RojoBreakdown: Breaking down Mike Riley
When the news first came down Thursday morning that Nebraska would hire Mike Riley away from Oregon State to be its next head coach, the general consensus seemed to be summed up in one word - who?
In typical Shawn Eichorst fashion, the athletic director made his move swiftly and quietly. Riley's name wasn't discussed much, if at all, in local circles, which instead delved into rumors about Jim Tressel, Bret Bielema and David Shaw.
It quickly became apparent after the hiring that this looks like a very good move for Nebraska. National pundits such as Kirk Herbstreit, Tim Brando and Joe Schad praised the decision, and several claimed it a stronger hire than Florida pickup of Jim McElwain.
But the question still exists in the minds of most Husker fans - who is this guy?
Riley's coaching career really got started in the CFL before he came back to the states as USC's offensive coordinator from 1993-1996. He then assumed the head duties at Oregon State for the next two years before becoming being hired by the San Diego Chargers. Riley's NFL stint lasted just three years and resulted in a 14-34 record. After one year with the New Orleans Saints in 2002, Riley returned to Oregon State and has been there ever since.
After moving back to Corvallis, Riley compiled a 85-66 record in 12 seasons, including a 56-49 mark in the Pac-12. Those numbers might seem a bit underwhelming, especially considering Nebraska just canned Bo Pelini and his 71.3 winning percentage. But consider this - from 1971-1998, the Beavers had 28 consecutive losing seasons. Since Riley's return in 2003, Oregon State has had a winning record in eight of 12 seasons. The program was a mess before he arrived, and Riley brought it up to a respectable level, sometimes even higher. He was the 2008 Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
But Pelini's problem was never winning alone - it was having success in big games. Pelini was 8-17 against ranked foes, and on paper Riley isn't much better - he's just 12-33 against ranked opponents since 2003. But Riley went into those matchups with far less talent, something he won't have as much a problem with at Nebraska. And Riley has won five of his seven bowl games.
Riley has been highly sought after before. Alabama pushed hard to get him as Dennis Franchione's replacement in 2002, and USC pursued him after Pete Carroll moved to the NFL in 2010. Both times Riley declined, but Nebraska proved to be the school that got him to change his mind.
What can we expect from the new-look Huskers on each side of the ball? Let's start with the…
Riley's offenses appear to be tailored around their best players. When stud running back and future pro Jacquizz Rodgers was in the backfield, Riley pounded the rock offensively, giving Rodgers an average of 263 carries in his three seasons.
The Beavers weren't able to find another Rodgers following his departure in 2010, so Riley turned his attack to the passing game. With Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton (future first and third-round NFL Draft picks) lined out wide and Sean Mannion under center, no Oregon State runner had more than 192 carries since 2011. Meanwhile, the passing game ranked among the top 32 nationally in each of the last four seasons, topping out at third overall (372.6 yards per game) in 2013.
Riley's offenses do tend to be a bit more pass-heavy than Nebraska is used to. Since 2008, Oregon State posted a 1.3:1 run-pass ratio, rushing 56.6 percent of its plays (the Huskers were closer to 60 percent). The average season for OSU quarterbacks during that same span was 3,546 yards, 23.1 touchdowns and 13.2 interceptions on 54.9 percent passing.
With Mannion under center, the Beavers featured almost no quarterback run game. A statue in the pocket, Mannion had minus-804 rushing yards in his career. With Mannion graduating (he's currently rated as Mel Kiper Jr.'s no. 10 quarterback prospect for the upcoming draft), there was talk of Oregon State involving the quarterbacks more on the ground. In Tommy Armstrong and Johnny Stanton, Riley now has two quarterbacks who were successful runners in high school, and Armstrong has proven himself above average at the Division I level as well.
Interesting to note - Riley offered and recruited Stanton, a 2012 graduate of Rancho Santa Margarita Catholic HS in California, hard while at Oregon State. Now that he gets to work with the redshirt freshman, Stanton might be given a chance to flourish.
One more interesting wrinkle to consider - Wheaton rushed 83 times for 631 yards at Oregon State, and Cooks ran 61 times for 340 yards. Both also thrived in slot receiver roles (Cooks led the nation in 2013 with 1,730 yards), so the thought of an offense featuring diminutive but blazing receivers De'Mornay Pierson-El and Glenn Irons with sure-handed slot man Jordan Westerkamp is certainly enticing.
Maybe most important to Nebraska is that Riley's offenses don't often turn the ball over. Just once in the past seven seasons did the Beavers have a negative turnover margin, and overall they were plus-17 in turnover margin. Nebraska was minus-33 over that same time span and had 182 giveaways compared to OSU's 142.
Statistically, most of Riley's defenses at Oregon State were average as best. Just once since 2008 did the Beavers rank in the top 45 nationally in scoring defense, and just twice in the top 45 in overall defense. OSU was pretty ordinary against both the run and the pass, never ranking in the top 20 in yardage in a season under each category.
But there is an outlier in that group that suggests when he's got talent, Riley can construct a pretty solid defense. Take a look at the 2012 unit and where it ranked nationally in several major categories:
Scoring defense: 20.6 points per game (22nd nationally)
Total defense: 354.0 yards per game (30th)
Rushing defense: 129.5 yards per game (28th)
Turnovers forced: 31 (15th)
Opponent third down percentage: 28.2 (sixth)
Those Beavers had just two all-conference performers - defensive end Scott Crichton (44 tackles, 9.0 sacks) and defensive back Jordan Poyer (seven interceptions). That defense has a total of three players who would go on to play in the NFL.
What could Riley do with Nebraska's talent? Randy Gregory appears NFL bound, but this roster is still teeming with NFL ability. Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine, Nathan Gerry, LeRoy Alexander and Greg McMullen would all rank among OSU's better defenders this season, and all are sophomores. If Riley can squeeze more out of the potential of gifted players such as Josh Banderas, Marcus Newby and Courtney Love, this could be a strong unit.
In that vein, Riley could keep around a few assistant coaches to help. Charlton Warren has been one of Nebraska's best recruiters since joining the staff before the season, and his NU allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 47.5 percent of passes this year. And Rick Kaczenski helped turned the defensive line from a depth-less mess (remember Cameron Meredith playing defensive tackle in 2012?) to arguably the defense's greatest strength. I'm not telling Riley how to build his staff, but those two seem worthy of a look at least.
In the end, only so much can be taken from Riley's time at Oregon State to try and project how he'll fare in Lincoln. He has different personnel, better facilities and more money at his disposal, along with the ability to remold his offensive and defensive schemes. After all, he hasn't hired any assistants as of now, and those coaches will certainly influence what he runs.
But if his track record suggests anything, it's that the 61-year-old could be ready for a breakout at a big program. He's had great success with limited talent before - now that talent pool will be much deeper. According to the experts, this has the potential to be a home-run hire for Nebraska. Only time will tell.
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