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Language of new offense a barrier Riley's Huskers must overcome in spring football practice

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — New Nebraska football coach Mike Riley started building the foundation for the Cornhuskers future on Saturday. He also spent some of the first spring practice acknowledging the program's past.

Riley split the team into two groups for separate 90-minute workouts so he could better evaluate the personnel he inherited from former coach Bo Pelini.

"I liked the enthusiasm for the work as much as anything," Riley said. "Some of it looked a little bit like football from time to time, and we'll keep working on that part."

The biggest change is the move from a multiple spread offense to a pro-style system. Riley said the execution was about as good as he could have hoped for on a first day.

"The hardest thing for guys right now is that it's a new language," he said. "Most of the things we did today in some form they've done in their football life. But it was probably called something different."

Running back Imani Cross said transferring plays from the playbook to the field was a challenge.

"Learning was a major part of practice today," he said. "They gave us our playbooks two weeks ago, so they expected us to know our assignments today. Some guys did good at that, some not so well. We have to keep improving."

It helped that Riley split the team, Cross said, because it allowed for more individual coaching.

PHOTO: Nebraska head coach Mike Riley, center, follows drills as he stands between Kenny Wilhite, assistant director of player personnel, left, and Ryan Gunderson, director of player personnel, right, on the first day of spring NCAA college football practice in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska head coach Mike Riley, center, follows drills as he stands between Kenny Wilhite, assistant director of player personnel, left, and Ryan Gunderson, director of player personnel, right, on the first day of spring NCAA college football practice in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

"Everybody's getting the rust off, and we took a good first step," Cross said. "Things are totally different. It's a new style, but I think it's beneficial to what we're trying to get done this year."

The Huskers were 9-4 in Pelini's last season, with a Holiday Bowl loss to Southern California. Nebraska has lost no fewer than four games in a season since 2003 and hasn't won a conference championship since 1999.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. returns at quarterback, and he will be the presumptive starter heading into the fall. Cross is among the running backs vying to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Defensive end Randy Gregory, a projected high first-round draft pick, is the biggest loss on the defense.

Riley said his first spring practice will set the tone for his time at Nebraska.

"I've told the coaches continually that we have this one chance to make a first impression about how we're going to coach, how we're going to teach, how we're going to build this team," he said. "It's a really important day to start establishing (how) we help these players learn and grow and have a team that can win games."

The 61-year-old Riley said he and his assistants have a deep appreciation for the Huskers' past, which includes winning five national championships. Riley had lunch with College Football Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne a couple weeks ago to discuss the culture of the program he led to three of those titles.

A good number of former players were on hand for Saturday's practice. At one point, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh called over 1980s-era All-American Mark Traynowicz and All-Big Eight lineman Harry Grimminger to introduce themselves to the current linemen. Milt Tenopir, the longtime line coach under Osborne, also made an appearance, as did former players Rex Burkhead and Will Compton.

"We understand and really are excited about the history here," Riley said. "That's an understatement. To get to meet some of these guys, and for them to come watch the opening day of practice, is pretty special for us."

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PHOTO: Nebraska head coach Mike Riley, center, follows drills as he stands between Kenny Wilhite, assistant director of player personnel, left, and Ryan Gunderson, director of player personnel, right, on the first day of spring NCAA college football practice in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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