Nebraska fans were shocked by how quickly AD Shawn Eichorst moved to replace Bo Pelini, he of the perpetual 10-4 seasons and un-Nebraskan sideline temper tantrums. They were not necessarily thrilled with the replacement: Oregon State's Mike Riley.
From personality to strategy to approach to coaching, Riley is an oversteer. Just as Rationalism gave way to Transcendentalism, Pelini's defensive-oriented team and fiery demeanor gives way to Riley's offensive-oriented approach and "aw shucks" personality.
The hope in Lincoln is that Riley's personality will better match the temperament and established culture of Nebraska fans. There's good reason to think this is true ... if he wins football games. So what's Riley's strategy for leveraging Nebraska resources to create a better product than in the Pac-12?
Finding the players
There are major geographic and demographic challenges confronting Nebraska football that have to be artfully navigated to build Big Ten champions. As recruiting guru Bud Elliott has noted, Pelini's classes foretold exactly what occurred in his era: fringe top-20 teams that couldn't take down blue-blood programs.
A cursory look at Nebraska over the last 10 years tells the story of a program that was gift-wrapped 10-win seasons by virtue of playing in the Big 12 North, away from powerhouse programs Texas and Oklahoma, and now in the Big Ten West, safe from annual encounters with Ohio State and Michigan (or Michigan State, these days).
Consequently, the challenges that Tom Osborne overcame to build Nebraska into a juggernaut haven't been absorbed by most of those who follow college football. Hence the shock when the man for the job was Riley, rather than a bigger name.
Riley's plan for building teams at Nebraska is straightforward. If you peek at Paul Dalen's recruiting maps, you see that Nebraska's easiest path to blue-chip recruits is to have staff that can pull kids out of Texas and California, where there is less competition for the top players than in Florida or the South.
Take a look at Pelini's recruiting over the last five years (not including 2015):
Pelini branched east into Big Ten territory, but pulling kids away from James Franklin at Penn State, Urban Meyer at Ohio State, and whichever coach Michigan hires is a tough task. Lincoln and the 500-mile radius around the town don't offer a great deal of talent, certainly not the kind that should yield a Big Ten champion, so the Cornhuskers have to branch out somewhere.
Pelini culled talent from everywhere, but Texas and California stand as obvious options for pipeline development. Now observe how Riley has built his Beaver rosters:
Much like Nebraska, Oregon State has never been able to rely on its home state to provide much talent.
Oregon State hasn't been getting blue-chip recruits from either Texas or California. Two of Riley's main running backs over the last five years, Storm Woods and Jacquizz Rodgers, were unheralded three-star players from Texas. Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks was a three-star from (ironically) Lincoln, Calif.
While Pelini was bringing in top-30 recruiting classes, it was all Riley and OSU could do to finish in the top 50 and near the bottom of the Pac-12. So what Riley brings to the table in Nebraska is an ability to spot the right three-star players as well as established relationships in recruiting territories in which Nebraska needs to have success.
Riley is reportedly bringing over some of his key recruiters, like special teams coach Bruce Read (recruited the Bay Area) and young linebackers coach Trent Bray, who recruited L.A. and Dallas-Fort Worth. There are rumors that Riley could consider adding Ed Orgeron, who could sell the Nebraska brand just about anywhere in the country and would probably look to do so in the Southeast.
Barring that, Nebraska's plan will be to recruit nationally with an eye toward the Southwest. Then, Riley places a heavy emphasis on hiring staff with NFL experience who excel at teaching and developing players.
This formula can be described as "recruit nationally with an eye toward schematic fit, then coach 'em up." Given the limitations of Nebraska's recruiting base, this is just about the only approach that makes sense. If you can't consistently get blue-chips, you'd better max out the right three-stars.
That Riley and his staff have a good eye for developing projects is demonstrated by OSU's abundance of quality tight ends over the years. Riley's offensive system draws the moniker of "pro-style" because they huddle and deploy tight ends and fullbacks on the field, but this ubiquitous term doesn't paint a clear picture.
A more precise description would be that Mike Riley's offense is a single-back system that pounds the ball with the zone running game and then looks to find opportunities to throw the ball off the threat of the run, primarily with play action. Think Bret Bielema's Arkansas offense.
There are ways to feature variety in a run game without moving beyond the zone running game. At Oregon State, they explored every option that didn't include the QB read game. They were at their best utilizing an H-back or fullback from three-WR or double-TE personnel sets who could execute trap blocks on the defensive end to run zone slice ...
... or other lead zone concepts. It's very difficult for the defense to beat all those double teams and get numbers to the point of attack without leaving themselves vulnerable to play action or the dropback passing game, and that's the Riley offense in a nutshell.
They also include some inside zone/bubble screen packaged plays, useful for getting Cooks and other athletic receivers the ball in space. At Nebraska, you can expect Riley to embrace the zone read while they search for quarterbacks and receiving tight ends, who can add play action and West Coast passing concepts to the classic "ground-and-pound" formula of Osborne and Pelini.
While this may sound like what Nebraska did in the Bill Callahan and early-Pelini eras, Riley has a lot more skins on the wall executing this style with even less elite talent than those coaches had.
The best Oregon State teams were keyed by good offenses but also included Mark Banker defenses that were typically able to crack the top 40 in defensive S&P, with the lack of access to athletes at OSU being a limiting factor. Riley has worked with Banker for over a decade and trusts him and his defensive system.
Banker's defense has included Tampa 2 and quarters in the past, but has recently focused more on the standard blend of quarters and cover 3 with pattern matching behind over-shifted 4-3 fronts. He'll often bring the nickel or space-backer closer to the line of scrimmage and leave the field safety in one-on-one coverage with the slot, much like Notre Dame has done this year.
The key with this type of 4-3 over defense is that it depends on athleticism, with speed being a priority at every spot. Riley can hire all the best teachers in the world, but unless they are able to find raw athletes who can move and bring them to Lincoln, this scheme won't result in a classic Blackshirts defense.
Riley has enough experience and the right recruiters to make his "pro-style" offense work in Lincoln. But will they be able to get enough athletes to also play great defense? If not, then Nebraska will take another hit to its prestige as a power program when the underwhelming hire to replace Pelini oversees another period without a championship. This question is why Nebraska fans want Orgeron so badly.
This time, expect Nebraska's historically lovable fan base to wish its head coach the best in this pursuit, because there are few more likable coaches in college football. In that regard, at least, the Cornhuskers have found a match.