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The business of covering college football has changed. And if Friday's roundtable sessions at Big Ten media days are any indication, it's tilted heavily toward recruiting.
Recruiting wonks flood the ballroom in search of a choice quote on roster-building. What coaches generally deliver are complaints about how the recruiting clock has sped up and kids are committing faster than ever. (Yes, they are. Because coaches are pressuring them to do it.)
Although he once reacted to recruiting questions like pass interference penalties, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is now comfortable on the topic. His take is consistent: It's hard to sell top prospects who live far away on picking Nebraska over programs closer to home.
“Let's face it: We're not going to get as many guys that are ‘ready-made,' ” Pelini said. “It's hard to get some D-lineman who's 6-2Ĺ, 320 and can run like the wind. Let's face it: There are a lot of times that guy isn't going to get on a plane and fly across the country to play. He's going to stay home.
“We have to turn over every rock. In this class, we're going to sign 25 guys, and you got to go to a lot of places to get that done. So you've got to turn over every rock.”
In this area of national recruiting, Bo knows. He's right. You don't want to hear it. But he's right.
Despite all of the tradition, it's always been hard to attract top national recruits to Nebraska. You can get them. It's just not easy. It gets harder when you're not winning conference titles.
After a sluggish start to recruiting in his first two years — when his staff said yes to too many marginal prospects — the Huskers shifted into a better recruiting gear. They consistently identify the best junior college talent. They're offering the right kids in California and SEC country. They're not overdoing it in Texas, and the best players they've signed there in recent years — David Santos, Jamal Turner, Charles Jackson and Tommy Armstrong — are top-shelf athletes.
Recruiting coordinator Ross Els — whom Pelini said he sometimes calls “Rain Man” for his organizational acumen — put together the Big Red Weekend this summer. NU even tried to lure NBA star LeBron James for a mock official visit last fall. Pelini's staff is young, hungry and talkative. Nebraska's in the recruiting game.
But, nationally, it's still hard. Why? Because North Carolina, Texas A&M and UCLA — all in recruiting hotbeds — are selling a new vision every four years, which means new, bold promises. Because Washington is selling immediate playing time for a team two-thirds as good. Because Ole Miss — on its fifth head coach in 15 years — is selling the SEC, even as it stands no chance of winning the league.
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The Rebels are currently the top choice for a recent Husker cornerback offer, Jonathan Cook, who's from Spanish Fort, Ala., across the bay from Mobile. Deep South. That's full-blood SEC country; you can get to five SEC states in four hours. It'll be a tough pull. Always.
The point: To win the Big Ten, you have to win the best players right here, this region. Learn, over time, exactly where and how Iowa and Wisconsin grow those NFL offensive linemen, and how to crack the recruiting code in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit. It means selling even harder in the states surrounding Nebraska — especially Kansas, Missouri and Colorado — where Husker football isn't a mystery to anyone.
NU's best offensive lineman is a walk-on from Elkhorn. Its best defensive lineman is from Lincoln Southwest. The best linebacker? Rural Missouri. Its two NFL-caliber tight ends are from Ames, Iowa, and metro Kansas City.
It's not some secret. Get the best local beef. Nebraska just needs more of it.
As hard as Bo and Co. work to turn over every rock nationally, the program's fortunes will rise and fall on what they do within 500 miles of North Stadium.
Going juco on D-line
While Pelini touted his young, apparently healthy defensive line at Big Ten media days, his staff continues to hunt for junior college prospects. You don't offer them unless you want immediate help.
The latest offer is, in fact, an old one: Quincy Russell, a 6-foot-3, 305-pounder who picked Texas over NU out of high school in 2011 before grades forced him to Trinity Valley Community College. He attended the 2010 Husker spring game and may return for an official visit this fall.
“That's a school at Nebraska where you get all the focus,” Russell told Huskers Illustrated, a World-Herald partner. “The fans are behind you, the community is behind you and the atmosphere is great. They care a lot about the game and how a person plays.”
Originally from San Antonio, Russell was one of NU's top tackle targets in 2011. He gets up the field fast without surrendering his leverage; Pelini's two-gap defense needs quick tackles who disrupt plays without getting gapped out of plays by clever linemen.
Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College's Toby Johnson remains high on Nebraska's list, while NU has now offered Riverside (Calif.) Community College defensive tackle Charlie Tua'au, who's a soft commit to Hawaii; 2012 NU signee Zaire Anderson is Tua'au's former teammate.
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None of them appears to be a natural pass rusher. Those guys are rare, and they usually play end. That describes 2013 high school targets Joe Mathis (Upland, Calif.) and Kendell Beckwith (Jackson, La.). Beckwith is choosing between LSU and Alabama and is not likely to visit Nebraska.
A short-term hit
There's a been a significant — and good — upgrade to 247Sports team and player rankings, even if Nebraska's class takes a hit in the short term.
The World-Herald's recruiting partner will use a composite ranking that takes 247's rating and the rankings of other major recruiting services and runs them through a “Gaussian algorithm” for probability.
The composite rankings guard against one analyst having a significant grudge against a player — or a crush. But the new rankings also tab Youngstown Cardinal Mooney safety Marcus McWilson as NU's top recruit. College Station (Texas)/Lincoln Southwest defensive end Christian Lacouture is No. 2. My top prospect, Lincoln Southwest linebacker Josh Banderas, is No. 4.
Moreover, the Huskers' class drops to No. 33 overall, behind Penn State (No. 24) and Iowa (No. 28). Northwestern is No. 34. Wisconsin is No. 36. Michigan is No. 2. Ohio State is No. 5.
Fans startled to see the Wildcats so close to Nebraska should remember Northwestern has three more commits.
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