LINCOLN — It’s been one year since Nebraska’s 2012 class fell completely apart.
Wait. You don’t remember when Florida Atlantic hired Carl Pelini as its head coach? When Pelini — who’s only responsible for recruiting quarterback Taylor Martinez, linebacker Lavonte David and safety Daimion Stafford — took his connections and junior college relationships to Boca Raton?
So what’s with the uproar over graduate assistant Vince Marrow’s departure to Kentucky? Husker fan sites lit up like a Union Pacific dispatch board with criticism that coach Bo Pelini couldn’t find a spot for Marrow. For Bo to find that spot would have meant dumping one of his current assistants, all under the approval of a new athletic director, 20 days before a bowl game.
Not gonna happen. That’s why Bo recommended Marrow for the job at Kentucky.
Marrow was a helpful — not crucial — addition to Nebraska’s recruiting efforts.
He’d been out on the road for NU in place of offensive line coach Barney Cotton, who continues to rehab from surgery. He knew a lot of guys at the right schools in Ohio. But so did Carl Pelini. And so do Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The Pelini name, Nebraska brand and Big Ten affiliation are what get the Huskers into Ohio living rooms. Outside of recent commit Antoine Miles — I’ll get to him in a minute — I expect all other Ohio commits to stick with NU.
Michigan’s completely flipped coaching staffs twice since 2007. The Wolverines were still getting Ohio recruits throughout those two transitions.
Where Marrow’s departure could sting is in the recruitment of junior college tight end Beau Sandland, who’d developed a strong relationship with Marrow.
Recruiting sites hit up the Los Angeles prospect roughly one hour after Marrow’s departure had become official; the 6-foot-6, 250-pound four-star was predictably disappointed. With Beck heading in for a visit Thursday, Sandland — who had meticulously whittled his list of schools from 30 to 10 to five to three — still had NU in the running with Miami and Arizona State.
“I just can’t let one person leaving ruin everything,” Sandland told me. “But Coach Marrow leaving does kind of put a damper on it.”
Sandland didn’t expect the Huskers to have their tight ends coach in place by the time he announces his decision Wednesday, the first day junior college prospects can sign with schools. Sandland called Marrow one of the best tight ends coaches in college football. The kid should know NU has another in running backs coach Ron Brown.
And it’d be safe not to consider Miles as a commit right now, either. Marrow offered the Canton (Ohio) McKinley defensive end prospect on Dec. 7, and Miles accepted the offer on the spot, planning to make his official visit to NU’s campus Friday.
Miles confirmed he canceled that visit. No other Nebraska coaches had contacted Miles as of Wednesday night, which may mean the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder doesn’t have a commitable offer to the school. Even though he told Miles he might be leaving for Kentucky, Marrow frankly may have jumped the gun on accepting Miles’ commitment.
Miles said via text Wednesday night that he still considers himself committed to the Huskers but is now “very open” to other schools, including Kentucky. Nebraska will likely want to see Miles in person before cementing the pledge.
When I crafted my list of 11 defensive line targets last week, I was well aware of Miles. Between Miles and Omaha North’s Casey Sayles — another end prospect who could grow into a tackle if a team so desired — I chose the local product for the ranking. I almost always will. Same as I would choose 2012 signee Sam Cotton over a three-star tight end prospect from Ohio. I think there’s an additional value to offering the local kid a scholarship over having them earn it through walking on.
That’s not to knock Nebraska’s recruiting efforts in Ohio. Getting Cleveland Heights four-star wide receiver Shelton Gibson for a potential visit would be a nice coup. But I’ll harp, repeatedly, on broader Midwestern recruiting.
The No. 1 pass rusher in the NFL, Aldon Smith, was a three-star prospect from Raytown, Mo. The No. 2 pass rusher, J.J. Watt, was a two-star prospect from Pewaukee, Wis.
You can win recruiting battles in Florida, Georgia, Texas, California and the rest. But Nebraska doesn’t play one Big Ten team a year. It plays in the Big Ten. And to win it consistently, don’t kid yourself: You’ll need Big Ten players. (And, as I pointed out in a Dec. 3 column, an expensive, well-trained coaching staff).
If a Nebraska fan wanted to be concerned about some aspect of the Huskers’ recruiting, they’d do better to direct their attention away from Marrow’s departure and across the river to Council Bluffs, where the nation’s best junior college program, Iowa Western, held an announcement gala Thursday morning.
NU wasn’t in the running for any of those prospects, even though Kansas State defensive end commit Devon Nash prepped at Lincoln East, KSU safety commit Travis Green played at Omaha North and Wildcat quarterback commit Jake Waters played at Council Bluffs St. Albert.
Unlike Bill Snyder, the Huskers haven’t made recruiting IWCC much of a priority yet. They should. Especially when Waters — a savvy and accurate signal caller — wins the KSU starting job and makes the Wildcats Big 12 favorites for a second straight year. Especially when Nash, a hometown kid at a position of need, doesn’t get a sniff from the Big Red. Especially when Green is a good enough athlete for the Big 12.
Alabama continues to be a figurative threat for Nebraska commit Jonathan Cook and perhaps a literal one for Nebraska offensive line target David Knevel.
Cook, the Spanish Fort, Ala., star, recently helped his team win the 5A state title with a sack, a forced fumble and a 25-yard touchdown catch. Cook — who I still rate as NU’s best committed prospect (though not most important; that’s Johnny Stanton) — is still looking for an offer from Alabama, or perhaps even Auburn, where Gus Malzahn, who offered Cook at Arkansas State, is the new head coach.
“I want to play in the SEC,” Cook told AuburnSports.com earlier this week. “That’s where the hard-nosed athletes are at. The SEC.”
Recruiting sites haven’t quite warmed to Cook. Not sure why. Could be the result of an on-field brawl Cook got in during his junior year, which led to a suspension. No matter. He’s close to a top-100 player.
Knevel — the 6-8, 290-pound four-star from Brantford, Ontario — got an offer from Alabama during his official visit Dec. 7. Though 2013 NU commit Josh Banderas said on Twitter that Knevel would be a Husker, Knevel told me in an email that he wouldn’t announce his decision until Tuesday. It’s looking like a Husker coup, mind you, but we’ll wait for the official word.
The Crimson Tide have four offensive line commits right now; Nebraska has three. Gabriel Miller will be a long-snapper. Zach Hannon and Dan Samuelson project to guard. The Huskers are in sore need of tackle prospects. That’s why NU’s offered College of DuPage giant Matt Finnin.
At 6-8, 305 pounds, the suburban Chicago tackle has an eclectic top five of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Marshall, Kansas and Maryland. Because of health issues with his father, Finnin is on his fourth school, moving from Western Michigan to Eastern Illinois to Prairie State College to DuPage. That’s why Finnin, DuPage coach Gary Thomas said, is looking for a place where he best fits with the coaches and wants to go to school. KU, 1-11 last year, might be in as good of shape as any school.
“He’s big, lean, flat stomach, runs like a deer,” Thomas said of Finnin. “Freak of an athlete.”
Thomas said Finnin needs to work on his “core strength” — which aids in getting low on smaller, quicker defenders and driving them back.
Three of the past four junior college offensive linemen who signed with Nebraska — Ricky Henry, Yoshi Hardrick and Carl Nicks — have been long-term starters for the Huskers. The fourth was 2006 signee Victory Haines.
Speaking of junior college, NU has another at defensive end: City College of San Francisco’s Chris Martin. A five-star prospect out of Aurora, Colo., in 2010, the 6-5, 265-pounder originally committed to Notre Dame, signed to California after ND fired Charlie Weis, transferred to Florida after a redshirt year at Cal, then transferred to Navarro (Texas) Junior College after a year at Florida, and left Navarro for City College.
The Huskers have ties to City College through former quarterback Zac Lee and former defensive back DeJon Gomes, and perhaps more pertinent, the ambition to offer just about anybody who they think can help in 2013. Look: What happened in the Big Ten championship — the players Rick Kaczenski was forced to play against Wisconsin for the length he was forced to play them — shouldn’t happen to a top-20 football team. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it is a problem.
Five big pieces
Nebraska’s hustled on the recruiting trail for two solid weeks. Regardless of any Arkansas or Tennessee rumors, Bo Pelini’s been plane-hopping, getting everywhere he can. His latest in-home visit was Wednesday night with five-star junior college defensive tackle Lavon Hooks. You can’t fault Pelini’s effort; he plunges himself into it, even if it’s harder from a travel perspective than it would be in the South.
NU’s class remains up in the air. I could see, with the right pieces and a willingness to go above 25 signees, a top-15 class. And I can see the class slipping into the 30s. Only Ohio State and Michigan will have elite top-10 classes — the Wolverines’ class is a little overrated — and the Huskers can easily have the No. 3 class in the Big Ten. Here’s five pieces to make that happen:
>> Hooks: The explosive, late-blooming freak from Northeastern Mississippi Community College could be an all-conference tackle for the Huskers.
>> Quincy Russell: Another junior college defensive tackle, Russell has the size, athleticism and smarts to surpass Hooks in potential. Russell hasn’t quite put it on film yet.
>> Terrell Newby: The four-star running back out of Los Angeles is a combination of Ameer Abdullah and Jamal Turner. Good moves, tough, fast, confident.
>> Priest Willis: The five-star defensive back from Tempe, Ariz., could be a safety or a cornerback. Mostly, he’s an “eraser” athlete who can make up for tactical error with sheer athleticism. If you put Willis, Cook and Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose side by side, they’re all roughly the same size and length. That’s one impressive secondary for years to come.
>> Dominic Walker: The big-bodied three-star wide receiver from Orlando flashes good physicality. He doesn’t have to contribute immediately and he can take a year to grow into Rich Fisher’s system.
Nebraska feels good about its 2013 linebacker commits and remains in the hunt for several safety targets, so it’s hard to see McCook’s Jake Schlager getting an offer.
He holds them from North Dakota State — former NU assistant Craig Bohl’s team is in the Division I FCS semifinals — South Dakota State and a few others. He took a visit to Colorado State in November, but doesn’t have an offer there yet.
Interesting to note: North Dakota State beat Colorado State 22-7 this year.
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