Nebraska Fall Football Practice, 8.22.15

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley talks with Huskers wide receiver Jamal Turner during a 2015 practice at Memorial Stadium.

Every day is Christmas.

Spend some time with Mike Riley. That's the vibe the new Nebraska football coach emits. It's as if he can't believe his luck in life.

Well, Christmas once again has arrived for us all. The season's upon us. Let's see what this new Big Red package has inside. I'm particularly interested in the offense, in its identity.

"Ours might just be the fact we're able to blend some stuff," said Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who also worked for Riley at Oregon State.

Blend some stuff. Guess that works for now. Prominent in the blend will be elements of a West Coast system, a la Bill Callahan's. Before you crinkle up your nose, remember that offense wasn't Callahan's undoing at Nebraska. Think back to 2006, for instance, when Callahan's balanced system ranked 14th nationally in average yards per game.

Fourteenth nationally? Riley would take that in Year One. Or any year.

Riley is as excited as anyone to see how well quarterback Tommy Armstrong operates in the new system in a game setting. Armstrong, 16-5 as the Husker starter, is being asked to better understand how to read defenses. What's more, any West Coast system demands precise timing between the quarterbacks and receivers. Armstrong will be expected not just to complete passes, but deliver throws to receivers in stride.

I think it would be wise early in the game to build Armstrong's confidence using quick screens, hitches — shorter routes. Get him in rhythm. As last month progressed, he looked more polished as a passer than he was last season. Let's see if he can take it to the playing field. Let's see if he can complete 60 percent of his passes — that's a reasonable goal, and a necessary one.

Blend some stuff. We'll see Armstrong run the zone-read option game, as was the case in last season's spread-option attack. How often? I think 8-10 times would be about right, depending on the pace and flow of the game. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Armstrong can put a dent in defenses with his legs. He can be effective on draws and yes, traditional option plays. Will Riley and Langsdorf venture that far out of their comfort zones?

Coaches often revert to past tendencies in the heat of the moment. Yes, this is a crucial season of adjustment for Armstrong, a dual-threat QB. But the same can be said of the guys running the offense.

That's part of the fun. We don't know exactly what to expect. Embrace it. And understand that the offense can and likely will evolve.

"We're not saying this is who we are and have to be and there's no flexibility at all," Langsdorf said. "There are going to be different things we do. It will be somewhat dictated by defenses and how the game is going, too."

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If you're a Nebraska fan, you hope the offense can do its share of dictating. Make the defense adjust, instead of vice versa. Remember those days?

Nebraska in the mid-1990s knew exactly what it was. There was no doubt. The Huskers' identity on both sides of the ball was as evident as a Ronda Rousey punch to the nose. Those days are long gone. NU no longer can simply overpower foes. But the Huskers can still execute with efficiency, even in the first game with a new system.

Nebraska doesn't have to be sloppy. Its fans are tired of sloppy Saturdays.

Langsdorf wants to see few, if any, false-start penalties or illegal formations. He calls them "junk penalties that are silly."

"Everybody says that sort of stuff week to week, but there's so much truth to being able to play a clean game," he said. "Keep the quarterback upright, hit some runs, complete passes ..."

And, yes, avoid turnovers. BYU isn't a great defense. Far from it. But the Cougars can confuse a quarterback with their quick shifts from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and other fancy stuff. They use a "bend-don't-break" style, mindful that a colossal mistake may be around the corner. With Nebraska in a new system, well, you can understand the potential for problems.

Speaking of confusion, which BYU players will be suspended? Langsdorf wasn't sure and seemingly wasn't sweating it. In any opener, he said, there are unknowns.

"We'll figure out who's on the field for the first play and go from there," he said.

Unknowns. That's one of the prevailing themes for this opener. What exactly is in the shiny new Big Red package? Will it be pleasing to the eye? Will it fill Husker fans with wonder and optimism? Will it put holiday-like smiles on their faces?

Langsdorf smiled earlier this week as he thought about the scene he'll encounter at midafternoon Saturday, his first gameday in Lincoln.

"I try not to get too distracted by it because it can screw you up a little bit if you're paying too much attention to that," he said.

Good point. Not everyone gets Christmas off.

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



Husker columnist

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

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