Rutgers vs. Nebraska, 9.22.17

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley got a much-needed win on Saturday as the Huskers beat Rutgers 27-17.

FRANCIS GARDLER, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- Boyd Epley thinks folks should be patient with the Mike Riley era at Nebraska.

Epley thinks Riley, the third-year Husker head football coach, simply needs more time to recruit more of the right type of players for his systems, particularly the offense.

"I think what I'm hearing and seeing is a tremendous push on getting the right type of recruits for the offense they're trying to run," said Epley, the iconic Husker strength and conditioning coach. "And you are seeing improvement. And defensively, you're seeing that improvement ever since the first half of the Oregon game. …

"Unfortunately, they don't have the talent level they'd like to have, so you see the emphasis be on recruiting."

Epley spoke to a handful of reporters Tuesday as people filtered out of the news conference in which ex-Husker great Dave Rimington was announced as the school's interim athletic director.

Yes, this was an interesting twist. Epley essentially was telling reporters what his old boss, Shawn Eichorst, would tell you about Riley's plight: be patient.

That can be a tough sell. But Epley perhaps has some sway considering he was initially hired at NU in 1969 by Bob Devaney. Epley served 35 years as the Huskers' head strength coach, helping the football program win 356 games in 35 years and five national championships.

But so much about college football has changed since that time period. How much weight should Epley's words carry today, so to speak?

After leaving Nebraska's athletic department for eight years, Epley returned in October 2014 — Riley was hired in December of that year — as assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning. Epley oversees the Husker Power strength and conditioning department.

In the 1980s, Rimington was one of his prized pupils. This week, Rimington was called upon to help his alma mater in part because Riley's program is sputtering, although Rimington made clear his "interim" tag means just that.

"I'm not here to fire anybody," he said. "I'm just here to calm things down."

Meanwhile, Epley stirred up what's been an overcooked discussion at Nebraska: Did Riley inherit a severe lack of talent?

Epley repeated Tuesday what he's stated previously: The talent here isn't what it used to be.

He thinks it's getting there.

He thinks Riley deserves time.

"He just needs to get the right personnel to carry out what he needs to achieve," Epley said.

Problem is, Nebraska's talent level — any way you slice it — is much better than Riley's 4-6 record in the past 10 games. Even Riley's most passionate defenders would have to acknowledge there's no excuse for losing 62-3 at Ohio State, or 40-10 at Iowa, or surrendering 409 yards and 42 points by halftime at Oregon, or losing at home to Northern Illinois.

Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green and President Hank Bounds apparently lost patience with Riley's program, or Eichorst would still be employed.

Meanwhile, Epley's backing of Riley perhaps gives the coach's supporters a measure of hope.

"They're starting to get the players who match up to the type of offense and defense that they want to play," Epley said.

The talent discussion often leads nowhere. For instance: When Epley was asked to name a couple of the best athletes on the team, the player he mentioned first was junior defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun — a signee of the previous coaching staff.

"We have quite a few talented athletes on the team, but we need to bring the lower level up, so we can create more depth," Epley said.

Nebraska fans obviously long for the days when the Huskers were an elite program winning national championships.

"There are so many things that are different, I'm not sure where you'd start to get it back to the way it was," Epley said. "It's just not the same."

Epley dates to the days when Nebraska used a road-grader approach on offense.

"You'd knock them down and run over them," he said. "We're just not going to be that type of team as we move forward."

Which is precisely the problem, in the eyes of many Husker fans.

If Riley doesn't work out, perhaps Nebraska could return to a more rugged brand of football — maybe even something resembling the kind Rimington played at the school.

Epley obviously hopes it all works out for Riley.

"If people give him a little time, I think it will get better and better," Epley said. "Same with our quarterback (Tanner Lee). He's had some misfires. But they have complete confidence in him, and I'm glad to see that. They haven't given up on him.

"Hopefully, it'll just get better and better in every category."

Based on Nebraska's last 10 games, it's easy to be skeptical of that happening.

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