Finally, time for business: Mike Riley, Huskers eager for first game after emotionally jolting offseason, camp
LINCOLN — At the start of his usual Monday press conference, Nebraska football coach Mike Riley had a smile and greetings for reporters — and by extension, Husker fans.
“All right!” Riley said. “Round 2! Here we go!”
At long last — after nine months of self-study and correction, after a late July tragedy and an August full of off-the-field distraction — Nebraska gets to play a football game and try to build on its last outing, a 37-29 Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA that represented perhaps NU’s best performance in years.
Since that cool December night in the Bay Area, the program has weathered the death of a beloved teammate, a DUI arrest for a player and a coach, unexpected transfers, lots of recruiting events and a wide-ranging athletic department survey on the man who hired Riley, Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst.
No games. But lots of news.
“It’s been, obviously, a memorable offseason in a lot of ways, but I’ve always appreciated — from the end of the bowl game to right this moment — the work this team’s done,” Riley said. “Most of the time we’re all begging for a few more days of practice, a few more days of fall camp, but I’m more anxious than ever to see our team play.”
The Huskers host Fresno State on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs lost 55-19 to Nebraska in 2014 — an interminable, oven-hot night in Fresno — but they have overhauled a good chunk of their roster since that game. FSU’s coordinators — Eric Kiesau on offense and Lorenzo Ward on defense — are new, too. Fresno starting quarterback Chason Virgil has one career start.
So Nebraska’s flying a bit blind. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is ready for it.
“We’ve been sitting here talking for the longest about being 300 days away, being 200 days away, now we’re actually five days away from a game,” Armstrong said. “Now that we have everything in the game plan, now all we’re doing is just polishing up plays.”
Armstrong said the nine months between games passed by quickly for him. Spring practice seemed short to him. So did summer conditioning workouts. All was fairly quiet on the Sunday before Big Ten media days, as Armstrong, along with two teammates, prepared to head to Chicago to talk to the press.
That same day, Husker players and coaches found out punter Sam Foltz had died in an out-of-state car crash. They attended his funeral six days later in Grand Island. They started training camp just five days after that.
“Practice, in certain instances, was almost therapy,” Riley said. Players reacted in their own ways, he said, but he generally thought Foltz’s death would pull the team closer together. That seemed to be true for Armstrong, who talked at length Monday about the Foltz memorial wall erected just outside Memorial Stadium.
Remembering Foltz, Riley said, could deepen the bonds in the program.
“There’s a chance that people can gain strength from the situations we’ve been through and maybe pull together and need each other a little bit more and dedicate themselves to a task — whatever that might be — with a little more intensity,” Riley said.
The major distraction right in the middle of training camp — the drunken-driving arrest of wideouts coach Keith Williams — was also hard to handle, though in a different way. Riley said in mid-August that deciding an appropriate punishment for Williams “dominated” a whole week of his time. He saw Williams’ absence have an effect on the wide receivers, as well.
“I walk the stretch lines every day, and it was really different that first day with the wide receivers,” Riley said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Williams returns to practice on Thursday after an unpaid suspension. He’ll address the full team at that time, Riley said. Williams will then be able to work with players in practice but miss the first four games as a coach.
One of Williams’ top recruits in the 2016 class, Derrion Grim, left the program during Williams’ suspension, though he told a newspaper in California his departure was unrelated to Williams’ situation. Quarterback AJ Bush also transferred, to Iowa Western.
Perhaps the biggest blow during training camp came when starting left guard Jerald Foster tore his MCL. He’ll miss the season. That injury occurred just days after Williams was arrested, and one night before Big Ten Network analysts watched a Husker practice they said had more of a Pac-12 style. The critiques of BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo — who said he does not consider Nebraska a Big Ten West contender based on that practice — then reverberated in the local media throughout the rest of camp.
Then, on Aug. 25, Riley announced the suspension of two starters for the Fresno State game — wide receiver Brandon Reilly, who pleaded guilty to first-offense DUI over the summer, and safety Nate Gerry, a captain. Both were suspended for a violation of team rules.
No games. But lots of news.
Now there’s a game, and Armstrong seemed pumped Monday. He spent a good chunk of his interview time answering questions about not being elected a captain — Armstrong said he’s a “born leader,” anyway — but he delved, for a moment, into what this final season may mean for him.
Armstrong remains close friends with former Husker offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles — whose final season was 2013 — and talked to him right before the press conference. Sirles’ message: Enjoy this. It goes fast. You’ll be getting that rose on senior day before you know it.
“It’s crazy to think about that, but it’s going to go by fast,” Armstrong said. “I’m ready for it. I know a bunch of seniors who are ready to go out there and play.”