Nati Harnik
March 02, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) It's been almost 25 years since John Parrella played for Nebraska. His heart never left.

That's why he called Mike Riley when the defensive line coach's job came open a month ago.

''I think any former player who had success at his college would want to go back and coach there,'' Parrella said Wednesday. ''It's a no-brainer for any former player, especially with the experiences you get here at Nebraska - how they develop you on and off the field.''

The 46-year-old Parrella gives Riley's staff a throwback to happier times in Big Red country. During his five years as a player, the Cornhuskers won 48 of 60 games and won or shared three Big Eight championships. When he was an All-Big Eight defensive lineman as a senior in 1992, they were a year from starting their 60-3 run with three national titles under Tom Osborne.

There weren't any tougher or nastier players than Parrella at Nebraska back then. Having grown up 80 miles from Lincoln, in Grand Island, he not only understood the football culture in the state, he lived it.

''It's a long story, but it starts with being dominant up front on the offensive and defensive lines, continuing to get great players and working in the weight room,'' he said, recalling Osborne's core principles for success.

Parrella begins his job in earnest Saturday when Nebraska starts spring practice. The Huskers were 6-7 in Riley's first season, and they haven't won a conference championship since 1999.

Parrella played 12 years in the NFL, including 1999-2001 for the Riley-coached San Diego Chargers, before he started coaching high school football in Northern California. He was an assistant in the junior college ranks at Chabot College in California before moving to Division II Northern Michigan two years ago to coach the defensive line.

Riley said he was prepared to hire another candidate to replace the fired Hank Hughes, but Parrella wowed him in an interview. Parrella is on a two-year contract that pays him $250,000 annually.

''I'm pretty excited to get a coach who played at Nebraska and played on the defensive line,'' senior end Ross Dzuris said. ''He's pretty excited to coach us. I think it's going to be a good match.''

Like Dzuris, Parrella was an in-state walk-on. Parrella asked Osborne for a spot after Colorado pulled a scholarship offer from him in 1988. Parrella arrived as a tight end and moved to the defensive line his second year.

He broke through as a junior, making nine tackles and recording three quarterback hurries on Oklahoma's last possession in a 19-14 win that sent Nebraska to the Orange Bowl, where he made 11 stops in a loss to Miami.

Former longtime Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride has called Parrella one of the top three defensive tackles he coached. Parrella went on to play in Super Bowls for three different teams and was inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

Parrella said he hasn't had much time to reflect on his return to his alma mater. He said he's mostly been trying to match faces with names. The Huskers had two defensive linemen, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, declare for the NFL draft as underclassmen, and Jack Gangwish graduated. Greg McMullen is the only full-time returning starter, and four other players have experience.

''I think this is a pretty tough group,'' Parrella said. ''It's extremely talented. We need to get fundamentally sound and get them to know me and me to know them. I've had a chance to meet with them all, and now I'm looking forward to Saturday.''

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