvious.

    “When we started in January, we meshed together about as easily as you can, in part because of the number of people who had been together already (at Oregon State),” Riley explains later. “And the people we added have been outstanding and easily assimilated into our group.”

    It’s a low-key meeting, with Riley asking questions and doing a lot of listening. He wants to know what his people think about players and issues. He makes the final decisions, but values the opinion of those around him and takes what they say into account.

    Van De Riet goes over the schedule for the next 24 hours. A downtown movie theater has been rented out for the players, who will watch a film together Monday night. Tuesday will begin with a yoga session, something the Cornhusker players will do four times a week through camp and on Sundays through the season.

    Riley’s Oregon State teams didn’t do yoga, but he has done it personally for three years and was intrigued to learn that the Cornhuskers did it on Sundays last season.

    “As I was putting together a schedule for fall camp, I had some mornings scheduled for weightlifting and others with a void,” Riley says. “Yoga popped into my mind. The strength coaches and trainers were all for it. The players like it, too, which surprises me a little.”

    Van De Riet says a guest speaker, Brian Curtis, will talk to the players about social media.

    “He’s a consultant on retainer with the university, and he’s a pro,” Riley says. “It’ll be a good deal for our team.”

    Riley gets a report from strength coach Mark Philipp on the players’ weightlifting progress, then one from trainer Mark Mayer on injuries. Biggest news is that senior receiver Sam Burtch will undergo surgery in the afternoon after suffering a lateral meniscus tear, which will keep him out two to four weeks. About a dozen other players are hampered by minor injuries and soreness.

    Dietician Lindsey Remmers offers that hydration rates for the players “look good, even though it’s been hot and humid.” She’s a little concerned with three to five players who are “down a few pounds” and have not been eating much at dinner after evening practice sessions.

    “They’re just grabbing a piece of fruit because they’re not hungry right away,” she says. “I’m telling them to grab a couple of protein shakes to drink before they go to bed. Something is better than nothing.”

    Talk turns to the morning walk-through and evening practice the following day. Riley has decided not to have daily double practice sessions in favor of one walk-through — “it would probably be best described as a ‘jog-through,’” he says — and one contact workout a day. Part of it is to help limit injuries.

    “I’ve eliminated the first (contact) practice,” Riley says. “The walk-through is an hour max, with kids in T-shirts and shorts. We go over assignment work and technique at a slow pace. So the kids start their day with a lift or yoga. Then there is a progression of learning, a meeting in a classroom, and a walk-through, with everything pointing to (evening) practice.”

    Riley tells his coaches he’d like to include 10 minutes of working on “blitz pick-up” in the walk-through session. During Sunday’s practice, protection against blitzes had been shaky during 11-on-11 drills.

    “That was a pretty typical first blitz period of the year,” Riley says later. “You can’t get enough work on that.”

    Riley says he also wants to review the way the Cornhuskers want to defend various offensive formations.

    “The offense can practice a release on the (pass) pattern; the defense can practice getting lined up correctly,” the coach says.

    Riley asks special teams coach Bruce Read, “What do you have tomorrow?”

    “KOR,” Read replies, meaning kickoff returns. Riley nods. He tells his coaches to spend part of Monday afternoon checking on the Cornhusker freshmen, “to see how they’re doing.”

    “I think it would be a good idea to call their parents,” Riley says. “They might know something you don’t know. Besides that, it would be comforting for them to hear from you. It would take a few minutes to do that.”

    Riley says he received a text message that the mother of former Oregon State linebacker Michael Doctor had died.

    “Might check on that,” he says to Bray, who coached Doctor.

    Riley asks the coordinators — Banker and Danny Langsdorf — to meet with him afterward to discuss a couple of changes in the team’s practice routine. Riley asks receivers coach Keith Williams about numbers.

    “We started with 12, but we’re at about seven or eight with injuries,” Williams says.

    Riley nods, then begins a discussion about Tuesday night practice.

    "We're going to be in full gear," he says. "We can focus on the run game. We can run the inside run middle drill. We appear to have plenty of linemen we can rotate in. We want to designate some spread-type runs with the three-wide group. That's a time to work on the no-huddle stuff. We can adjust with our (diminished) receiver load factored in."

    A no-huddle offense will be a first for Riley, other than in a two-minute drill.

    “Our biggest hurdle right now is combining learning the offense where we’re spelling everything out in the huddle, to communicating with a word or two,” Riley says.

    The next 15 minutes are spent determining how many players from each position group will be on the Cornhuskers’ travel squad. They visit Miami for a Sept. 19 game; their first Big Ten road encounter is Oct. 3 at Illinois. Travel limit for Big Ten games is 70. There are no limits for nonconference games, “but I can’t see us taking more than 80 to Miami,” Riley says.

    Riley asks each assistant how many players in his position group should travel, then asks for a list of those players at the current time. A major factor in some cases is which players Read is considering for coverage on special teams. The other assistants seem well aware of that. There is some bartering. Offensive backs coach Reggie Davis says he’s thinking four running backs “if they can play special teams. If not, then three.”

    After getting a read from all the assistants, Riley asks Gunderson for a count. It’s 63 players. So Riley goes around the room again, asking coaches if they added another player, who would it be. He tells Read it might be a good idea to bring two long snappers, and asks if he has been working with a position player as an emergency snapper.

    “I know somebody in this room who was an emergency snapper,” Riley says, his eyes turning to Bray, who once snapped a ball over the head of the punter in a game against Washington State.

    O-line coach Mike Cavanaugh makes a crack that draws laughter, and Bray says, “You didn’t see it. You were over there on the sidelines eating hot dogs.”

    Part of the determination for the final travel roster spots will be whether the player can help with special teams. Talk turns to bringing a couple of freshmen out of a redshirt year if they fit there. Bray says he has a freshman linebacker who is struggling with the idea of redshirting and is going to be “high maintenance.”

    “He feels separated from the group right now,” Bray says. “If he’s redshirting, he may just go (leave school). If he can help us win at anything, it’d be good to play him. If he can’t, he can’t. But if he can play special teams, maybe we bring him out of a redshirt year. If a guy can help us win, no reason to save (a year). We need to win now.”

    Riley agrees.

    “If one of them can start on three (special) teams, it would be worth it,” he says. “Bruce, if there’s a freshman you really like on special teams and you can start him on two or three teams, we’ll do it.”

    After some additions, the travel squad size is at 73.

    “We’re close,” Riley says. “There’s going to be some change between then and now. We’ll figure it out. Bruce, does this help?”

    “It creates a whole lot of work for me,” deadpans Read, to some guffaws.

    “Well, that’s why we did it,” Riley says with a laugh. “Just trying to help you out.”

    Secondary coach Brian Stewart says he has a couple of players who think they are doing much better than they are.

    “Yeah, some guys think they’re doing great, think they’re on the ‘Husker’ team (as a starter), and they’re actually fourth team,” Riley says, laughing again. “I don’t know that that’s so bad. Keeps everybody rolling a little bit, but it’s not realistic.”

    Gunderson goes over a recruiting report he has passed out to the coaches. The Cornhuskers figure they can offer 22 scholarships for the 2016 class and have 13 verbal commits. Gundy and his staff have made a list of five potential recruits by position in the ‘16 and ‘17 classes and asks for the position coaches to watch video of them “if you have time.”

    “It would be good to try to get some (recruits) on the phone this afternoon,” Riley suggests. “Pass the phone around (to coaches). To get them to call in today would be good, too. Some of them are starting school today; a lot of them are starting practice today.”

    Riley asks Gunderson about a recruit they’ve spoken about with his high school coach.

    “He has drug and alcohol and poor character issues,” Gundy says.

    “Other than that ...,” Cavanaugh cracks.

    “He can play,” Stewart says, “but he don’t fit in the room.”

    Riley reminds everybody to keep a “close eye” on the freshmen.

    “Check with the parents,” he says. “You might get an earful, but then at least it’s out there. If you have a real problem, tell me and I’ll call them. Whatever happens, they’ll appreciate it.”

    Riley tells coaches to remind players to not bring ball carriers to the ground during contact drills.

    “We have to practice fast and be physical, but we have to tell the guys to get into position and don’t finish,” he says. “There were a couple of times last night when somebody almost hurt somebody tackling. One of the worst things is when guys get frustrated and shove guys at the end of a play. A lot of times there’s friendly fire, and that’s when hamstrings can go. Be very demanding on how they practice.”

    Riley asks Van De Riet, “Who is going to miss the first game?” He means because of suspensions. Van De Riet names five players, including one defensive starter.

    “That’s the one problem,” Banker notes.

    Riley mentions movie night and says all the staffers are welcome. “We have the whole theater to ourselves,” Riley says.

    “I might take the whole quarterback staff,” Langsdorf jokes. “Three best friends I’ve ever had.”

    Talk turns to the Canadian Football League, where Riley and several of his assistants have either coached or played. Williams tells a story about the end of his run as a player with one franchise.

    "It was my birthday," he says. "I had a pulled hammie. The coach called me into his office. I thought he was calling me in to see how I was doing. He cut me."

    Somebody mentions a CFL coach who might be in trouble.

    "There used to be four teams in each division," Riley says. "Three teams would make the playoffs, and the coach of the fourth team would get fired."

    More laughter. Time is up. Coaches disperse. There is plenty to do, even on an off day for the players. Busy time for Nebraska football has just begun.

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