LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Nebraska opened preseason practice Sunday with a new quarterback, a new defensive system and a fan base hoping third-year coach Mike Riley is getting closer to ending a conference championship drought nearing two decades.
The Cornhuskers are picked third or fourth in the Big Ten West in most preseason polls after losing four of their last six games in 2016. Riley downplayed the notion this is a crucial year for his program.
''They all feel crucial when you're in the middle of them,'' he said with a laugh.
The Huskers, who tied for second in the West, are coming off a 9-4 season that ended with a 30-point loss to Iowa and 14-point bowl loss to Tennessee. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, who succeeds four-year starter Tommy Armstrong Jr., more closely resembles the type of quarterback Riley likes in his pro-style offense. Bob Diaco is the new defensive coordinator and has changed the base alignment from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
Three of the top four receivers are being replaced, but there is experience at running back and the top five offensive linemen have combined for 53 career starts.
''In tough games we want the ball on our backs,'' left tackle Nick Gates said. ''We're going to move the rock this year.''
The onus is on the offensive line. Armstrong was so good at eluding pass-rushers that he was sacked just eight times in his 11 games. Lee is not nearly as mobile, and Gates acknowledged that it will be more difficult for the line to keep the QB upright. The run blocking also must improve. The Huskers ran for only 78 yards against Ohio State, 90 against Iowa and 61 against Tennessee.
''We're doing more things this summer to grind and be tough and not die in the fourth quarter how we've been,'' Gates said, adding that the linemen were required to do 100-yard bear crawls twice a week in the summer.
The secondary will be the focal point of the defense. Senior Chris Jones, the team's best cornerback, is out with a knee injury. That leaves young corners Lamar Jackson, Decaprio Bootle and Eric Lee Jr. competing for jobs with the No. 1 unit.
Nebraska started practice about a week earlier than usual because of the new NCAA rule that prohibits multiple practices with contact in a single day. The Huskers were in helmets and shorts on Sunday.
''Because of the enthusiasm the first day is at a high, high level, you have to pull them back on the physical part of it,'' Riley said. ''We don't have shoulder pads, so you don't want the big collisions. You have to practice appropriately when you're in the trenches, got to be careful down the field. I still think it's good to break in like this and get a little bit of a foundation before we put more gear on.''
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