LINCOLN — He doesn't have five stars. He will not appear, I suspect, at the top of many “best recruit” lists. Blame that on an injury that took away the last half of his senior season. And blame that, too, on a kid he'll have to battle for four years at Nebraska.
But Johnny Stanton is the most important recruit of Nebraska's 2013 class. He's the quarterback. Quarterbacks shape programs. And the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., can do that. He's big, runs tough, has a nose for the first-down marker and possesses a strong arm (if funky delivery). Until he tore his ACL, he conducted the nation's best high school football team. And he's a natural, come-and-get-it commander.
“He's absolutely the definition of a leader,” said 247Sports national analyst Barton Simmons. “That's a kid you want on your side. He has all the intangibles and toughness you could ever ask for.”
Stanton's journey to Nebraska is well-known. Seen initially as more of an athlete than a quarterback, he embarked on a long summer tour to win scholarship offers as a signal-caller. He did at Wisconsin and Oregon. And he did at NU, where he worked out for offensive coordinator Tim Beck on the same day Beck had another quarterback prospect — Oregon signee Damion Hobbs — on campus.
Because Stanton's camp workout was the same day as Football 202, I happened to be in the building, and I heard buzz about how Stanton had done. He'd thrown well. And Beck said on signing day that he'd wanted to see Stanton's passing a “little bit.”
More than that, though, Beck wanted to meet Stanton, the leader.
“When you're in front of that huddle, you'd better have it all,” Beck said. “You can't have deficiencies there, because, if you do, you're going to be exposed. You're playing quarterback here. With the way the media portrays them — all the pressure that's put on those guys — with what I'm going to ask him to do, the hours they have to put in — they have to be different dudes. And that's what I wanted to see ...
“Despite all the five-star rankings for all those other guys and all the recruiting schools and battling (for players), they'll say 'Well, I'll coach them up.' But you can't coach that. You either got that, or you don't. You can change his mechanics, you can change his delivery, you can teach him how to read some defenses. But if they don't have that factor in them, I haven't seen one yet who can coach that into a guy.”
Every national recruiting analyst I talked to brought up Stanton. They made a point of it, and for good reason: Outside of a few, teams rise and fall on their quarterbacks.
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What's Ohio State without Braxton Miller? 7-5. What's Nebraska last season without Taylor Martinez? Loser to Northwestern and Michigan State, for starters. I'm not real keen on its chances against Penn State, either.
So Stanton heads the list of my top 11 recruits in this class, even if beating out 2012 recruit Tommy Armstrong — who's drawn similar praise from Beck — will be extremely hard to do.
The next 10, in alphabetical order:
» Josh Banderas, linebacker: Upbeat, likable leader who runs fast and loves football. In personality, smarts and toughness, he reminds me of Will Compton — who, let's not forget, started 37 games and finished with 247 career tackles — only with more speed and slightly more size. Those two extras could help Banderas make the plays that Compton couldn't quite make in 2011 and 2012.
» Maliek Collins, defensive tackle: His Kansas City (Mo.) Center highlight film draws a chuckle, because his size and first step so overwhelm the offensive line that Collins busts through and waits for the ball carrier to arrive. If Collins had played in, say, rural Georgia, he'd be close to a five-star prospect, and, well, he wouldn't be going to Nebraska. Steal.
» Tre'vell Dixon, wide receiver: Call it a hunch — if Nebraska's most finicky recruit qualifies and makes it to Lincoln, he'll be a factor. He has big hands, a long stride, and changes directions well when he runs. He gets close to his coaches, so I suspect he'll take to wide receivers coach Rich Fisher or defensive backs coach Terry Joseph. NU waited out his decision process for a reason.
» Nathan Gerry, safety: One of the best athletes in recent South Dakota history, Gerry could play a variety of positions in Bo Pelini's defense. He could easily bulk up to a dime linebacker or he could stick at safety. Bottom line: Gerry can run and hit, so he should get a good, long look on special teams. Sitting someone so physically ready for a year would seem to be a mistake.
» Randy Gregory, defensive end: The Arizona Western transfer is smart and finally aware of his potential. The talent? Well, watch a highlight tape. He's a pouncing bear, the kind of guy who usually hangs out in the SEC. He's a little streaky as a player, but if defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski can channel Gregory's energy into consistent technique and focus, Nebraska will have developed the guy for whom every offense has to account.
» David Knevel, offensive tackle: Athletically, he's terrific, but this Canadian's motivation to be an NFL player sticks out. It would have been easy for the 6-foot-9, 300-pounder to take a slower road to development, but he's been attacking the goal of playing American college football for several years. He wants to get better, and coachability is very important for a lineman.
» Courtney Love, linebacker: When Pelini said Wednesday that the Youngstown Cardinal Mooney product was “way ahead” of where most players are at his age, believe it. Love has freakish strength in his upper body, and it helps him to be a stout, tough middle linebacker. When Mooney coaches compare Love to another Mooney grad — Ohio State defensive end John Simon — you listen. Simon was a three-year starter at Ohio State and a beast. Love could be the same.
» Marcus Newby, linebacker: You hate to ignore whole position groups to add another linebacker, but if there's one defender in this class Charlie McBride would have loved, it's Marcus Newby. Instinctive. Runs laterally well enough to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Good blitzer. Good in coverage.
» Terrell Newby, running back: Sprinter's speed. Every Big Ten team needs more of it. The Los Angeles Chaminade product has it, which makes him a great switch-up option when a defense is gassed. He doesn't lose much momentum running laterally, either; he's able to bounce an inside zone play to the edge. Newby's slightly taller than current starter Ameer Abdullah, but similarly well-built to take hits. Newby was the best all-purpose back I saw on film, period.
» Adam Taylor, running back: The Katy, Texas, star is fixing to play early and often in Lincoln. He's a team guy, but there isn't a lot of backward-lean in Taylor's life. He'll put his 110 percent in, and he expects it of teammates and the coaching staff. If Taylor truly has enough speed to run away from college linebackers — that's a hard thing to measure until he actually does it — he'll be hard to keep off the field. He knows how to run with patience and power. And there's a nasty edge to him.
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>> Video: Bo Pelini at the signing day press conference:
>> Video: NU I-back Terrell Newby discusses signing with the Huskers: