LINCOLN — One month ago, Nebraska's chances at top junior college defensive line prospects — a must for the 2013 recruiting class — looked average at best.
Funny what a bye week of scouting and a couple of double-digit comebacks can do.
The Huskers landed Arizona Western College defensive end Randy Gregory — arguably the nation's top juco pass rusher — after the Michigan game.
And though the recruiting game always remains fluid, NU is in good shape with two defensive tackle targets who visited for the Penn State game, with two more targets still to roll through town.
Nebraska wouldn't sign them all, but it might take two or even three. The back seven of the defense is loaded enough with young speed and athleticism — guys like David Santos, Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown — that a grown-up line makes them properly dangerous.
The tackles who visited for Saturday's Penn State game, Quincy Russell and Lavon Hooks, liked NU's atmosphere and schemes.
“You're a celebrity,” Hooks told Huskers Illustrated. “Everybody knows who you are and they treat you good, too.”
Said Russell to Huskers Illustrated: “I could really see myself playing at Nebraska, you know. They've got the same fronts, same scheme. They could teach me a lot to what I already have now. I could see myself playing there.”
Neither Russell nor Hooks responded to World-Herald text messages or phone calls requesting comment.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Hooks had 16.5 sacks for Northeast Mississippi Community College this year. The consensus four-star prospect will visit Baylor, Arizona State and Miami (Fla.).
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NU recruited the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Russell — a four-star with more upside than Hooks but less production at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College — two years ago out of a San Antonio high school. Russell will likely visit Oklahoma and maybe Kansas State.
With Cerritos (Calif.) junior college tackle Kyle Peko — who might be the best of the bunch — potentially coming in for a visit, NU's in good shape for choices.
The top-rated juco tackle, Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College star Toby Johnson, had a tough break, tearing up his knee. But he'll visit Nebraska for the Minnesota game. He's not necessarily a long shot to play next year, but NU knows well enough that guys with hobbled knees — like nose tackle Thad Randle — take time to heal.
A walk-on believer
Without much prompting Monday, NU coach Bo Pelini expounded on the value and virtue of the Huskers' walk-on program, which supplied several starters for the 2012 Nebraska team.
“I've come to really understand how important it is to the people of this state and to the fans,” said Pelini, who admitted he couldn't fully grasp it upon his arrival in 2008. “I think it gives you a big-time edge and an edge we need to use.”
Pelini now seems to get it: Beyond the “two-star-but-five-heart” stuff is a smart development strategy. Nebraska's facilities and life/academic support systems are so integrated, so effective, that it can turn borderline prospects into major contributors. The walk-on program is a good use of the money already in place, just as it was when Boyd Epley's “Husker Power” was so far out in front of most college programs.
Bo wisely mentioned parents willing to pay for their kids' college education, which, to me, seems to be the biggest obstacle in maintaining productivity from walk-ons. But once the tuition bill is paid, it's hard to tell a walk-on from a scholarship player these days. In subtle ways, there was more division during the Bill Callahan era, though the former coach's dismantling of the walk-on program has been exaggerated, considering some of the top walk-ons of Pelini's tenure — Alex Henery, Mike Caputo, Matt O'Hanlon, Austin Cassidy, Lance Thorell, Todd Peterson — were Callahan guys.
The Huskers' scout teams are stronger now, though, and freshman fullback Andy Janovich looks primed to be a long-term starter. With guys like King Frazier, Trey Foster, Brandon Reilly, Sam Foltz and Ryker Fyfe, Nebraska signed its best walk-on class in 2012. It'll be hard-pressed to match that group in 2013.
Big class of 2008
The walk-on program has helped defray some of the cost of a large 2008 scholarship class signed just months after Pelini took the NU job. The Huskers signed 28 players that year. While 13 of them started at some point in their careers, the sheer size of the class prevented Nebraska from signing more than 22 since that year.
“It was such a whirlwind,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck recalled of that time. Beck was hired by Pelini to coach running backs under offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. “We were trying to find areas, places where we could recruit. You had to go out and try to get the best available players who were out there.”
The best player from the 2008 class, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, was a late Pelini/Marvin Sanders find. Starters P.J. Smith, Tim Marlowe, Alonzo Whaley and Ben Cotton — who followed his dad, offensive line coach Barney Cotton — fall under that same category.
Several of the top players from that class — Cameron Meredith, Will Compton, Kyler Reed and Ricky Henry among them — were initially recruited by Callahan. And by redshirting almost the entire class, Pelini didn't address immediate depth problems. He addressed future depth problems. It's not hard to argue that he could have accomplished the same goals by recruiting more guys in 2009 and playing them right away.
But Pelini's actions also created this massive, mature senior class, which has loosened up the coach enough for him to listen to their input. This result points to a larger theme of Pelini's recruiting philosophy: Intangibles get high priority.
Pelini on Monday singled out Marlowe, who played high school football at Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, as an example.
“Obviously I think he has played very good football, represented himself well, but I think the only other offer he had at the time was to Youngstown State,” Pelini said. “I knew a lot about him and took a chance on him. To my mind it wasn't really taking a chance — it was taking a good football player — but a better competitor and a tremendous human being. And that's all part of it.”
Eye on hoops
Quickly on basketball: I applaud Creighton coach Greg McDermott for continuing to build a big-man profile in a guard-driven league by signing 6-foot-9 Zach Hanson and 6-foot-10 Toby Hegner.
But the best in-state player of the 2012 class, Mike Gesell, starts as a freshman at Iowa. He's averaging 11 points and 4.5 assists as point guard. And the best in-state player for the 2013 class, Akoy Agau, just signed with Louisville. Miles had no control over Gesell, but he recruited Agau as hard as he could. And McDermott had a shot at both.
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