LINCOLN — John Garrison knows high school football in Kansas City, having played and coached there and now recruiting the metropolitan area as a University of Nebraska assistant.
It’s a good product with well-coached players, he said, and a decent number of them. Perhaps even a little underrated.
Not by the Nebraska coaching staff, though. And not now, when it has provided three recruits in the Huskers’ last two signing classes and maybe the chance for more in the near future.
“I think that area produces some talented guys,” Garrison said Thursday. “It’s a good place. And it’s in our backyard.”
Although it’s a pipeline that has run hot and cold for Nebraska over the years, the Huskers’ recruiting of Kansas City could potentially be on the upswing with Garrison at work and the success of the last two recruiting cycles.
“There’s good football down there,” NU head coach Bo Pelini said. “We’ve recruited hard down there. Coach Garrison has been down there now and has some ties down there that are going to help us, hopefully, in Kansas City.”
Nebraska on Wednesday signed offensive lineman Zach Hannon from Rockhurst High and defensive tackle Maliek Collins from Center High. A year ago, NU picked up touted linebacker Michael Rose from Rockhurst.
And Pelini also said Wednesday that he believes there’s a “strong year” coming in K.C. and that he already has done some junior recruiting in the area.
Longtime Rockhurst head coach Tony Severino said NU is not only after another of his players, but expects the Huskers to remain a presence in a city that produces roughly 10 to 12 major-college signees every year, plus a few more for smaller Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
“Garrison’s in here and he does a great job,” Severino said. “They do it as well as anybody in this area.
“I’ve got a linebacker next year that’s a perfect fit for Nebraska. If he goes to their camp — and he knows Michael’s enjoying it up there, and he knows Zach’s excited to go up there — who knows? It goes in cycles. There was a time we were sending a kid every year to Oklahoma back in the ’80s.”
Cyclical is maybe a good way to describe Nebraska’s fortunes in Kansas City over the years.
The trio of recent recruits follows Kyler Reed (Shawnee, Kan.) signing in 2008 and finishing his career last season as one of the Huskers’ all-time most productive tight ends.
Between the careers of Reed and Garrison, however, the only notable contributions by Kansas City recruits came from linebackers Blake Lawrence (Shawnee Mission, Kan.) and Lance Brandenburgh (Overland Park, Kan.). Brandon Kinnie (Kansas City, Mo.) played with Reed for three seasons, but NU recruited the receiver out of Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College.
To be fair, the Huskers also had current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman committed for their 2006 class before he backed out and went to Kansas State.
NU benefited almost immediately from signing Garrison (Blue Springs, Mo.) in 1999. Although recruited as a defensive end, he handled the Huskers’ long snapping chores as a true freshman and went on to be a two-year starter at center.
Before Garrison, the Huskers had basically gone through the 1990s without any huge scores with Kansas City-area prospects other than maybe rush end J.P. Wichmann (Shawnee, Kan.). During that time, NU did thrive around other parts of Missouri by getting recruits such as Grant and Tracey Wistrom (Webb City), Steve Warren (Springfield), Mike Rucker (St. Joseph) and Dan Alexander (Wentzville).
Garrison returned home as a Blue Springs High assistant coach from 2005 through ’07. He then spent three seasons as an intern at NU before becoming a full-time assistant in 2011.
His years in Kansas City have helped him develop some relationships that he realizes take a little longer in his other recruiting haunts.
“There’s very few schools that I go into that I don’t know somebody from somewhere,” Garrison said. “There’s so many guys that I either worked with or coached against or played against. It definitely helps.”
NU recruiting coordinator Ross Els said the Huskers’ philosophy remains the same. The No. 1 priority is still Nebraska, followed by other spots within a 500-mile radius, “and then we’ll scatter all over the country.”
Nebraska doesn’t necessarily funnel more resources into Kansas City, Els said, it just happens to be the closest of the other major cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Denver and Indianapolis that Els said “we need to win in.” In addition to Garrison, NU hit Kansas City recently with assistants Barney Cotton and Rick Kaczenski because of “position recruiting” with Hannon and Collins, respectively.
“At the end of the day, the closer we can stay to home base, the easier it’s going to be for us and the better off we’re going to be,” Pelini said. “Every year is a little bit different and we have to go find the kids we feel can help us win a championship.”
Nebraska had some of its best success in Kansas City in the 1980s, feeding Tom Osborne rosters with such contributors as Neil Harris, Chris Spachman, Brad Tyrer, Tom Banderas and Lorenzo Hicks. Kansas City native Bruce Pickens, who came to NU from Coffeyville (Kan.) CC, was the No. 3 pick in the 1991 NFL draft after his three-year Husker career.
In the 1970s, among those who came up Interstate 29 were fullback Bill Olds and tight end Phil Harvey from the national championship teams, followed by quarterback Earl Everett.
It’s not easy pickings, by any means, with Missouri, Kansas State and Kansas all within short drives of Kansas City. Severino said Oklahoma State and Iowa State used to hit the metropolitan area hard but aren’t as big of factors anymore.
Garrison said he’s also seen some Southeastern Conference schools starting to infiltrate Kansas City now that Missouri has jumped from the Big 12 to the SEC.
“Obviously when Nebraska was Big Eight/Big 12 they used to recruit in here fairly heavily,” said Severino, in his 30th year at Rockhurst. “But there were days before Missouri was pretty good, before K-State became pretty good. … KU still has a long way to go, but they’re a viable recruiter because this is a KU town.
“It used to be if all three schools were down, that was the time when you could come in here and get kids. You could get maybe four or five kids that you can’t get today because both of those programs (Missouri, Kansas State) are competitive.”
Garrison said Nebraska will continue to offer three or four Kansas City prospects each recruiting cycle, depending on the talent level.
“The advantage for us is that it’s the nearest major city other than Omaha that’s going to supply you with the opportunity and numbers right there in your backyard,” he said.
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