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Husker columnist

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

Mike Riley flashes a big grin — even bigger than usual — when approached with the subject at hand.

"Great story, right?" the Nebraska second-year head coach says of Reggie Davis.

Riley, as the former USC offensive coordinator and Oregon State head coach, coached against Davis when he played college football at Washington from 1995-98.

He was an excellent tight end.

"Sure, I remember him," Riley says. "Number 5."

Davis, of course, is now Nebraska's running backs coach. Considering Riley's determination to improve the running game this season, Davis plays an especially integral role on the staff, even more so when you consider he's in charge of a group of backs — most notably senior Terrell Newby and sophomores Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon — that has been receiving an equal amount of carries in practice.

It's up to Davis to put his guys in the right situations to maximize their talents.

It's up to Davis to properly manage his room, so to speak. Each position group has a meeting room, where players sit side-by-side, ideally learning and pushing together toward a greater good.

Sounds simple enough, right?

However, "There's a lot of confidence coming out of that running back position, a lot of guys who want the starting job — and a lot of good players," Riley says. "Reggie handled a tough situation a year ago, playing the freshmen (Ozigbo and Wilbon) and having a senior (Imani Cross). And he meshed Terrell in there nicely. I thought Reggie kept that thing running smoothly through a lot of rough times.

"Same thing with this group. They all work. They all appear to be happy with the opportunity they're getting. And I give Reggie a lot of credit."

That we haven't heard much discussion about "rough times" is partly a testament to Davis' firm guidance.

But don't underestimate the complexity of his situation.

"I think that's a tough room," Riley says. "And I think it takes a special person to handle it because it's tight competition, and there's a wide discrepancy in ages. I think it's touchy. I keep an eye on stuff like that, and that room has not been an issue for me."

Riley clearly trusts and admires Davis, an opinion that dates as far back as 1999, when Riley was the San Diego Chargers' head coach and the franchise signed Davis as a rookie free agent.

"The odds of that guy making the team are low," Riley says. "And he made it."

Riley coached Davis for two seasons in San Diego and later hired him to coach running backs at Oregon State (2008-10).

"Reggie was a smart player. Diligent. You have to have something extra to make it when you're that guy," says Riley, referring to Davis' free-agent status. "He did everything. Special teams. Whatever you asked him to do — H-back, tight end. First-class guy. Really good person. He was a great team guy. Everybody on the team liked him.

"He overcame the odds for reasons of talent, work ethic and character."

Jim Harbaugh was San Diego's quarterback at the time. He obviously admired Davis because, as the University of San Diego's head coach, Harbaugh hired him in 2004 to coach tight ends and special teams. Davis later coached under Harbaugh with the San Francisco 49ers (2011-14).

When Harbaugh was named Michigan's head coach in mid-December of 2014, Riley admits he "got a little worried" that Harbaugh again might come after Davis, even though Riley already had offered Davis a job on his Nebraska staff.

"There was a time frame in there when we hadn't finalized anything, so I'm calling Reggie and saying, 'Hey, you still interested in this deal?'" Riley recalls. "In the end, we were really glad we got Reggie."

Earlier this week, when Nebraska offensive assistants were made available for media interviews after a practice, Davis was nowhere to be found. He typically does interviews, but doesn't exactly seek them out.

When Davis does talk to reporters, his tone is friendly, but matter-of-fact. He speaks with patience, wisdom and restraint.

"He's a confident, prepared guy, so when he talks to the players, he grabs their attention," Riley says. "He's got a definitive way about him. He makes it clear how he wants you to do it.

"I really like that about him."

Riley agrees that Davis operates with a quiet confidence.

"Thing is, I could use Reggie to coach tight ends, or H-backs, tailbacks. ... He's knowledgeable," Riley says. "He's going to be a coordinator one day because he really pays attention to the big picture."

Davis' immediate task gets his full attention, and it's easy to understand why.

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

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