LINCOLN — As the spring evaluation period arrives Monday for college football coaches, Nebraska continues its annual hunt for a signal caller.
Yes, in the first of many recruiting columns over the spring and summer months, we'll spotlight the quarterback position, where the Huskers lose four-year starter Taylor Martinez after 2013.
It's the position you're smart to recruit every year whether you think you need one or not. Quarterbacks get hurt. Quarterbacks leave for other schools. That Martinez has stayed upright for two straight years without missing a play of consequence in a run-heavy offense is a bit amazing. And uncommon.
Husker offensive coordinator Tim Beck often uses part of his evaluation period, which runs April 15 to May 31, to scout and offer prospects. He narrowed in on Tommy Armstrong in the spring of 2011. Johnny Stanton came into focus over the spring and summer of 2012. One of NU's 2014 offers, Darius Wade, committed to Boston College after visiting Lincoln. Another, Bossier City, La., stud Brandon Harris, just got an offer from LSU. He's supposed to visit Baton Rouge this weekend.
Who's next in the pecking order? Perhaps Apopka (Fla.) quarterback Zack Darlington, who won a Florida 8A state title playing for his dad, Rick, whose affinity for NU gives the Huskers a small edge in the recruiting process. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder got an offer from Nebraska in March.
Rick Darlington, who is 108-30 at Apopka and spent three years at high school powerhouse Valdosta (Ga.), said he's a lifelong Nebraska fan. He grew up in New Jersey watching Husker games on TV. He paid more attention after Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee star Tommie Frazier, whom Darlington coached against in high school, signed with NU and won two national championships there.
“But Scott Frost was our favorite guy,” Rick said.
Frost and Zack bear a bit of a resemblance. It's the blond hair. Rick also liked the option, and how Tom Osborne orchestrated it. Now, he likes the way NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck runs the spread option game. He and Zack record Husker games and dissect them later for ideas.
“Coach Beck's very creative,” Rick Darlington said. “He runs more quarterback read plays than most coaches do.”
Watch Zack in highlight films. Apopka's and Nebraska's offenses could be twins. The same kinds of zone read runs — and play-action passes off those looks. The same attacks of the defense down the seam. The same tunnel and bubble screens. Zack threw for 1,725 yards and 19 touchdowns and ran for 708 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's not Taylor Martinez as a runner, but he's bulky enough to take hits — Zack's brother, Ty, is a center at Oklahoma — and fast enough to run 4.57 and 4.59 40-yard dash times, Rick said.
Zack's attracted offers from spread schools like Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Ole Miss, Arizona and North Carolina State. The Hokies, Mountaineers and Wildcats are recruiting Zack the hardest. NU, Rick said, is somewhere in the middle.
“But every time Zack talks to Coach Beck, he feels good about it,” Rick said.
At least four more spread offenses — Auburn, Baylor, Ohio State and Tennessee — are coming to evaluate Zack's throwing ability this spring.
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Rick said he wants his son to hopefully decide before Apopka's 2013 season starts. In other words, before Zack could take any official visits in the fall. That means Rick and Zack will be paying their own way for unofficial visits this summer. A trip to Nebraska, he said, is $1,500. Not a cinch, especially when there are more visits to make.
If NCAA members not in recruiting hotbeds don't press harder for allowing official visits in the spring and summer soon, Nebraska will continue to be at a disadvantage. The Huskers insist the on-campus visit is the clincher for recruits. Few of them have the financial ability to take a national tour of colleges in the summer.
Still, Rick said he and Zack will make the trip to Nebraska this summer. He's never seen Memorial Stadium, nor the Brook Berringer statue nor any of the things an NU fan would find special.
“We may get on the train like a bunch of hobos,” Rick Darlington joked, “but we'll be there.”
Beck is likely to offer a few more quarterbacks during the evaluation period, but I suspect Darlington — who visits West Virginia on an unofficial this weekend — remains in the mix until he decides.
Around the league
A couple notes from inside the Big Ten:
>> Ohio State leads the conference with seven commits — five in-state prospects — with the best player coming from Detroit Cass Technical High School. Damon Webb is an aggressive, two-way athlete who projects as a stick-'em cornerback.
The Buckeyes are playing their spring game in Cincinnati's NFL stadium, with Ohio Stadium undergoing “concrete resurfacing.” It's notable that coach Urban Meyer chose to hold the game in Cincy rather than Cleveland, which is equidistant and full of rabid Buckeye fans.
It's harder for OSU to get top players out of Cincinnati. The Bearcats are there, obviously. Louisville and Kentucky — 90 minutes away — hit the region, as does Notre Dame, in part because it's Brian Kelly's old stomping grounds and in part because former coach Gerry Faust was a Cincinnati Catholic school legend.
“I wasn't here in years past, but I heard a lot that we'd never done well in Cincinnati,” Meyer told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I think we're doing great. I think we're killing it.”
>> Four of the top five consensus players in Iowa have already committed — three to Iowa, one to Iowa State. The fifth, Cedar Rapids tight end/defensive end Matt Nelson, has Iowa, Iowa State, Notre Dame and Stanford as his top group. Four of the top 10 in Missouri have committed, with two of the remaining six — Lee's Summit wide receiver Monte Harrison and linebacker Jimmie Swain — showing strong interest in NU.
>> Look for new coaches Gary Andersen (Wisconsin) and Darrell Hazell (Purdue) to sign relatively large, “regime change” classes in their first full recruiting cycle.
Both have the advantage of knowing what they want on offense and defense; both were head coaches at previous spots.
Andersen will tweak the Badgers' power offense to include more spread offense principles but still build it around the offensive line and tight ends.
The defense is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so UW will focus on recruiting more outside linebackers, Andersen said, than defensive linemen.
A closer look at local prospects and cornerbacks on Nebraska's radar.
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