By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
When linebacker Marcus Newby stepped in front of a receiver, snagged the football and sprinted down the sideline, Bob Diaco sprinted behind him, all the way into the end zone. Once there, the player and coach chest bumped in the air.
The joyous scene played out on a gorgeous, sun-splashed Saturday outside the Hawks Championship Center, as Nebraska began in earnest its third spring football season under coach Mike Riley.
Even the veteran Riley noticed a higher-than-normal enthusiasm level for a March practice so far removed from real game competition.
“With a lot of newness, it’s very exciting to get started with this group,” Riley told reporters after the two-hour workout. “The enthusiasm for the play, the initial installation of everything, that was all good.”
Hey, you’d probably feel an extra bounce in your step, too, if your new defensive coordinator hustled around, as if a player himself, while declaring football as “the greatest game in the world!”
Yeah, that happened on the first practice with Diaco.
“He’s a high-energy guy, which for any player is fun to play for,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “He’s detailed. He’s been around the block, so he knows his stuff. He’s going to be a fun guy to play for.”
Diaco smiled and offered fist bumps to various folks after his official practice as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator.
To say he seemed upbeat might be selling Diaco short.
None of this came as a surprise to Riley, who personally didn’t know Diaco, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and Connecticut head coach, but got a sense of his coaching style during his enthusiastic interview.
“I’ve seen him also talk to the team since he’s been here, and I’m serious about our first meeting and the interview process. It was very enthusiastic,” Riley said. “He has an enthusiasm in his coaching that is contagious.
“I knew his resume. I knew what he had accomplished, but the thing that was really exciting to me was the interview and how he basically taught football. What you saw today was not a surprise, and I believe that’s who he is.”
Diaco’s spirit even seemed to rub off on Riley, who was more vocal with the offense than usual, while offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf zoned in on helping his new group of quarterbacks.
Having a coach with the enthusiastic style of Diaco should lend itself well to Nebraska’s situation, which is installing the 3-4 defense as some players adjust to yet a third system in their Husker careers.
“I think if you have enthusiasm for what you’re doing you have a chance to get a responsive enthusiasm,” Riley said. “With that has to come a good progression of teaching, and I think (Diaco) combines both. Yes, that gives us a good chance to catch up with what we have to do to be good at when we start playing in the fall.”
Weber is among those Huskers learning a new defense for the third time. One key, he said, is taking some of what he learned previously and applying it while adjusting to the new terminology and concepts.
“It’s going to take a lot of reps,” Weber said, “and that’s the only way you can learn is by doing.”
Having an enthusiastic teacher can help.
One could easily describe Diaco as a no-nonsense, direct, black-and-white coach with an endearing personality.
Oh, and did we mention he's enthusiastic?
Weber could see Diaco's style while meeting with him over the winter.
“Kind of from being around him the last couple of weeks, you get a good sense of what he’s about,” Weber said. “It’s pretty similar to what I thought.”
As quick as Diaco is to offer praise after a good play -- like he was with Newby after his interception -- he’s just as quick to bark at a player in helping correct a mistake.
“He’s animated. He’s hands on,” Weber said. “He makes it very clear, which is nice, what he expects. Just the accountability across the board to get what he wants, it’s clear. You can see a difference.”
A difference that, for some, could take an adjustment period.
“Different guys react to it differently, but everybody’s got to take coaching and apply it,” Weber said. “They’re here to help you get better, and that’s kind of the mind frame you’ve got to have on it.”
Riley, in addressing the media earlier in the week to give a preview of spring practices, said the main storylines over the next 6 weeks would be the installation of the 3-4 defense with Diaco, and the quarterback competition.
Redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien won the coin flip to take the first snaps with the No. 1 offense over junior transfer Tanner Lee on Saturday, and both quarterbacks performed well.
“Frankly, the quarterbacks operated pretty confidently with what we were doing,” Riley said “Sometimes it can be a lot sloppier than that on the first day, and I thought it was pretty good. I thought it was pretty clean, and the operation of everything was pretty good. It was good start.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.