• Video Below: Johnny Stanton's game highlights
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LINCOLN — Johnny Stanton arrived a half-hour late to the most important audition of his young life.
He was in the midst of a nationwide summer tour to land college quarterback offers. Nebraska made his visit list. But the commute from Omaha — where his family had stayed overnight — perhaps took longer than Stanton had expected. So the 6-foot-2 220-pounder arrived as the rest of the high school guys in NU's Elite Quarterback Academy were already stretching.
“I was worried it'd be a big deal,” Stanton said.
Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck clearly didn't think so. He whisked Stanton inside the Hawks Championship Center for a one-on-one tutorial, putting the Santa Margarita (Calif.) Catholic star through a series of drills and passes to graduate assistants and interns. Beck liked what he saw, and 24 hours later, he'd extended Stanton an offer.
“I think I threw it pretty well,” Stanton said.
I happened to be in North Stadium — covering Football 202 — the day Stanton worked out. You could sense a buzz about the kid's performance. NU had been striking out with its top quarterback prospects, and Stanton, a bit off the radar, shot up the priority chart.
Two weeks later, Stanton made a return unofficial visit to campus.
Two weeks after that, he committed to the Huskers over Oregon and Wisconsin, two teams with Rose Bowl pedigrees.
“Nebraska's the best fit for everything,” Stanton said.
And two weeks after that, Stanton impressed enough ESPN analysts to win one of the Elite 11 spots in ESPN and Nike's quarterback camp. Now he's quarterbacking the nation's No. 1 or No. 2 high school team — depending on which ranking you prefer — behind a giant, physical offensive line. And his stats through four games — 815 yards passing, close to 300 rushing and 14 total touchdowns — project to one of those eye-popping seasons that's hard to ignore.
“He puts people on his shoulders, and they follow,” Santa Margarita coach Harry Welch said.
Like the more than 150 Nebraska fans — decked in red, of course — who attended Santa Margarita's 55-0 win over Trabuco Hills on Sept. 7. They were soon to be disappointed by NU's 36-30 loss to UCLA one day later, but that Friday night, Stanton dazzled them.
On his 18th birthday, Stanton threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns. He stayed after to answer any questions the visiting Nebraska media had for him.
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The Huskers have had their share of high-profile quarterback commits — Curt Dukes, Harrison Beck, Cody Green, Jamal Turner and Bubba Starling — in the past decade. Aside from Starling, whose gifts in three sports put him in a different stratosphere of hype, Stanton could be the biggest story among them. He broke Carson Palmer's Santa Margarita record for total yards. His physical running style and tough-minded leadership earn comparisons to Tim Tebow.
And yet not every recruiting service or scout is sold. That's common with any recruit. But Stanton's whirlwind summer — it's hard to even get invited to the Elite 11 event, much less get one of the top spots in it — should have left him a consensus four-star, perhaps pushing for a fifth. He wins. He puts up big numbers. He has, by all accounts, the character piece coaches crave. He had offers from Oregon and Wisconsin, two of the nation's best offenses for the past two years. What's the missing piece?
“He's not a polished passer,” said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell, who still has Stanton as a three-star prospect — a high three-star, but a three-star nonetheless. It's Farrell who's become the target of a lot of Nebraska fans' ire over Stanton's No. 14 ranking as a dual-threat quarterback. And it's Farrell who rated Stanton 22nd out of 25 quarterbacks at the Elite 11 camp.
“We got a ton of grief,” he said of feedback from NU fans.
Farrell wrote then and says now that he graded Stanton and the rest of the quarterbacks on their passes in the open workouts. Not on all of the classroom/off-the-field tidbits that ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer and his team takes into consideration when picking the Elite 11.
And Stanton might “make the most beautiful throw you've ever seen on one play, and on the next he'll push the ball,” Farrell said. Farrell added that Stanton is a tough runner, a good decision-maker and a “great stylistic fit for Nebraska.” But pro-style perfect? No.
“If he were to go to USC, he wouldn't sniff the field,” Farrell said.
So what? Does every team need to run the Trojans' offense? In a West Coast offense beauty pageant, Robert Griffin III may not have beaten out Matt Barkley for anything except, you know, the Heisman Trophy. And Griffin did enough in a shotgun spread offense at Baylor to impress the stodgiest West Coast offense proponent of them all, Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.
I'm not putting Stanton in Griffin's class of athletic passer, but to illustrate a point: In 2008, Rivals ranked Griffin behind Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. Partially projecting quarterbacks on what the NFL might think of them in three or four years — and Farrell said he and other analysts take this pro potential into account — is extraneous to their actual value in college football and presumptive that the NFL won't ever change. I'm pretty sure it has.
“On QBs, we're as right as we are wrong and as wrong as we are right,” Farrell concedes, adding that Rivals and other scouting services project to college first. It's hard to project maturity, intangibles, fit and the unpredictable nature of college football offenses.
Farrell points to Michigan. When Rich Rodriguez was coach, he intended Devin Gardner — the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2010 — to run a spread-option offense suited to his talents. When UM fired Rodriguez, new coach Brady Hoke instructed offensive coordinator Al Borges to install a pro-style offense. Now Gardner's at wide receiver, and 2012 commit Shane Morris — a hot-and-cold big-armed talent whom Rivals has rated as a five-star — is now the model quarterback.
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Stanton's take on all this?
“I try not to listen to it,” he said.
Good idea there. Already there's outsized expectations for what Stanton could do once in Lincoln. In 2005, Beck faced that pressure — then-coach Bill Callahan did little to dissuade it, either — and left the program one year later. Dukes wilted under it in 2002. Stanton will be smart just to keep his head down and compete with Tommy Armstrong for a backup job next year. After all, several recruiting sites underrated Armstrong, too.
Offensive tackles making official visits
The official visit count for next weekend is 16, including offensive tackle prospects Christian Morris and Kenny Lacy. Both committed to UCLA earlier this year.
Tyler Moore's departure made tackle Nebraska's biggest need for the 2013 class; Morris and Lacy are near the top of NU's hot list, so to speak. Can the Huskers' game-day atmosphere win them over? It was a beautiful night for a Bruin win in the Rose Bowl two weeks ago. Nebraska has to surpass that experience Sept. 29.
Morris, from Memphis, Tenn., may be the easier pull. Secondary coach Terry Joseph is the regional point man there.
The other intriguing offensive tackle visitor for the Wisconsin game is Brantford, Ontario, giant David Knevel. The 6-foot-8, 290-pounder is a four-star prospect according to 247Sports and plans additional visits to Purdue and Toledo. But Wisconsin, Missouri and Washington State have offered, too.
Projection for NU recruit Cook heats up
A Husker commit made a big move in 247's rankings. Spanish Fort, Ala., cornerback Johnathan Cook earned a fourth star and rose to the No. 204 player in the country. That improved NU's class to 27th according to 247Sports' Composite ranking. Rivals has Nebraska ranked No. 29. Scout ranks the Huskers No. 21.
Contact the writer:
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Correction: Nebraska receivers coach Rich Fisher and his family were not at quarterback recruit Johnny Stanton’s high school football game on Sept. 7 in California. An earlier version of this story had incorrect information.
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• Video: See recruit Johnny Stanton's game highlights (Sept. 7):
• Video: This week's edition of "The Big Red Today Show":
• Video: Husker football practice (Tuesday, Sept. 18):