When Mike Riley was hired to replace Bo Pelini following the 2014 season, he said he looked at the opportunity in Lincoln as "one last adventure." Critics of the hire lamented that Riley and his large contingency of Oregon State assistants were using Nebraska for one last payday before retirement. Turns out, those guys may have underestimated just how much Mike Riley wants to go out a winner.
The pressure to win and win big is real and Mike Riley doesn't shy away from that fact. Instead, he has spent his first two offseasons upgrading his staff and changing the culture of the program at the same time. It's obvious that Riley is running things much differently at Nebraska than he did at Oregon State. There is a perception that Billy Devaney is heavily involved in the decision making of this program under the directive of Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. It's clear to me, at least, that Devaney has indeed had a heavy influence in some of the recent staff decisions. With his résumé and working relationship with Riley, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I've been impressed by each of the moves that have been made. If Devaney is the driving force behind them - so be it.
A critical element in the football program's bid to return to elite status is improved recruiting. Mike Riley realizes this, so it's no surprise that with each of his recent staff moves, recruiting acumen has been a component in each coaches résumé. With every move he's made, he's tried to upgrade with a coach who's able to teach and communicate to the players on the team, but also bring difference-makers into the program as recruiters. The Husker program has to get back to a place where they can beat teams like Wisconsin and Iowa on a regular basis. It's the first step towards returning to conference titles and getting into the College Football Playoffs. Riley is 0-4 against them in two seasons. The Huskers are 1-5 overall versus the Badgers since joining the Big Ten and have lost three of their last four to Iowa.
Most people didn't bat an eye when Riley decided to replace former defensive line coach Hank Hughes just days after last February's National Signing Day. After all, Hughes didn't have any previous connections to Riley and his short comings on the recruiting trail made the decision a necessary one. In truth - and Riley admitted this later - the only regret was waiting so long to make the move. Hughes' replacement, former Blackshirt John Parrella, has been a hit on the recruiting trail. Despite a late start to this years class, Parrella gained commitments from four defensive linemen - all of which were rated a four-star by at least one of the four major recruiting services. Parrella has been vital in the development of youngsters such as Freedom Akinmoladun, Mick Stoltenberg and the Davis twins. In short, he was a huge upgrade over Hughes.
This offseason, Riley wasted little time making more moves to his staff. Just three days after the Huskers regular-season finale, Riley fired special teams coordinator Bruce Read. That move made some waves. Despite two seasons of poor play from the special teams and little-to-no recruiting presence from Read, nobody expected Riley to pull the trigger to replace his longtime assistant. Read worked 11 seasons for Riley in three stints at Oregon State, three seasons while Riley was coach of the San Diego Chargers and two seasons for him at Nebraska. But Riley came to the conclusion that a change was needed and he made the (right) decision to replace Read with Donté Williams, regarded as one of the best recruiters in the entire country. The new Husker cornerbacks coach - despite being on the job for less than two months - was instrumental in Nebraska signing Elijah Blades, a defensive back with as much promise as 2016 class headliner Lamar Jackson. Williams has also already gained the verbal commitment of Eric Fuller, one of the most sought after athletes on the West Coast for the 2018 class. Much like receivers coach Keith Williams, Donté is also a highly respected teacher of the position. Another giant upgrade.
The most recent staff moves included firing defensive coordinator Mark Banker and putting the writing on the wall for secondary coach Brian Stewart that he wasn't in their long term plans. Banker had been alongside Riley coaching for all but one year since 1996, and had been Riley's defensive coordinator the past 14 years. Like with Read, nobody expected Riley had it in him to make decisions like these. Not to his most loyal and long-tenured assistants. I was impressed by how quickly and decisively Riley and the Huskers moved in on Banker's replacement, Bob Diaco.
Diaco had been coveted by several schools since being fired as head coach of Connecticut on December 26. The Nebraska brass had identified their man and zeroed in on him. Mike Riley called Mark Banker on January 11 to inform him of his release, the same day that Bob Diaco was reportedly contacted and asked to interview. It's been reported that Diaco was headed back to Connecticut after interviewing with Arkansas when, in a Chicago airport, he got a call from Mike Riley who wanted an immediate interview. "I had one set of clothes," Diaco recalled. "They said, 'We don’t care. C’mon out. We want to talk football.'
Nebraska never let Diaco leave once he made it to Lincoln. Not until a deal was reached making him the Huskers' new defensive coordinator. The decision to pursue Diaco could be the turning point in Riley’s tenure. In a matter of a few weeks, Riley went from retaining his coordinator for a 14th straight season to quickly dismissing him and getting the top name on the market. In doing so, Nebraska made Diaco the highest-paid assistant in program history. His contract with the Huskers is for two years, with a salary of $825,000 in 2017 and $875,000 in 2018. Diaco is currently third-highest among reported salaries of Big Ten assistants.
A New Jersey native, Diaco, 43, was a two-time All-Big Ten selection at Iowa as a linebacker under Hall of Fame coach Hayden Fry. He immediately got into coaching as a grad assistant for the Hawkeyes, then worked his way up the ranks. Diaco held assistant coaching positions at Western Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Central Michigan. His first Power Five job came in 2006, when he coached Virginia's linebackers and special teams under Al Groh, a disciple of the 3-4 directly off the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick coaching tree. He moved on to become the defensive coordinator for Brian Kelly at Cincinnati in 2009. The Bearcats finished 12-1 that year. Diaco came along with Kelly to Notre Dame, spending the next four years (2010-13) in charge of the Irish defense.
Diaco built a reputation as one of the brightest defensive minds in college football. He brings proven results and very impressive credentials. He was the 2012 winner of the Frank Broyles Award, given to the top assistant college football coach in the country and was a semifinalist for the award in 2011. Diaco’s defenses have been stout at each of his stops. Diaco was successful at Notre Dame and at Cincinnati in changing the culture of the defense - demanding toughness, and getting it from his players, while producing results on the field. At his introductory press conference, Diaco described his system as being rooted in his exposure to the 3-4 under Al Groh and a 4-2-5 defense he had coordinated while at Central Michigan - a system he put together after learning it from the Dick Bumpas coaching tree at Western Michigan.
Since he has been at Nebraska, when referencing defense, the two things Mike Riley has stressed as being most important are red zone defense and not giving up the big play. Between 2010-13, Diaco's Notre Dame defenses gave up an explosive play (20-plus yards) on 4.31 percent of its total plays defended. That was second nationally (Florida State) during that span. To put it another way: Notre Dame gave up a 20-yard gain once every 23 plays. The average drive in college football is about six plays, so that's only once every four drives. Nebraska during the Banker years gave up an explosive play once every 13.6 plays, or about one every two drives. Between 2010 and 2013, the Irish allowed 4.24 points per red zone trip under Diaco, which was second nationally (Alabama) over that span.
The final addition to the staff is Bob Elliott, who will coach the safeties. Hand-picked by Diaco, Elliott interviewed February 7 and within 48 hours several sources were reporting the hire was imminent. The Huskers finally made the hire official yesterday. Elliott was given a two-year deal that will pay him $325,000 this year, with his salary escalating to $350,000 in 2018. Elliott worked the last two seasons as a special assistant to head coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame. Elliott has battled health-related issues throughout his 36-year coaching career, undergoing a bone marrow transplant for a rare form of blood cancer in 1998 and a kidney transplant in February of 2013.
A graduate of Iowa, Elliott was in charge of Notre Dame's safeties from 2012-13 while Diaco ran the Irish defense. Diaco had a hand at bringing Elliott to Notre Dame then too. The Elliott-Diaco connection goes back to the 1990s. Elliott was an Iowa assistant when Diaco played linebacker there, then was the Hawkeyes’ defensive coordinator when Diaco was a graduate assistant in 1996 and ’97. Overall, Elliott has 32 years experience coaching defense, primarily as a defensive backs coach while also serving as defensive coordinator for a combined 11 years at San Diego State (2006-08), Kansas State (2002-05), Iowa (1996-98) and Ball State (1980).
His 2002 defense at Kansas State led the nation in scoring defense (11.8 ppg), ranked second in total defense (249 ypg) and rushing defense (69.5 ypg), and was third in pass efficiency defense. The 2003 Wildcats ranked sixth nationally in total defense (283.1 ypg), seventh in pass defense (174.6 ypg), eighth in scoring defense (16.3 ppg) and 17th in rushing defense (108.8 ypg). The 1997 Iowa defense that Diaco was apart of as a GA was fourth nationally in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, seventh in total defense and 11th in rushing defense.
Some Husker fans might be a little underwhelmed by Elliott's hire, preferring another dynamic recruiter on staff. But the more you look at the addition of Elliott, the more it makes perfect sense. You've already got aggressive young recruiters in Donté Williams, Trent Bray and John Parrella. Those three have already shown the ability to recruit top athletes for each level of the defense. Bringing in Elliott is a smart move by Diaco. He wants someone else on staff that he knows and trusts who can be an asset helping to teach his defense - not just to players, but to fellow coaches. Nebraska wants to hit the ground running defensively this spring. Elliott and his familiarity with Diaco's system will help make that happen. Diaco already has a strong working relationship with Elliott. He is someone Diaco looks at like a mentor in a lot of ways. This hire allows Diaco to focus more on the front seven, while Elliott helps the last line of defense.
Diaco and Nebraska has the potential to be a perfect marriage. Transitioning to the 3-4 made a lot of sense, even before hiring one of the best 3-4 defensive coordinators in college football. When you look at the roster, Nebraska lacks the defensive ends to be an effective 4-3 team. However, what the Huskers do have is a stable of young, athletic linebackers and defensive linemen that fit better in a 3-4. Most of the Huskers up and coming pass rush talent is at the linebacker position, while the defensive linemen they have on the roster are more inside guys. The switch to a 3-4 defense should help compliment both the number of linebackers that Nebraska has in the stable, as well as some of the depth issues that Nebraska has on the defensive line. Riley said he had been thinking of moving to a 3-4 for a while, getting Diaco has the feel of a perfect storm.
Teams like Alabama, Michigan, LSU, Washington, Georgia, Wisconsin and USC have shown that the 3-4 is perfectly suited to suffocate the sort of offenses that reside in the Big Ten West, while maintaining flexibility within its philosophy and scheme to slow down the spread attacks of Big Ten East teams like Ohio State and Penn State. If Diaco is successful in transforming the Blackshirts and putting their reputations alongside those aforementioned teams, the sleeping giant that is the Nebraska football program might actually awaken.
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all football website N2FL.com. He served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on recruitment and talent analysis, including the NFL Draft. You can email him at N2FL@hotmail.com.
Riley completes staff
Riley changing the culture of the program with recent staff changes.
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