CHICAGO — Big Ten media days is over and there was a lot to process. Here are my top Nebraska takes from the event, plus a few thoughts on the Big Ten media days as a whole.
>> NU’s offense will have to find its way in preseason camp, balancing diversity with identity. Coach Mike Riley could talk offense for days. He’s as smart and well-traveled as they come, so it wasn’t surprising to hear him talk at length about all the kinds of things NU’s offense could do in 2017. After all, he once told me his offense was like a Cheesecake Factory menu.
But the offense still needs to take some shape, and Riley’s comments showed that. On the one hand, he talked about running the ball and not dropping back to pass 40 times a game. On the other, he talked at length about his 2013 offense at Oregon State, where Sean Mannion threw the ball 46 times per game and OSU ran the ball for 94.38 yards per game.
Nebraska surely won’t be that unbalanced this season. Riley needs a camp to assess the strength of its running game, find out which screen and quick passing plays work, and polish up the chemistry between Tanner Lee and his receivers.
>> Pay attention to Riley’s comments on the Huskers’ offensive line. He put that group just a little bit on notice.
“It’s an experienced group, and I think there’s talent there,” Riley said. “My expectations are that this group will play well and frankly, they need to. We need to run the ball and we need to protect the quarterback.”
Later, Riley said the offensive line “is the focal point of our success.”
NU finished ninth in the Big Ten last season in rushing yards per game and 10th in yards per carry. Riley offered no deep praises of any one player on the unit. For those guys, it’s on.
>> Tanner Lee deftly navigated Big Ten media days, showing why coaches and teammates like him. Lee’s not fake, he answers questions specifically and succinctly, and he showed a little humor hiding underneath his comments. Lee projects easy confidence. He actually has quite a bit to prove and an offense to carry, but he wears that burden lightly.
>> Nebraska defenders have been shook up by new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in a good way. NU treats its assistant coaches and athletes well. They get a lot of attention, Twitter followers, autograph requests, nice offices and meeting rooms, cool gear and adoring fans. Even at 9-4, everybody kind of loves you at Nebraska, and it can create the subtlest sense of “good enough” that falls short of great.
Diaco has no room for anything short of great. And if he was too much for Connecticut, his fastidious, relentless approach might be just right for a Nebraska program where the news media occasionally forgets the team is 1-6 against Iowa and Wisconsin since 2013. Safety Aaron Williams talked at length about how Diaco has the defense’s attention and how their approach to the game has begun to mirror Diaco’s mindset.
>> Speaking of Williams, he was refreshing at Big Ten media days, one of the best interviews. Honest. Funny. Down to earth. Not a robot. Not a walking PR firm. He was touching when talking about recently-deceased coach Bob Elliott, funny when describing his initial reaction to Diaco, transparent when describing the recruiting process that brought him from Atlanta to Nebraska.
>>Nice guys play short-week road games at Illinois. The Big Ten didn’t necessarily have the worst idea when it proposed Friday night football games. But the league allowed teams to opt out of the arrangement while teams that opted in got no particular incentive beyond a little more exposure. It left Nebraska, trying to be collegial, playing at Illinois on a short week while the Illini get two full weeks to prepare for their Big Ten opener. I still think NU beats Illinois, but the Huskers’ reward — for lending their brand to FS1 Friday night football — is a trap game. Riley doesn’t like short weeks — he’ll have two this season — and, in his own genial way, he said he doesn’t want to play any more of these Friday night games. If Northwestern can sever its ties to the Friday night games, Nebraska can, too. Riley just gave NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green direct permission to do just that. Eichorst was in Chicago, but he didn’t mill around Riley much, as far as I saw.
Two Big Ten takes:
>> The Big Ten still has a little work to do with its media days, which seem overly tailored for the luncheon and BTN interviews. And this isn’t just a media guy complaining. And this isn’t about the Big Ten Network talent, which is top notch and giving of their time.
Penn State and Wisconsin won their respective divisions last season. They played a wildly exciting Big Ten championship game that came down to the final minute. So you’d think those two coaches, PSU’s James Franklin and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, would get a better podium assignment than being stationed right behind the BTN set at McCormick Place.
The BTN set was close to the middle of the room, and this podium — Chryst talked first on day one, Franklin talked first day two — was sandwiched between the set and a wall. There were empty podiums all over the room, mind you, where these guys could have been.
So when Franklin’s talking at his podium, he could barely hear questions from four feet away while Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh bellowed on about whatever he was bellowing about.
“I’ve having a hard time hearing you,” Franklin said. “There’s a party going on over there.”
The second time, he was more ticked.
“I don’t know why these are so close together,” Franklin said. “Is there a reason why? No clue. Just worry about coaching, right? Stay in my wheelhouse.”
The Big Ten is awash in money. It’s hard for me to grasp why this league can’t have a separate area for BTN so that one of the nation’s top coaches — who was giving some good, detailed answers — can field those questions from national and regional reporters without having Harbaugh’s yelling interrupt. (Franklin had to deal with Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, too, who was even louder).
>> If and when Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany chooses to retire, who might his successor be? That question drifted across my mind as Delany announced the six-year TV deal with ESPN and Fox Sports. Delany would be in his early 70s when the Big Ten goes back to the negotiating table. Is he still the guy doing the deal? If not, who is?