Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA - Coach Mike Riley has a lot of other former Oregon Staters with him at Nebraska.LINCOLN, Nebraska — Thursday’s Nebraska practice session at Memorial Stadium was much like what observers would have seen two years ago on a late-summer day in Corvallis.

There was Danny Langsdorf instructing the quarterbacks and Mark Banker overseeing the defense. There was Mike Cavanaugh launching occasional abuse at his offensive linemen and Trent Bray casting a stern eye on the linebackers.

There’s nothing like familiarity on a coaching staff, and both sides will have it Saturday when Nebraska plays host to Oregon in a 12:30 p.m. PT showdown.

It’s the second year of the Mike Riley era at Nebraska, and the former Oregon State head coach has shown loyalty and trust in those who have worked for him in the past.

Riley brought about 20 employees with him from Corvallis, including five full-time coaches — offensive coordinator Langsdorf, defensive coordinator Banker, Cavanaugh, Bray and special teams coach Bruce Read — and former Oregon State players such as Tavita Thompson, Roman Sapolu, Ryan Gunderson, Keaton Kristick, Michael Philipp and Malcolm Agnew, who are serving in a variety of roles.

The latest hire was James Rodgers, the ex-Beaver receiving great whose title is “graduate manager.” The older brother of Jacquizz was patrolling the field Thursday, offering help to receivers and special-teams players and at times chatting it up with Riley himself.

Banker has been with Riley 19 years in stops with the Beavers, San Diego Chargers and Cornhuskers. Read has coached under Riley for 16 years, Cavanaugh for 14, Langsdorf for 13. That’s Oregon-like longevity.

The first year at Nebraska was rocky, with a string of heartbreaking last-minute losses that were painful to go through for everyone in the program. Part of it, perhaps, was a lack of familiarity between the Oregon State contingent and its Nebraska brethren.

The OSU people “came in with a pretty good feel for each other,” Read says. “We just needed to blend in with the people here and learn the Nebraska way. We’re making the transition pretty well, I think. This is a unique place. There’s a lot to it — maybe more so than at Oregon State in a lot of ways.”

Even with last year’s 6-7 record, Riley never ventured off course, never wavered in his faith in himself, his coaches and his players.

“He hasn’t changed one bit,” Bray says. “He’s exactly who he’s always been. He stays with what he believes in. He never gets too high or too low. That’s what we’ve tried to instill in the players. Keep grinding. Keep working, and good things will come.”

The Cornhuskers are 2-0 and bent on proving that the 2015 season was an anomaly.

“Last year was tough,” says senior Jordan Westerkamp, a second-team all-Big Ten selection last season who had 65 receptions, second on the school single-season list. “So many close losses. That was crazy. But sometimes that kind of thing happens in Year 1 with a new coaching staff, when the offense isn’t where it needs to be.

“Going into this season, we were pretty determined to clean things up, and we have. We’ve been so much better taking care of the ball.”

Senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, a starter since early in his redshirt freshman season, is figuring out the nuances of Riley’s offense in his second season under the man who succeeded Bo Pelini.

“It’s been a great learning experience,” Armstrong says. “At Nebraska, I’ve been able to learn two offenses, going from a spread to Coach Riley’s West Coast offense. Learning his playbook has helped me grow as a quarterback.”

Armstrong says Riley has helped him grow as a person, too. Riley has a summer home about 15 minutes from Armstrong’s hometown of Cibolo, Texas.

“We have that connection,” the 6-1, 220-pound signal-caller says. “We have a lot to talk about. I go sit down with him once in a while and talk to him and (wife) Dee about how their family is doing. I can talk with him about life in general.

“Being able to set aside football and get to know him personally — it’s more than just football with me and him. It’s a friendship, too.”

Riley’s reputation as a calm presence on the sidelines is deserved, but those inside the program know there’s another side.

“He’s hard on the offensive group, especially the center and the quarterback,” Armstrong says. “He wants us to know exactly what we need to do to put ourselves in position to succeed. He holds us accountable. He’s doing a great job of coaching us, and we’re doing a great job of being coachable, too.”

Does Riley shows a temper on occasion?

“He’s one of the nicest guys in the entire world,” says Westerkamp with a laugh. “He’s super laid-back. But when it’s time to get going, he can flip that switch. If things aren’t going the way he wants, he’ll yell, he’ll kick us in the butt, he’ll do whatever he needs to do to get us going.

“It’s been a pleasure playing under him. We’ve all grown together under Coach Riley. Now we’re looking for some major improvement in Year 2.”

An early litmus test comes Saturday against the 22nd-ranked Ducks, who have Nebraska’s full attention.

“We look forward to this one, for sure,” Bray says. “It will be good to get a big-time team in here and see the improvement we think we’ve made from last year.”

“Our first big challenge of the year, against a ranked team coming into Lincoln,” Westerkamp says. “We want to show them what we’ve got. If we end up winning and getting ranked ourselves, that’s huge for us.”

“Every game is a big game,” Armstrong offers, “but this is one of the games that will test our team. To prove our worth of a ranking, we have to beat the great teams. The Ducks are coming in 2-0 and ranked. We’re prepared for them. We want to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs at the end of the season.”

NOTES: This is one of the biggest intersectional matchups in Lincoln in years. Face value of a game ticket is $125; they’re going for twice that on the secondary market and four times that through scalpers. … Riley’s daughter, Kate, and 5-year-old grandson, Eli, flew in from Corvallis for the game. Riley hid prizes for Eli to find in a “treasure hunt” in his office after Thursday’s practice. Kate, incidentally, is expecting her first child with Mark Dillon, whom she wed in July. … Gunderson, Nebraska’s director of player personnel, and Hillary O’Bryan, the assistant director of football operations, will wed next July in Bend. … Cavanaugh’s son, Blair, is a senior receiver at Portland State. The Cavanaughs learned Wednesday that Blair has been put on scholarship by PSU coach Bruce Barnum. … Read’s job was made more difficult with the tragic death of all-Big Ten punter Sam Foltz in a July auto accident. Taking Foltz’s place has been true freshman Caleb Lightbourn, a Camas, Washington, native whom Riley and Read were recruiting while at OSU. “Sam’s death put everything in a tailspin for a while,” Read says. “We went from a 22-year-old veteran punter, one of the best in the country, to an 18-year-old true freshman doing the best he can. But it will work itself out.” … Read’s father, former Oregon and Portland State head coach Don Read, is living in Lincoln. The senior Read, 83, lived in Corvallis during his son’s time at OSU. … Among the first-year employees on the Nebraska football staff is Billy Devaney, executive director of player personnel and special assistant to the head coach. Devaney, 62, worked for 30 years in the NFL, including three years as general manager of the St. Louis Rams and 11 years as director of player personnel for the San Diego Chargers. “Mike being here was the biggest factor” in accepting the job, Devaney says. “But Mike at a different school? I probably would have had to think about it a lot harder. The fact it was Mike and Nebraska? That made it a no-brainer for me.” Devaney’s duties include evaluating Nebraska’s players, opponents, practices and recruits. “It’s been better than I’d hoped,” he says. “Every day, I can’t wait to get to work.”

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Twitter: @kerryeggers

Go to top
JSN Time 2 is designed by | powered by JSN Sun Framework