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Roundtable: Did Mike Riley Leave Nebraska Football Better Than He Found It?

The CN staff breaks down the roster that Riley inherited and left for Scott Frost.

David McGee

We know that Mike Riley’s last season was the worst Husker football season since 1961. But as the CornNation staff started to reflect on where the program is headed, we began to debate whether Mike Riley, despite the 4-8 record, left the program better than he found it.

There’s a lot of disagreement at some positions more than others, so that’s how we focused the debate. And certainly, there’s a large amount of speculation required to evaluate some of the young players who haven’t seen the field yet, but could - and should.

For this comparison, we’re using the players that were in the program or committed when the coaching change occurred.


2015: Tommy Armstrong, Ryker Fyfe, Johnny Stanton, AJ Bush, Zack Darlington
2018: Patrick O’Brien, Tristan Gebbia, Andrew Bunch, Zack Darlington

Mike: This probably will be one of the key points of contention, depending on your perspective. I’ll argue that Tommy Armstrong was the best quarterback of the Mike Riley era, when you factor in his rushing stats. You could argue that Armstrong wasn’t a good fit for Riley’s offensive preferences, but considering how a pro-style quarterback performed in 2017, that’s actually a good thing. Johnny Stanton wasn’t very good in an injury plagued 2016 season at UNLV, but played pretty well in two 2017 starts. And in relief roles, AJ Bush (7-11 passing, 129 yards rushing) outperformed Patrick O’Brien (18-30-1 passing, 4 yards rushing). The X-factor is Gebbia, who could turn out to be the best of the bunch, but I’ll give the edge to the 2015 holdovers.

Salt Creek: I guess my angle here would be what Frost is inheriting vs what Riley inherited. On paper, Riley inherited an okay if not spectacular QB room, of which only one QB has ever seen the field in the fall. I think Stanton probably stood as the heir apparent to Armstrong had Nebraska continued Tim Beck’s smorgasbord read option attack, but with the transition to Langsdorf’s passing attack, he was out of place. AJ Bush, while likely not the heir apparent, was also never going to fit into Riley’s new offense. Ryker Fyfe was a former walk-on who left briefly in the summer. And we saw Darlington’s arm in the Music City Bowl. (Speaking of whom, I’m of the belief that Darlington will leave this spring, either by retirement/graduation or as a grad transfer. With Drew Brown graduating, I doubt Frost keeps ZD around for another fall, unless he doesn’t need/want the scholarship slot.) Riley inherited a QB room that didn’t fit his offense, and I think that was the start of the compromises that ultimately doomed his program.

Frost is inheriting the heirs apparent to Riley’s QB spot, POB and Gebbia. POB mentioned to the LJS that he ran a similar offense to Frost’s in high school (senior season: 32 passing TDs to 8 rushing TDs) while noted white board enthusiast Gebbia has experience in the shotgun (senior season: 61 passing TDs, 10 rushing TDs), a staple of the Frost offense (39 rushing TDs, 38 passing TDs). On paper, I’d argue “fit” is a huge question mark here and honestly, thinking about it more, I’d say the two rooms are about equal with that regard. That said, I think Frost will get buy-in that Riley never did, and I believe transitioning from a pro-style to a college-style spread option is easier than the reverse, so while on paper this is a wash, I think Frost is inheriting a better room. (Oh, and Bunch is considered a dual-threat QB by recruiting services. So he’ll probably be Dienhart’s pick for starter in 2018!)

Uglydog56: There’s a clear line of demarcation here in my opinion. Tommy Armstrong was a warrior, a battler. I loved his fight, his try. However, he was a warrior who was really just a running back that could throw a little. And the quarterbacks under him were of inadequate talent and football IQ to pass him up on the roster. No doubt in my mind, the current QB room is upgraded.

Andy: This position is all about speculation. Riles tried to pound Armstrong’s square peg through a round hole for two years then sent Tanner Lee off to run for his life behind Cav’s horridly coached line while doing him the courtesy of lighting up reserves down by 30 when the situation presented itself. This is a push. Maybe if the “aw shucks attack” had been allowed to continue, TG or POB could have become part of the overrated Beaver legacy and reached the legendary heights of Moore & Mannion.

So yeah. next.

UNLWiebe: I think Mike Riley inherited a good group of quarterbacks, Tommy Armstrong might have the most heart out of anyone I’ve had the pleasure of being alive to see. With that said, I still believe Mike Riley is leaving the quarterback position in better shape than what he got. The depth here isn’t as good, Gebbia and POB are good quarterbacks who both have the potential of starting in 2018. With the addition of Martinez and Vedral to the roster I feel POB is going to transfer soon. Personally I think that Gebbia will be Frost’s day one starter, and it will stay that way for four years barring injury. Gebbia’s ceiling is high, like Salt said he threw for 61 touchdowns in his senior season in Calabasas. So keeping in mind the potential of Gebbia I’m going to give it to Riley, Frost is in a better position than he was coming in.

Who knows, POB and Gebbia might both transfer and Martinez might be the starter for four years.

Nate M: I’m going to go with the wait and see approach since we really don’t have much to go off of in regards to POB and Gebbia. The real question is whether POB or Gebbia will be better than Tommy Armstrong. The funny and ridiculous thing is that if Gebbia was 20 lbs heavier, I’d already probably pick him. But when you are 6’3” 185, I just see him getting broken in half. But maybe he’s been eating his fair share of beef burritos with a side of sour cream from D’Leons. I believe that both POB and Gebbia have the opportunity to be much better than Armstrong, but it will depend on which one sticks around.


2015: Terrell Newby, Imani Cross, Mikale Wilbon
2018: Devine Ozigbo, Wilbon, Tre Bryant, Jaylin Bradley

Mike: Newby was one of the final cuts from the Vikings this preseason, so I think he’s the best of the bunch. It’s really hard to evaluate running backs in Riley’s offense, but I think Riley inherited more talent than he’s leaving.

Salt Creek: Oh god, Riley inherited a far more productive room than Frost will be this spring, absolutely no question about it. Talent wise, as Mike says, it’s really hard to say because RUN THE BALL guy had a coronary in 2015 and was non-existent in 2017. The good news for Frost here is the bar is really low for improvement!

Uglydog56: No debate here. I think Bradley has some upside, but Newby and Cross were significantly better than Ozigbo and Bryant.

Andy: Another push only because we’ll never know how the 2018 group could have done behind a line that was only horrid enough to constantly drill them at the line of scrimmage instead of 3 yards deep in the backfield on every snap. Have I mentioned that Cavs coaching an offensive line at D1 is almost as silly a concept as Trump for Presid-

Oh never mind.

UNLWiebe: It’s hard for me to argue Frost is coming in with a good stable of backs. Bryant looked good in the first two games of the season, and Bradley looked good when the coaches actually put him in. In my opinion Bradley and Bryant are better than Newby and Cross, but I’m still going to say Riley left this group in shambles compared to what he inherited.

Nate M: The fact that a school like Nebraska has such a lack of playmakers at the RB position is almost as silly a concept as Oprah running for Presid-

But to me Newby was an underachieving back and that is the crutch of the argument and Imani was mainly a short line back except in the few weird games where the coaches gave him double digit carries like he was a feature back. The bar is so low for Bryant and Bradley that I don’t think it would take much for them eclipse the 2015 stable.

Wide Receivers

2015: Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner, Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, DeMornay Pierson-El, Stanley Morgan (committed)
2018: Stanley Morgan, JD Spielman, Tyjon Lindsey, Bryan Reimers, Jaevon McQuitty, Kenyan Williams

Mike: If you extract out what a healthy DeMornay Pierson-El could have done in 2015 and 2016, I think you could make a solid argument that the returning 2015 receivers were better. I’m going with a push, though.

Salt Creek: If we’re arguing paper rosters here, I agree, it’s a push. That said, Frost is inheriting two receivers coming off two of the best seasons ever experienced by a Nebraska wide receiver. I think that alone gives an edge to Frost’s WR room. I also think there’s a lot more potential in that room than the room Riley inherited. Yes, Westercamp was goood, but Turner was frequently injured, Reilly was unfocused, Moore was invisible most of the time, and DPE was a returner, not a WR. I’d take Frost’s room over Riley’s, here.

Uglydog56: This one is tougher than I originally thought. Turner, Moore, and Pierson-El are three players that had undeveloped potential. Spielman is a baller with more speed than Westy. If Lindsey had a better season, it hands down for me. If McQuitty had been healthy so we could see him work this season, it’s hands down better. As it is, an ehhhh better for me.

Andy: If...if...if... Sorry, if if’s and buts were candy and nuts, etc etc. This one is a big win for 2015.

UNLWiebe: Frost is inheriting a great group of receivers. Morgan Jr. should be able to get 1,000 yards this season if we have a line that can protect our quarterback. Spielman is great, he’s going to be special. On the other hand Reilly and Westerkamp were great, clutch, players. This one is a toss-up for me because McQuitty was hurt all season and Lindsey didn’t have an amazing season.

Heads Frost wins, Tails Riley wins... Hey Siri flip a coin.

Siri says Tails so since she’s always wrong I’m giving it to Frost.

Nate M: I went into this thinking that 2015 would easily win. But right now Frost is inheriting Stanley Morgan (future record holder) and JD Spielman (Freshman All-American). Tyjon Lindsey looked lost the entire year last year and for some reason looked like he was still trying to make moves that would only work in high school. But with Frost and his emphasis on speed I think we might see a revival of what we thought we were getting with Lindsey.

On the 2015 side, the only two worth mentioning are Brandon Reilly (who looked like a future NFL slot receiver) and Jordan Westerkamp. I think 2018 wins easily.

Tight Ends

2015: Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton, Trey Foster, Luke McNitt, Tyler Hoppes
2018: Cameron Jurgens (committed), Jack Stoll, Matt Snyder

Mike: For a coach who loved using tight ends, Mike Riley really didn’t do much to recruit or develop the position. It clearly suffered under Riley.

Salt Creek: Giving the edge to Riley’s inherited room here, if only because Cethan Carter was absolutely critical to the running game whereas I question whether that 2018 room actually exists. Which is incredible because Tim Beck specifically tried to discontinue the tight end position.

Uglydog56: Sam Cotton was productive. Hoppes became a decent pass-catcher. Riley inherited a better room, for sure. Which shouldn’t have happened; tight end is a critical position to the pro-style offense.

Andy: Cethan Carter. Not that we really dealt in tight ends very much since Herian got the spiral fracture, but this a beatdown win for 2015.

UNLWiebe: We haven’t seen what Snyder can do, he fits the build of a potenitally productive tight end, but it comes down to Cethan Carter. The dude was a beast, hands down Riley received the better crew. I’m excited for Jurgens, but how did Riley not recruit better tight ends?

Nate M: I still plan on drafting Cethan Carter to start on my fantasy football team in the next couple years. Going with 2015.

Offensive Line

2015: Nick Gates, Alex Lewis, Michael Decker (committed), Gerald Foster, Tanner Farmer, Cole Conrad, Matt Finnin, Sam Hahn, David Knevel, Chongo Kondolo, Ryne Reeves, Zach Sterup, Paul Thurston, Dylan Utter, Givens Price
2018: Brock Bando, Michael Decker, Cole Conrad, Tanner Farmer, Matt Farniok, Will Farniok (committed), Gerald Foster, Brendan Jaimes, Jake Kitten, John Rairdon, Matt Sichterman, Boe Wilson

Mike: The incompetence of Mike Cavanaugh can be summed up by the story of Givens Price. Started a few games in 2014. Disappeared off the depth chart in 2015 before finding a home on the bench as a backup defensive tackle. Reappeared in 2016 as a backup offensive tackle in the NFL. I think Nebraska had better talent on the line than we’ve seen. I also suspect there is more talent buried on the current roster than we’ve seen, so I’ll give the edge to 2018.

Salt Creek: In 2015, I figured there was no way to make that OL line less impressive. So congratulations to Cavanaugh on that one. There’s definitely potential in the room Frost is inheriting and maybe less dependence on walk-ons, but all in all, Riley inherited an OL that managed an acceptable rushing attack in 2015, and Frost is inheriting one of the worst managed OLs in the history of Nebraska football.

Uglydog56: When you look at all these names right next to each other, it points to an upgrade of talent across the line. That really makes Coach Cavanaugh’s coaching look especially reprehensible. There’s a lot of recruiting busts in that first group.

Andy: I’m sorry but this should have been the biggest red flag out there for any of the Bo-haters who went all in on Riley simply because he wasn’t Bo Pelini AND was all folksy and shit. He brought in his O-Line coach whose awesome Beaver lines led the Pac 12 in sacks given up. Every year.

Yup. Let’s bring this icon of O-Line coaching to a state that worships offensive line play. 2015 wins because no Cavs, no Riles who brought him in.

UNLWiebe: Thanks to Cav, Riley inherited a better group.

Nate M: Looks like it is unanimous at this point.

Defensive Line

2015: Freedom Akinmoladun, Ross Dzuris, Jack Gangwish, Joe Keels, Sedrick King, Greg McMullen, AJ Natter, DaiShon Neal (committed), Carlos Davis (committed), Khalil Davis (committed), Mick Stoltenberg, Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice, Kevin Williams, Vincent Valentine
2018: Freedom Akinmoladun, Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Damian Jackson, Mick Stoltenberg, DaiShon Neal, Deondre Thomas, Tate Wildeman (committed)

Mike: With Maliek Colins and Vincent Valentine in the NFL, plus Kevin Maurice in the Jags training camp, this is a runaway for the 2015 group. Unless Deondre Thomas turns into Ndamukong Suh version 2.0.

Salt Creek: Riley’s room by a country mile here. No arguments. Hank Hughes decimated that room and Parella didn’t have the scholarship room or time to fix it.

Uglydog56: No arguments here. Collins and Valentine were early rounders and are on NFL rosters. Maurice was one of the final cuts by the Jaguars. We’ll see what the future holds, but I don’t see that happening again right away.

Andy: 2015 wins again. Only because that 2015 line had VV and Maliek and the DE’s were sorta average or below average. 2018 provides nothing off the ends and the best you hoped for out of Stolt this year was he’d just get shoved away from the play instead of pancaked. This 2018 group spent most of their time embarrassed or checked out and I pin that completely on the coaches. So no. Not better than 2015.

UNLWiebe: I might be in the minority here, but I wish Parella was kept around. The way he was developing the Davis twins and Deontre Thomas had me excited. Even though the Davis twins have great natural talent, that doesn’t make up for the fact Riley left this group without any depth. Riley inherited a group with two current NFL defensive lineman, no debate here.

Nate M: The future is bright for the 2018 group, but that group of potential difference makers is very small and young. 2015 wins again.


2015: Josh Banderas, Luke Gifford, Michael Rose-Ivey, Marcus Newby, David Santos, Chris Weber
2018: Quayshon Alexander, Mohammed Barry, Alex Davis, Tyrin Ferguson, Luke Gifford, Pernell Jefferson, Sedrick King, Collin Miller, Avery Roberts, Ben Stille, Guy Thomas, Andrew Ward, Dedrick Young

Mike: With a switch to the 3-4, you need linebackers and Riley filled the roster with them. Clearly there’s more here now than Riley inherited.

Salt Creek: I agree here - Frost’s roster is better prepared for Chinander’s 3-4 than Riley’s roster was prepared for Mark Banker and ultimately Bobby Diaco. How we managed to field a defense under Banker in 2015 or 2016 still amazes me.

Uglydog56: In 2015, when Bray walked in the linebacker’s room, there was nobody in there but a crying freshman who wasn’t even a football player, he was just lost and scared and tired. The linebacker corps is in better shape now, for sure.

Andy: I’ll give this to 2018. Way more names. #sarcasmfont

UNLWiebe: The deciding factor for me is Avery Roberts. He has the potential to be the next Lavonte David.

Nate M: I still believe that Luke Gifford could make an all-conference team and Ben Stille ended up surprising a lot of fans with his play last year. Avery Roberts to me could shine over the next several years. Will Honas coming in might make that more difficult but Avery Roberts looked like an angry football player and we need a bunch of those guys. 2018 wins with potential.


2015: Daniel Davie, Joshua Kalu, Reid Karel, Trai Mosely, Jonathan Rose, Avery Anderson, Charles Jackson, Chris Jones, Boaz Joseph, Eric Lee, Antonio Reed, Byerson Cockrell, Nathan Gerry, Aaron Williams, Kieron Williams
2018: Avery Anderson, DiCaprio Bootle, Tony Butler, Marquel Dismuke, JoJo Domann, Lamar Jackson, Reid Karel, Eric Lee, Antonio Reed, Aaron Williams,

Mike: Between the overall depth and top-line talent, I think this one goes to the 2015 group. Nate Gerry is in the NFL, and I think Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones could end up there this fall. I don’t know that any of Riley’s recruits are going to be in that conversation.

Salt Creek: I think I’m going to give the edge to Riley’s inherited roster here, though I think Pelini’s secondaries benefited from his scheme rather than overall talent. I don’t believe the 2017 secondary was put in a position to succeed which colors their productivity a little bit. Between Diaco’s lack of compassion for the secondary and coaching from Booker/Donte, I just don’t feel this unit lived to their full potential. Hopefully they unlock it under Frost.

Uglydog56: You have to feel sorry for the seniors here. They’re about to learn their fourth defensive system in their college career. Riley inherited a better roster here, and a fuller one. Frost has offered as many wide receivers and defensive backs as every other position combined.

Andy: Huge 2015 advantage here but only due to lousy Banker-Stewart surrender monkey coaching the 1st couple years. Again, no blame to the 2018 listed kids, but sweet Christ. Cosgrove would have nodded approvingly at the space given by Banker’s weak-ass coverages. Davie should have sued for reparations.

UNLWiebe: I think 2015 had the better talent, but the lack of competence from Banker and Stewart didn’t show it. I give the edge to 2015, but hopefully the current group can learn from competent coaches and be successful.

Nate M: Nate Gerry, Kalu and Jones gives 2015 the nod. When thinking of future NFL players we might only be looking at JoJo Domann right? Hopefully I’m wrong.

Special Teams

2015: Drew Brown, Spencer Lindsay, Sam Foltz
2018: Barrett Pickering (commit), Caleb Lightbourn

Mike: I think before all is said and done, I thing Lightbourn could end up being a better punter than Foltz. But Drew Brown was pretty damn good. I’ll go with a slight edge to 2015, but we might rethink this one in 3-4 years.

Salt Creek: Is Pickering our place-kicker in 2018? By default, have to go with the 2015 special teams unit - Foltz was pretty special and Brown was coming into his own. Lightbourn meanwhile has grown considerably but hopefully won’t be required as much in 2018.

Uglydog56: Foltzy would have been on an NFL roster. I fully expect Brown to do so as well. Lightbourn improved markedly this season.

Andy: Easy 2015 win. Two words. Bruce Read. However, Lightbourn did make a HUGE leap last season. If you want to imagine how 2017 could have been worse, throw some 2016 Lightbourn shanks out there instead of the this season’s version.

UNLWiebe: 2015. Foltz would’ve made an NFL roster, and Brown probably will. I think Lightbourn struggled from Sam’s death in 2016. He was basically thrust into the starting role and all eyes were on him. He improved a ton in 2017, but Foltz was special. I’ll never forget watching him improve every season.

Nate M: This is somewhat unfair. Drew Brown became the next awesome kicker for a program that has been spoiled by great kickers. And then you throw Sam Foltz into the mix who could have made an NFL team. That is tough to beat. 2015.


Salt Creek: Taking a look at the full roster, I’d say from a talent/productivity point of view, while we’ve upgraded at some positions (QB, LB), we’ve also downgraded at others (RB, DL). Riley’s rosters will also probably turn out fewer NFL prospects than Pelini’s, which is unfortunate but also a function of a roster in transition. And really it just makes the last three seasons seem like a wash. Which I guess maybe that’s just what we needed? A palette cleanser and care-taker to wash out the emotions of the Pelini era as well as the last vestiges of our Big 8/12 days? The days of just being a big cat by sheer will and being are over. With a young and hungry coach in local man Scott Frost, Nebraska can maybe finally embrace its Big Ten-ness and the modern era of college football.

Uglydog56: It’s a shoulder shrug for me too. One thing I do believe, the group as a whole is more positive and team-oriented than in 2015. Frost isn’t going to have to do much trimming to show the fruit. In that regard, I’ll give the current group the nod.

Andy: We spent three years pretending Riley just needed a barren Midwestern wasteland to prove how well he could recruit when his recruiting was “meh” for years in an area with a population worth 4 or 5 Nebraskas. He milked the Keyshawn thing as well as he could, but let’s face it - Bookie or no Bookie, his last class only peaked around 30-something before everyone started abandoning ship. Message boards bleated constantly about how much more “organized” his staff was with recruiting. Whatever. I can’t even be down with the QB’s because - yes, talented - but, in my humble opinion, POB and Gebbia running Frost’s offense would be the flip of Armstrong trying to run Riley’s.

At the end of the day, he just got turned down by a better class of kid than Pelini. Talent level overall, about even. Coaching level, huge downgrade. That’s it. Please, let’s just turn the page.

UNLWiebe: At this point in time it’s almost too hard for me to say. Riley was only given three years, I don’t think anyone disagrees with his dismissal besides Keyshawn Sr., but the redshirt and true freshman from this past year are special. I give the edge to 2018 being a better squad only if our offensive line problems are sorted out.

Nate M: I want to say 2018 over 2015 just because I like Riley as a person but it is tough. The final determining factor will be with POB or Gebbia turn into who we expect them to be.

Mike: I think that unless we get a few “WHOA! WHERE HAS HE BEEN?” guys erupting from deep in the roster, I don’t see much evidence that Riley upgraded the roster in his three years. I suspect that the best case scenario is that it’s a push, but more likely that for all of the talk and emphasis on recruiting, Mike Riley didn’t improve the roster.

What do YOU think?

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