RILEY RESET: Huskers’ fresh start begins with Arkansas St.
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Even though Mike Riley is beginning his third year at Nebraska, there’s a sense around the program that 2017 represents a new start.
Riley finally has the pro-style quarterback he prefers in Tanner Lee . He has a new defense, with first-year coordinator Bob Diaco switching from the 4-3 to 3-4 base alignment. Besides Diaco, there are two other new assistants.
What haven’t changed are the expectations. Riley won six games in 2015 and nine last season, and he knows backsliding in the quest to overtake Wisconsin in the Big Ten West would test the fan base’s patience.
“There are a lot of new things on the horizon,” Riley said. “We are excited and optimistic and feel good about all the preparation, and now we have to go out and prove it week by week.”
The Cornhuskers open Saturday night against Arkansas State, which has won two straight Sun Belt Conference titles and is the only FBS program with five league championships over the last six years. The Red Wolves bounced back from an 0-4 start to win eight of their last nine, including a Cure Bowl victory over UCF. They bring back Sun Belt defensive player of the year Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and quarterback Justice Hansen among nine starters.
“They are pretty dynamic on offense, their quarterback is really talented,” nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “Their offensive line is rebuilt but we’ve heard good things about them. It’s definitely not someone we are going to overlook.”
Nebraska has won 19 straight night games at Memorial Stadium and come in as a 16-point favorite.
“There’s a reason why they have those (point) spreads. That’s someone’s opinion,” said Trooper Taylor, Arkansas State’s assistant head coach and cornerbacks coach. “You still have to play the game... You’ve seen their size on defense, on offense, in the line position. You’ll be wondering why we came out of the tunnel, because they’re huge. But we look forward to the challenge.”
Some things to watch in the third meeting of the teams since 2009:
TOUGH AT HOME
Nebraska was one of five FBS teams to go 7-0 or better at home last season, and its seven-game home win streak is tied for fifth nationally. The Huskers have won 30 of 31 season openers, the only loss coming to BYU on a last-play Hail Mary in 2015.
THESE GUYS CAN CATCH
Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El are the Huskers’ top returning receivers. Tight end Tyler Hoppes and slot receiver JD Spielman are new names to know. Hoppes transferred from Division II Wayne State in northeast Nebraska and originally was a defensive end for the Huskers. Mostly a special teams player in 2016, he blossomed in the spring and became one of Lee’s favorite targets. Spielman redshirted last season and established himself as a scout-team playmaker as a receiver and return man.
Arkansas State’s Rolland-Jones, who lines up as the weakside defensive end, has a Sun Belt-record 30.5 career sacks and is within 13.5 of tying the FBS record held by Terrell Suggs of Arizona State (2000-02). Rolland-Jones and Chris Odom, now with the Atlanta Falcons, were a formidable pass-rush duo last year, combining for 25.5 sacks.
“I want my senior year to be just like his or better,” Rolland-Jones said. “I think I exceeded what I thought my career would be. I didn’t think I was going to get all these records.”
GOING FOR 3 IN A ROW
Nebraska won the two previous meetings with the Red Wolves. The Huskers never trailed in the first two games, winning 38-9 in 2009 and 42-13 in 2012.
RALLYING AROUND COACH’S WIFE
Red Wolves coach Blake Anderson tweeted Thursday that his wife, Wendy, is cancer-free. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in April and had surgery in Memphis, Tennessee, on Monday.
Taylor had asked for players and staff members to stop what they were doing at 12:30 that afternoon to say a prayer for the Andersons. A school spokesman said Wendy hoped to make the trip to Lincoln.
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