Photo by Kelly Mosier

Media Day Notes: Replacing Jones No Easy Task

By NU Athletic Communications

CHICAGO – Losing sophomore defensive back JoJo Domann to a knee injury during spring football practices was bad enough for Nebraska football coach Mike Riley.

To make matters worse, senior cornerback Chris Jones, arguably the Huskers’ best defensive player, is out 4-6 months after July surgery to repair torn meniscus in his knee.

That means Riley will have to come up with some quick solutions for a position already thin on depth. He publically discussed the situation for the first time Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.

“The multiple loss of JoJo Domann and Chris Jones is not good,” Riley said. “I cannot spin that in a positive way. That is not a good thing. But with that, we have to go forward and turn that page and make it good. We cannot ever use this as a reason for excuse.”

Domann tore his ACL in April and could return by October. 

If only the season started then, too.

Riley said he’s excited about the ‘next man up’ option, which would mean a big opportunity for the likes of sophomore Eric Lee Jr. and redshirted freshman Dicaprio Bootle.

Or, perhaps Riley moves a more experienced player to the positon.

“The option of some movement is also interesting, whether it’s Joshua Kalu or maybe Lamar (Jackson) going to the field,” Riley said. “I think we have to be careful, because you don’t want to all of the sudden weaken yourself at multiple spots by making a move. You want to remain as consistent as you can.”

Riley was out of town when Jones suffered his injury.

"I absolutely hated that news about Chris Jones. It was a big, big surprise, and really disappointing on a lot of levels," Riley said. "This is a very good player, very good guy. Really fun to be around. Loves football. And I'm very hopeful for his return. When that is, I'm not sure."

For now, finding his replacement is most pressing.

“It is something we have to study in the next few days and make a final decision on and go forward and say, ‘This is going to be really good,’ ” Riley said.

As for Kalu – who’s switched from wearing No. 10 to No. 46, by the way – Riley said he loved how he looked at safety during spring practices.

“So we are at this time reluctant to say this is exactly what we want to do,” Riley said. “And even before we did that I'd like to have a nice talk with Josh about it.”

 

Lee fitting in

Tanner Lee hasn’t taken a snap with Nebraska, while Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Penn State’s Trace McSorely are considered Heisman Trophy candidates.

Yet Lee, the Tulane transfer, was the only of the three to make the trip to Chicago. A national reporter asked Riley what he saw in Lee that made him a good Media Days candidate despite his relative obscurity.

Riley first pointed out that while Lee hasn’t yet played with the Huskers, he does have collegiate experience. He then reflected on how Lee quickly earned the team’s respect during his transfer season, and how teammates voted him a team captain for offseason conditioning drills.

“So he entered in rather not a really dramatic fashion, just became one of the guys and, like I said, was well-liked and then eventually well-respected,” Riley said. “The other reason that he's here is that he earned that job through good competition in our spring ball to be our starting quarterback heading into the season. So I thought it was very appropriate that he would be here with us today.”

 

Connection with Diaco

When Riley decided to change defensive coordinators and search for a perfect fit to his staff, he thought back to his coaching roots, and his strong familiarity with a 3-4 defensive scheme.

For years, he’d been intrigued about returning one day to the 3-4. That was among the factors that attracted him to Bob Diaco. The others, Riley found out during the interview process.

“I see Bob as a really good teacher, a fundamental, 'One, two, three, four, this is how it's done,' " Riley said. “I love that part of him. And I also like the detail of it and I love the enthusiasm with which he approaches it. So there was a lot of confirmation about this guy and about what he would bring schematically as we went through the interview process, and I really enjoyed that.

"And that has all been confirmed through his initial time with our team. Very impressed with what our team defensively learned during spring practice when you change schematically like that from a big change, going from a 4-man front foundation to a 3-man front. And you're looking at people on your team that have to be placed in a little bit different position. So studying your team, who fits where, how is this going to look and then actually teaching that part of it and making it look like football as it goes forward, that's a lot of stuff involved there. I was impressed with what happened in that way during our spring ball."

 

Elliott’s influence

Riley spent only a few months with Bob Elliott on his coaching staff, but they were meaningful, impactful months that Riley won’t soon forget.

“The things that I learned about him in such a short time were much more dramatic than all of that history of what he had on his resumé,” Riley said. “That has been one of the hardest things for me. I guess my relationship with Coach Elliott, and working with him, was way too short.”

Elliott died July 8 after a battle with cancer. He was 64.

“This was a really good person,” Riley said. “I think the thing he loved about what he did was the relationship with the players. Both him and his wife, Joey, they really embraced and loved that part of what he got to do as a football coach.

"For Bob to get back on the field with the Huskers, for me to get to know him and watch him on the field was really exciting.”

Roster updates

One player who would’ve provided depth at cornerback won’t be on the 2017 roster. Riley confirmed that incoming freshman Elijah Blades would not have been eligible to play this season, new partial eligibilty rules or no. Blades is instead going to play at Arizona Western Community College.

As for players on the roster, wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. and junior Antonio Reed “have taken some great, gigantic steps” after a summertime violation of team rules, Riley said.

“I’ve been really proud of the work that’s been done behind the scenes,” Riley said. “What we do as far as (missing) games or anything going forward has not been decided. But I’ve been really pleased with the steps that have been taken and the progress that has been made.”

On the injury front, sophomore linebacker Alex Davis and freshman linebacker Avery Roberts have recovered from injury and will be ready for the start of fall practices on Sunday, Riley said.

“Alex had a stress fracture that we think is going to be fine going into fall camp, and then the same thing for Avery,” Riley said. “Whether Avery is 100 percent, I think Avery will be ready to play.”

Riley said coaches will need to monitor other players who have had recurring injury issues. He specifically noted sophomore defensive lineman DaiShon Neal.

“Some guys just have to be monitored in a different way because of their history,” Riley said.

 

Friday night lights

Nebraska will be among a handful of Big Ten Conference schools to play a Friday night game this season when the Huskers travel to Illinois on Sept. 29.

Other Big Ten schools, like Michigan, Penn State and Iowa, have bowed out of Friday night opportunities, citing the importance of preserving Friday nights for high school football.

Riley sees both sides of the issue, but if he had his wish, would rather be playing consistently on Saturdays.

“I know this has been a big, big discussion, and I’m not overly passionate about it one way or the other,” Riley said. “I understand TV windows and opportunities. I get that. I think what’s happened for college football programs and athletic departments with money involved for all sports in a big deal.

“I also understand, just as a football coach, I don’t like short weeks. I do not like to get out of the routine of what we do week to week to get ready for a game. I’m a real routine guy in a countdown to a game. I don’t like changing that. Adjusting that way is no fun for me.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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