Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

UCLA vs. Nebraska, 12.26.15

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen (3) just gets the ball off under heavy pressure from Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins (7) in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015.

We're still getting to know this Mike Riley guy.

We all know he's eminently likable.

I think we're learning he isn't messing around.

We don't know all the ins and outs regarding Friday's announcement that Hank Hughes no longer is Nebraska's defensive line coach. Riley, the second-year Husker head coach, released a prepared statement and had no further comment.

But this has the feel of a firing, although the timing is curious. Assistants often are jettisoned in early December — which is why the announcement took me by surprise.

In his two-sentence statement, Riley thanked Hughes for his hard work and contributions. Riley added that "we will look for a great coach, teacher and recruiter to enhance our defense."

The "recruiter" part seems to tell the tale.

Recruiting prowess should be the foremost attribute on Riley's mind as he considers candidates.

There's extreme urgency for Nebraska to recruit defensive linemen for its class of 2017 — up to a half-dozen of them. NU needs two snarling, disruptive tackles, and perhaps three. Same goes for the end positions. The Huskers need to hit a home run in that part of the class, and Hughes showed a lack of pop in recruiting during the just-completed cycle.

He failed to land a junior college defensive end.

He swung and missed on a few high-profile pass rushers in the 500-mile radius.

Nebraska wasn't necessarily bent on landing an interior tackle — it had more pressing needs — but if Hughes had attracted a stud, the Huskers would've welcomed him with open arms.

Aside from recruiting, Nebraska's defensive line play was so-so in 2015 despite abundant talent in the interior. The pass rush too often was anemic, although injuries and lack of depth were factors in some cases. In other cases, though, there weren't good explanations.

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Hughes, to his credit, never made excuses. He has an appealing, dry sense of humor. His resume is extensive. Here's hoping he prospers.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Riley. Will he seek a veteran in the business, a la Hughes (with whom Riley had never worked)? Or will he give a young coach his first big opportunity?

Might he tap someone with strong Husker ties? Or should that even be a factor?

If he's looking for highly regarded recruiters with ties to dear ol' NU, Angus McClure and Chris Kiffin come to mind.

McClure just completed his ninth season as a UCLA assistant, including the past four as defensive line coach. He doubles as recruiting coordinator.

Granted, Nebraska steamrolled McClure's group in the bowl game. But the Bruin defense was beset by injuries. In terms of recruiting prowess, well, McClure in 2014 was named by Rivals.com as one of the nation's top 25 recruiters.

In 2004-05, he worked as a graduate assistant at Nebraska. I'm told he retains an affinity for Lincoln. Did I mention the guy loves to recruit?

Same goes for Kiffin, the fifth-year Ole Miss defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator for defense. The son of former Husker player and coach Monte Kiffin, Chris Kiffin in 2013 was named national recruiter of the year by Scout.com.

Perhaps Riley would consider John Parrella, the ex-Husker defensive lineman who played for the San Diego Chargers during Riley's tenure there as head coach (1999-2001). Parrella coaches defensive linemen at Northern Michigan. I'm told he's an excellent recruiter.

Ex-Husker defensive tackle Steve Warren, now the head coach at Omaha Northwest, played three seasons in the NFL and possesses the type of personality to be an excellent ambassador for the program and comfortable in a prospect's living room. His NFL agent was Craig Domann, father of 2016 Husker signee JoJo Domann.

You have to think Nebraska graduate assistant Tavita Thompson, a former Oregon State offensive tackle who's in charge of the Husker tight ends, would be interested. Don't get hung up on the fact most of Thompson's background is on offense. Charlie McBride once coached the offensive line at Wisconsin before suddenly (and unexpectedly) being moved to defense. Worked out pretty well for him.

As a veteran head coach, Riley no doubt keeps a list of potential assistants. Maybe he already has someone on the hook. Wouldn't surprise me. This is no time to mess around.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


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