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Riley shuffles Nebraska staff in hopes of better things in 2017
When Nebraska begins spring football on March 4, there will be a string of new faces on the defensive side of the coaching staff.
It's the result of a major shakeup by coach Mike Riley, which included the firing of long-time aides Mark Banker and Bruce Read.
The Cornhuskers wound up with three new defensive assistants — coordinator Bob Diaco, Bob Elliott (safeties) and Donte' Williams (cornerbacks).
"It's been hard," says Riley, set to begin his third season at the Nebraska helm. "It's been exciting. It feels like a breath of fresh air."
The Cornhuskers were 9-4 last season (7-0 at home); what was disappointing was the route they took to get there. They opened the season with seven straight victories and were ranked seventh in the country heading into a showdown with 11th-ranked Wisconsin at Madison. The Badgers won 23-17 in overtime.
Nebraska wound up losing four of its last six games, yielding a combined 140 points in the last three defeats — 62-3 at Ohio State, 40-10 at Iowa in the regular-season finale and 38-24 to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl at Nashville.
"We had a good season," says Riley, the Corvallis native who served 14 years as Oregon State's head coach. "You win nine games, that sounds pretty good. But I learned a lot more about where we have to go.
"The loss to Wisconsin was bad. We had an opportunity to enter into a different level with a win there. The loss at Ohio State was horrible. We fell apart and didn't compete. We were bad at Iowa, too.
"People would say we won the games we should win. The games we have to win to take the next step, we did not. We have a lot of work to do."
After the Iowa game, Riley fired Read, who worked under Riley for 16 years at OSU, Nebraska and with the San Diego Chargers. Two weeks after the bowl game, he fired Banker, with whom he had worked for 20 years, the last 14 as defensive coordinator, including a dozen with the Beavers. On the same day as the Banker dismissal, secondary coach Brian Stewart left to take the D-coordinator job at Rice.
Riley hired Diaco, who served the last three years as head coach at Connecticut. Prior to that, Diaco had a four-year run as D-coordinator at Notre Dame, where he was the 2012 winner of the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant coach.
Elliott, who had been at Notre Dame the previous five years, has 11 years experience as D-coordinator at Kansas State, Iowa, San Diego State and Ball State.
Williams, 34, coached at Arizona last season and is considered an outstanding recruiter.
Since his second stint at Oregon State beginning in 2003, Riley has employed a full-time special teams coach — Read. Next season, the job will be assumed collectively by the Nebraska assistants. It will allow Riley to balance his staff and, if the proposal to allow FBS programs 10 full-time assistants is approved in April, he will have five on each side of the ball for the first time.
That played a part in Read's dismissal. With both Read and Banker, performance and recruiting had a role, too. The Cornhuskers were average to poor on special teams and defense, and the late-season swoon convinced Riley changes were necessary.
Banker complained to the media that Riley fired him via telephone when he was on the road recruiting instead of face-to-face.
"Mark is correct," Riley says. "That's not the ideal way to do it, but I got stuck."
Diaco was a hot commodity, interviewing for a coordinator position at Arkansas and on the radar of other schools. Had Riley waited for an opportunity to tell Banker in person, the chance to hire Diaco would have passed.
"Mark and Bruce are great people," Riley says. "I appreciate all the years we were together. Your families are together. They were a big part of the fabric of what we built at Oregon State and hoped to continue here. (The firings) were really hard to do — two of the toughest decisions I've to make in coaching.
"But sometimes change is important and necessary. As hard as it was, it felt like it was necessary."
It has been suggested by some that athletic director Shawn Eichorst was behind the changes, that Riley was doing it to save his job.
"No way any part of that is true," he says. "This was done by me. I had good sounding boards all around me, but the only way I wanted it to happen was if I made the decision. I didn't want anybody else to have to bear that burden. Nobody else was involved except for me."
Riley also lost director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson, who will become Brent Brennan's quarterbacks coach at San Jose State.
Riley, though, still has a boatload of people with him who either played for or worked with him during his Oregon State years, including four full-time assistants — offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, linebackers coach Trent Bray and running backs coach Reggie Davis.
If NCAA legislation passes in April as expected, grad assistant Tavita Thompson (a former OSU offensive tackle) will be hired full-time to coach tight ends.
Among other OSU connections at Nebraska are associate AD for football operations Dan Van De Riet, strength coach Mark Philipp, grad assistants Keaton Kristick and Roman Sapolu, grad managers Malcolm Agnew, Michael Philipp, Andrew Seumalo and Hardie Buck and director of player development James Rodgers.
Kristick, Sapolu, Agnew, Michael Philipp, Seumalo and Rodgers all played for Riley with the Beavers.
Riley had a solid recruiting year, his 30-player haul ranking from No. 15 to 23 by the scouting services.
"It was kind of like the season," Riley says. "We did pretty well. We hit all the spots and got some really good players who will have an impact. It's an upgrade, yet we can do better."
Nebraska's football program has had three separate departments — football, operations and personnel. The Cornhuskers are adding a fourth component, which will be essentially recruiting.
"With the advent and use of social media in recruiting, we need somebody doing something 24/7," Riley says. "We're in the process of putting that together to help us in the acquisition of talent."
When the Cornhuskers open spring ball, a new quarterback will be at the controls. Four-year starter Tommy Armstrong has departed. The heir apparent could be Tanner Lee, a 6-4, 205-pound junior who sat out last season after transferring from Tulane, where he started for two seasons.
"Tanner has already made an impact with his teammates," Riley says. "He has a lot of respect for a guy who hasn't taken a snap in a game for us."
Lee will divide reps this spring with 6-4, 230-pound Patrick O'Brien, a redshirt freshman who is "really talented," Riley says. "Our quarterback position is in good shape."
Riley has already red-lettered one date on his 2017 schedule. Nebraska visits Eugene for a Sept. 9 rematch with Oregon. The Cornhuskers beat the Ducks 35-32 at Lincoln last season.
"That was a big game for us," Riley says, "and this will be a big game for us, too."
For now, Riley will enjoy a brief respite. He and his wife, Dee, will spend next week in Costa Rica as part of the annual coaches trip put together by Adidas.
"Then it's back to Lincoln," he says, "and let's get ready for spring ball."