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Mind of Mike: A look back at the Riley era at Nebraska

Mike Riley
Mike Riley (AP Images)

The Mike Riley era is over at Nebraska, an era highlighted by some big recruiting wins off the field but fell far short of enough wins on the field. National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell breaks down his thoughts on the Riley years in Lincoln.

MORE MIND OF MIKE: Breaking down the Butch Jones era at Tennessee

FULL COVERAGE OF NEBRASKA'S FIRING OF MIKE RILEY: What happens to Calibraska movement? | Mind of Mike | Who is next in Lincoln? | Riley's failure to develop QBs | Recruiting misses that doomed Riley | Which teams will benefit? | Recruiting busts under Riley | HUSKERONLINE.COM



- Hired in December of 2014, Riley finished out the 2015 recruiting class for Nebraska with the No. 31 class in the country, not a bad ranking at all for a transitional class for a program that hasn’t always finished near the Top 25 in recruiting. The class didn’t have a California feel to it, as it was led by Colorado standouts Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, Texas running back Jordan Stevenson and Louisiana wideout Stanley Morgan. However, Riley’s impact ion California, where he started his college coaching career (USC) and where he recruited extensively while at Oregon State, would be seen in the next few classes.

- Lamar Jackson, the No. 1 safety in the country out of Elk Grove, Calif., was a huge get for Riley and his staff in the 2016 class - a class that cracked the Top 25 at No. 24 overall. Quarterback Patrick O’Brien was also a key get out of California, as the Huskers' staff made the Golden State a priority with satellite camps and extensive on-the-ground recruiting. Marquel Dismuke was another 4-star in the class from California, a class that was loaded with 3-stars but gave us a brief introduction to a movement that would catch hold in 2017.


- The Calibraska movement came alive in 2017, as the Huskers finished with the No. 20 class in the country and the best class in my estimation since Bill Callahan’s 2005 class (which was highlighted by Marlon Lucky and finished No. 5). Nebraska finished ranked higher than No. 20 a few years, mainly 2007 (No. 13), 2011 (No. 15) and 2013 (No. 17) but I thought the job the staff did in 2017 was the best in more than a decade.

Led by super-recruiters Donte Williams and Keith Williams, Nebraska landed four Rivals250 prospects led by wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey (Las Vegas via California), Tristan Gebbia (California) and Elijah Blades (California). Lindsey and Blades had been previously committed to other major powers (Ohio State and Florida, respectively) and were massive flips. The best player in that class could turn out to be linebacker Avery Roberts from Delaware, a Rivals100 prospect who had numerous major offers. But perhaps the most important commitment came from Keyshawn Johnson Jr., a 4-star wide receiver outside the Rivals250 and the son of Keyshawn Johnson Sr., the infamous USC and NFL star. Keyshawn Sr. played under Mike Riley at USC, and is a very influential 7-on-7 connection in California, which helped draw interest from many top prospects from the state.

The Calibraska movement may have started in the 2016 class with Jackson, O’Brien and Dismuke but it was 2017 that took it to the next level. Nebraska was also heavily involved with major California prospects like Joseph Lewis, Darnay Holmes, Greg Johnson, Addison Gumbs, Jamire Calvin and many others. Since that Marlon Lucky year, this was the most buzz Nebraska had received in California - and the momentum was strong heading into 2018.

- The on-field results didn’t match the upward momentum swing in recruiting, as Nebraska went 6-7 in the first year under Riley (2015), 9-4 in 2016 and a disappointing 4-8 in 2017 while many expected the Huskers to push for the Big Ten West title. Riley’s overall record of 19-19 and 12-14 in conference wasn’t enough for him to survive for a fourth season. The biggest win in the Riley era was in Year One, when Nebraska upset No. 6 Michigan State 39-38 on a controversial late touchdown with 17 seconds left and wide receiver Brandon Reilly went out of bounds and came back in to make the dramatic TD catch. It was ruled that he was forced out of bounds on replay, but many felt it was the wrong call. In 2017 Nebraska beat No. 22 Oregon at home 35-32 and the Huskers ranked as high as No. 8 with a 7-0 start before falling to Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back weekends to drop out of playoff contention. Nebraska finished outside the Top 25 despite the 9-4 season and ended the year with a loss to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.

- Since that 7-0 start, Riley’s team has gone 6-12 with the wins over Minnesota, Maryland, Arkansas State, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue, not exactly a Murderer’s Row. In that same span his team has lost to the good teams on the schedule by shockingly lopsided margins.

Scott Frost
Scott Frost (AP Images)

- Scott Frost’s success at Central Florida has perhaps pushed up the timeline of Riley’s firing after Florida fired Jim McElwain. The Gators are also expected to target Frost as their top target, so Nebraska felt they needed to push Riley aside and get into what could be a bidding war for Frost. Frost was a star on the Nebraska football team after transferring from Stanford in 1995. He led the team to a 24-2 record under center and a share of the 1997 national title. He began his coaching career as a GA at Nebraska in 2002 and after stops at Kansas State, Northern Iowa and Oregon he became the head coach at UCF and has the team undefeated and primed for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game. He is this year’s Tom Herman, a hot young assistant coach that many teams will covet, and he is clearly the No. 1 target for the Huskers.

- In addition to Frost, other names mentioned include former LSU head coach Les Miles and current Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. Miles and Campbell would be good fits at Nebraska, although anything short of landing Frost would likely be seen as a disappointment in the eyes of the fan base.

- Whoever steps in will inherit the No. 77 recruiting class in 2018, with just nine commitments but with some talent at the top, such as Mario Goodrich from Missouri, wide receiver Joshua Moore from Texas and tight end Cameron Jurgens from Nebraska. Depending on which, if any, staff members are retained, there is still momentum in California for the new coach and the first target will be former commitment Brendan Radley-Hiles, a high four-star cornerback who recently de-committed and was the lynchpin of the class.

- Finally, as far as programs that could benefit from the firing of Riley you’d have to look west to teams like Cal, UCLA, Oregon, Washington and others who wanted some of the Calibraska commitments and fell short. Nebraska had become a thorn in their side. Riley's dismissal also helps teams like Missouri, Kansas State, Iowa and others that recruit the Midwest, but Nebraska’s lack of home-state talent and being somewhat landlocked by weak talent states is tough to get over, and it will be one of the keys for the new coach.