LINCOLN — After a relatively quiet fall on the recruiting front — lots of official visits, not a ton of commits — Nebraska’s football staff hit the road this week to fill in what should be the Huskers’ biggest class since 2008.
Judging by some of the weaknesses in Nebraska’s 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, it’s pretty clear where coaches have to find immediate help: the defensive line.
Those guys could be impact-ready freshmen or, more likely, junior college prospects who can leap over the young guys who didn’t play much in 2012, forcing the Huskers to use senior defensive end Cameron Meredith at defensive tackle.
Here’s my ranking of the top 11 players NU is hunting. Remember, with coaching “silly season” in full swing and a ton recruits reconsidering their early verbal commitments, new names can pop up quickly:
>> Lavon Hooks, 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, defensive tackle, Northeast Mississippi Community College: The most bang for the recruiting effort, Hooks finished with 17 sacks this year. He’s a bull off the edge or in the trenches, a former wide receiver who told Canesport.com he gained a lot of weight in his one year at an Alabama military school, “where all I did was eat peanut butter.”
He’ll visit Miami this week and announce his college decision next week. He took visits to Arizona State, Baylor and Mississippi, too.
>> Elijah Qualls, 6-1, 285, DT/fullback, Petaluma (Calif.) Casa Grande High School: Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski kept after the four-star Washington commit, and there’s good reason: Qualls is an elite athlete for his size, playing running back for his high school team. Good balance, better strength, Qualls has the kind of quick-twitch talent that could help the Huskers immediately. He’d be a big get.
>> Toby Johnson, 6-4, 305, DT, Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College: If not for a torn ACL midway through the year, Johnson would be, for my money, the top defensive prospect — not player, but prospect — in junior college. As it stands, he’s a long shot to be 100 percent healthy next year. The four-star Atlanta native takes a visit to Georgia this weekend. He may commit on the spot. If not, Nebraska is still in it.
>> Kyle Peko, 6-1, 290, DT, Cerritos (Calif.) College: Squat and strong, Peko isn’t as big as some of Nebraska’s other targets, but he plays with a high motor and gets good push off the ball. A mid-range three-star, Peko’s nevertheless a good fit for the Huskers’ two-gap defense. Michigan State is the favorite and biggest challenger, in part because Peko’s cousin, Cincinnati Bengals tackle Domata Peko, played there.
>> Quincy Russell, 6-3, 305, DT, Trinity Valley (Texas) College: He looks the part of a top tackle, but his junior college production has been hot and cold. The four-star former Texas commit appears to have narrowed his choices to NU, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. The Sooners got the last official visit of the three.
>> Ben Bradley, 6-2, 305, DT, Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College: A Tennessee commit, but the Volunteers don’t have a coach. Space-eater. He’ll visit Miami this weekend with Hooks and Devante Bond.
>> Devante Bond, 6-2, 230, defensive end, Sierra (Calif.) Community College: An Eric Martin clone who played his sophomore year as a stand-up pass rusher more than he did as a linebacker. After Martin’s success in certain games this year — Iowa especially — a player like Bond is worth having. He visits Miami this weekend.
“He’s an outstanding athlete,” Sierra coach Jeff Tisdel said. “Great pass rusher. Big-time difference-maker. He’s developed significantly in one year.”
>> Casey Sayles, 6-4, 260, DE, Omaha North: He’s an Ohio commit without an offer from Nebraska. I’d give him one. He’s a late bloomer, strong and worth the scholarship. Tight end or defensive end — he could develop into a nice run-stopper on defense.
>> Kyle Shortridge, 6-2, 270, DT, Loxahatchee (Fla.) Seminole Ridge: He visited early in the season, chose to commit to Purdue and is back on the market. Nebraska’s still interested in the three-star, who to my eyes wasn’t as big as listed. Minnesota’s in play, as is Louisville — where Shortridge visits this week. According to the Palm Beach Post, NU visited Shortridge this week.
>> Maliek Collins, 6-2, 280, DT, Kansas City (Mo.) Center: A skilled wrestler who plays low to the ground, Collins made an official visit to Kansas in mid-November and looks to stay around the Midwest. Nebraska’s the best program that has offered. If the Huskers want a high two-star, I suspect they’ll get him.
>> Jamone Boyd, 6-4, 265, DE, Lee’s Summit (Mo.) West: He’s a physical, impressive four-star with the talent to play early anywhere, but his chances of playing in Division I next year took a considerable hit. He reportedly was confronted at school for suspected marijuana possession, and a school resource officer used a Taser twice to subdue him. Junior college could be a better landing spot.
Newby on the rise
Nebraska running back target Terrell Newby recently got a well-earned bump in the rankings by Rivals.com, which now rates the 5-10, 180-pounder the No. 1 running back in California and the No. 67 player in the country.
I think it’s too low. Newby’s 2,129-yard, 43-touchdown senior season was so eye-popping — with so many different kinds of runs — that I’m not sure there’s a better small back anywhere.
Husker coach Bo Pelini, running backs coach Ron Brown and wide receivers coach Rich Fisher made an in-home visit to Newby this week, which sends a strong early message. UCLA, Washington, Cal and Oregon are the other four teams still in the hunt. This feels like a battle Nebraska can win, given the work it’s put into recruiting Newby.
In my Oct. 25 recruiting column, I listed players committed to Auburn, California and Tennessee who might be worthy Husker targets once those schools fired their coaches.
Since then, NU’s brought in UT commit Bradley for an official visit and offered Cal offensive tackle commit Cameron Hunt this week. And the Huskers flipped stud junior college defensive end Randy Gregory from Purdue when it became clear that coach Danny Hope’s days were numbered.
Bret Bielema’s departure from Wisconsin offers Nebraska a few more opportunities at current Badger commits:
>> Running back Corey Clement: The top-rated commit of the Badgers’ class officially visited Nebraska. Notre Dame was in the mix for the 5-11, 205-pounder as well. Since Clement’s visit, the Huskers have a commit from running back Adam Taylor.
>> Offensive tackle Jackson Keeler: The 6-7, 285-pounder had an NU offer and hails from the Chicago area. The Huskers need offensive tackles. High three-star, but I like him more than that. More, in fact, than any current Nebraska target other than UCLA pledge Christian Morris.
>> Cornerback Sojourn Shelton: The 5-10, 165-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., also had a Husker offer. If Nebraska isn’t able to rope in the similarly sized Dashon Hunt out of California — or current NU commit Jonathan Cook lands the Alabama offer he couldn’t turn down — Shelton is a legitimate option. Shelton told 247Sports he’ll look at Arkansas if Bielema chooses to offer. Mid three-star.
>> Defensive end Chikwe Obasih: The 6-4, 240-pound four-star prospect had interest in Nebraska last spring but never got an offer. If the Huskers don’t end up with Kansas City-area star Boyd, Obasih, a Wisconsin kid, is still out there.
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