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Op-Ed: Midway Through Spring Practice, Husker Football Looks Unsettled

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Midway through Mike Riley's first spring at Nebraska, a trend has become hard to ignore: the defense playing really well; the offense, not so much.

Having said that, I almost feel like I need to throw a disclaimer out there: it's early. Really, really early. The players and coaches are still trying to figure each other out.  It's ridiculously premature to make any final pronouncements.

Nevertheless, Mike Riley and his staff have seen enough to know that it's time to make some adjustments while the players are off on spring break. That probably was part of the plan all along, but it's probably a higher priority than it was originally.  Throughout spring practice, I've picked up on four trends from all of the reports from folks who are observing practice.

  • The defensive line, especially the interior of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine has been dominating.
  • The secondary has been intercepting a lot of passes.
  • The secondary has had opportunities to pick off even more passes, but dropped them.
  • The receivers look really talented.

Only the last observation doesn't come with a negative flip side. We already knew that Collins was a pretty good player, and that Valentine has shown flashes of also being special....but the dominance up front also illustrates that the offensive line may be struggling a fair amount.  And the number of passes being picked off means that the quarterbacks aren't being anywhere near as efficient as they need to be.

Some of that is just a natural result of changing the offensive scheme: players aren't 100% sure what they should be doing just yet, and that results in natural hesitation. Defenses can capitalize on that...and boy, are the Blackshirts ever doing that  There's always the chance that defensive coordinator Mark Banker's scheme is unleashing the potential we were hoping Bo Pelini's defense was going to have. I'm skeptical of that, but it's certainly a possible explanation.

Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf are talking about paring down the playbook for the rest of the spring. Concentrate on what is working well, and get better at things they are doing OK. Set aside things that don't seem to be working, at least for now.  Sounds good, right?

Yes, but that comes with a couple of caveats that need to be mentioned. Riley and Langsdorf are accustomed to working with conventional pro-style offenses, but the players they have inherited aren't exactly skilled in that type of offense. Of greater concern is that Riley's offense had stagnated at Oregon State; it makes me question just what he's trying to implement here. Are they bringing over more things (that didn't exactly work in Corvallis anymore in this era of college football) than trying to build on things that Nebraska did fairly successfully last season?

With all of the focus on quarterbacks, receivers, defensive line and secondary, reports on the I-backs and linebackers haven't been quite as noticeable. Those are two positions with huge question marks, and we're not getting a lot of clarity there. Is this spring's focus more on the passing game than the running game?

Bill Callahan famously spent his first few months in Lincoln talking up the flexibility of his offensive scheme and how it would adapt to the abilities and strengths of his players. All that went out the door when we actually saw his offense. Callahan famously once said that "we take what we want" on offense - pay no attention to what the defense was vulnerable with or what the strengths of his players were. The results were not good.

Mike Riley is not Bill Callahan. Painting him with Callahan's play-calling incompetence is unfair. That being said, we don't know what Riley is going to do to mesh his background with his new team's abilities.

And frankly, I'm not exactly sure Riley knows for sure either. So while the players are enjoying a week's break with family and friends, I suspect the coaches are spending a lot of time reviewing video and adjusting their plans.