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Chatelain: Fixing Huskers' talent gap will be key to Mike Riley’s future
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Chatelain: Fixing Huskers' talent gap will be key to Mike Riley’s future

After Friday’s Music City Bowl, the coach and three standouts from Nebraska were ushered into a postgame press conference, where they discussed the Huskers’ fourth loss in the last six games, a 38-24 defeat to Tennessee. Mike Riley sat next to Ryker Fyfe, Brandon Reilly and Ross Dzuris.

Then came the coach and three standouts from the victorious Volunteers: Butch Jones, Joshua Dobbs, Derek Barnett and Josh Malone.

The press conferences themselves weren’t particularly newsworthy. The contrasting backgrounds of the players were.

Nebraska’s representatives were all fifth-year former walk-ons, native sons who’d lived out a dream by wearing the red “N.” They’d done it the hard way, slowly climbing the depth chart, reaching the starting lineup late in their careers. They were necessary pieces of the program and worthy Big Ten football players, but there was clearly a cap on their potential. None projected to be drafted.

Tennessee’s players were something different. They were high school blue-chippers who’d chosen orange over several other major scholarship offers. They were starters almost from day one. Barnett and Malone were four-star recruits from the class of 2014 facing a decision whether to turn pro. Dobbs, a four-star quarterback from the 2013 class, may not make the NFL, but he certainly has the physical tools.

Since Friday, I’ve tried to figure out why a game that played out as everyone expected left such a bitter taste. Sure, every loss hurts, but this one seemed to expose Nebraska, and not just the intangible flaws — effort, chemistry, confidence, etc. — but the measurable ones. This wasn’t just X’s and O’s; it was Jimmies and Joes.

Defining “talent” is really hard to do, and too often we make mistakes based on perception, not reality. But sometimes, it’s obvious. You didn’t need to know the score Friday to know who won the game. You just needed to look at the bios of the players behind the microphones.

How many of Mike Riley’s players Friday would’ve started at Tennessee? Five? Eight? How many would start at Ohio State or Michigan?

I’ve said forever that talent development in Lincoln is more important than talent collection. I still believe it. And resorting to recruiting rankings to compare college players’ talent is a fool’s errand. There are too many variables involved. No. 1, the rankings are determined when kids are 16 or 17, three or four years before they start games in college.

But it doesn’t take a genius to look out on the field and see that Nebraska doesn’t have a Derek Barnett, a guy who just looks different. When is the last time NU did? Randy Gregory? Taylor Martinez? You might go all the way back to Ndamukong Suh.

Nick Gates and Tre Bryant have talent. The Davis twins and Chris Jones have talent. Nebraska doesn’t need Barnett and Dobbs to win the Big Ten West. But it probably needs guys like that to go further. And two years into the Riley era, as he moves into a critical season*, Nebraska’s talent feels comparable to post-2003 when Bill Callahan came in.

(* Yes, they’re all critical around here, but they’re more critical when a disappointing season ends with a pink slip, which it probably would.)

Just as Frank Solich and Bill Callahan suffered for the dreadful 2000 recruiting class, Riley will soon feel the pain of the 2013 and ’14 classes, especially at the offensive skill positions.

» 2013: Kevin Gladney, Tre’vell Dixon, Johnny Stanton, Greg Hart, Adam Taylor.

That class also included Terrell Newby and Cethan Carter, who didn’t redshirt.

» 2014 didn’t pan out either: AJ Bush, Glenn Irons, Jariah Tolbert, Monte Harrison, Mikale Wilbon, Larenzo Stewart, Zack Darlington.

That class also included De’Mornay Pierson-El.

» There are similar issues at other positions, like defensive end, where the high school signees from ’13 and ’14 have mostly missed: Dimarya Mixon, Ernest Suttles, A.J. Natter, DeAndre Wills, Sedrick King, Freedom Akinmoladun.

(Randy Gregory and Joe Keels were juco signees in these classes.)

Put it another way. These are Riley’s scholarship seniors in 2017:

» Offense: Adam Taylor, De’Mornay Pierson-El, David Knevel, Dwayne Johnson, Zach Hannon.

» Defense: Chris Jones, Boaz Joseph, Joshua Kalu, A.J. Natter, Marcus Newby, Kieron Williams.

Best-case scenario, that’s five or six senior starters. That isn’t many.

I’m not cooking up premade excuses for an 8-5 season. If the Huskers look sloppy and uninspired, as they did the last two games of 2016, Riley is accountable. If his young players, specifically the offensive linemen, don’t start developing, Riley is accountable. But the ingredients he inherited combined with the urgency for progress make the next 12 months dicey. Very dicey.

His first full class of recruits — Tre Bryant, Lamar Jackson, Matt Farniok, JD Spielman, etc. — will be second-year players as their coach faces a potentially make-or-break season. The prospects John Parrella and Donte Williams were hired to chase? They’ll be first-year players. Is it really fair to judge a head coach so early?

Nope. But that’s the business these days. Not long ago, a coach had four or five years to prove himself, even if things were trending the wrong direction. Now a coach gets axed after three years and nobody raises an eyebrow. Some of Charlie Strong’s first commitments never played a down for him.

As a coach, you can have a long-range vision. My program is going to look like this in five years. But you can’t just be a builder anymore; you have to be a fixer. In order to create the program you want, you must first maximize imperfect conditions.

Bo Pelini was really good at that. Get kids’ attention quickly. Motivate with red-hot emotion. He was a better fixer than he was a builder.

My sense is Riley is a better builder, but perhaps not as good at fixing. That may be a problem. If he can’t get something out of his imperfect 2017 senior class — if he can’t fix those holes at the skill positions — he’s never going to see Lamar Jackson or Tristan Gebbia to the finish line.

These days you have to perform with your predecessor’s players or you won’t get a chance to coach your own. By year three, fans don’t care about the labels. Saturday morning, I got a text message from a longtime Husker fan, who summarized the majority opinion, I think, entering 2017: “No more excuses for Riley.”

Expectations are rising. The talent needs to rise with it.

dirk.chatelain@owh.com, 402-649-1461, twitter.com/dirkchatelain

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Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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