LINCOLN — Since it was on the lips of several Husker fans on Sunday, here's some straight talk about the NFL selecting just two Nebraska football players in the 2013 draft, NU's worst performance since 1969.
It's a disappointment, but it shouldn't be a surprise or even much of a frustration. Yes, it's a big senior class. Yes, coach Bo Pelini trumpeted its classroom performance and character.
But it was a group pummeled by injuries for five years. They were recruited for one conference, and at least the defensive players got partially exposed in another. Most of them had multiple position coaches. Daimion Stafford — who might have been drafted by the Titans on potential, not polish — had two very different coaches in two years. Baker Steinkuhler had three in five. Eric Martin, playing linebacker and defensive end, had four coaches in four years.
And perhaps most important, this senior class, from a raw talent perspective, does not compare to the 2009 or 2010 senior classes, comprised mostly of Bill Callahan recruits. The NFL isn't quite the NBA when it comes to rewarding length, height, width and speed, but it has merged closer in recent years. The draft's first round was littered with players who project better to the NFL than they ever performed in college.
Carl Nicks was an average offensive lineman at NU. My most vivid memory of Nicks from the 2007 season was watching him sit luxuriously on a leather couch to answer questions after another Husker pummeling. He was tired — but the pilot light didn't seem lit anymore, either. He's an All-Pro now. He had the tools, even if he didn't use them well enough in Lincoln. Callahan, an NFL coach at heart, recruited to those gifts. He just didn't make them very good college football players. Ndamukong Suh was headed down that road. Pelini turned Suh around.
In this draft, Ziggy Ansah, picked fifth overall by the Lions, tried to play basketball for BYU. Twice. Then he tried BYU track. Then he played football. In a Husker NFL draft fantasyland, this is like Tim Miles cutting Shavon Shields, who switches to football, puts on 55 pounds, becomes a base defensive end and gets drafted. Shields' dad, Will, was an eight-time NFL All-Pro.
That's part of the story of the 20th overall pick in 2013, Kyle Long, son of Howie, who flamed out playing college baseball and started all of four games at Oregon. He's supposed to be the best guard prospect the Bears have seen in 12 years.
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Long was a junior college kid, and that's where Nebraska, since Pelini arrived, has had the most success converting college players into NFL prospects. Of the five Pelini recruits drafted, three — Stafford, Lavonte David and DeJon Gomes — were juco signees. It's something NU can sell to future juco players, even if the guy who spearheaded landing those three recruits, Carl Pelini, is gone.
Nebraska has had less success, clearly, converting high school players into NFL draftees. Alfonzo Dennard and Rex Burkhead are the only two Pelini recruits to get drafted and neither was drafted higher than the sixth round. That should change next year because of Spencer Long, who blessed NU by paying his own way and walking on, but the aforementioned injury/conference/coaching continuity issues all affect development. And development does count for something.
So if the Huskers haven't churned out much NFL talent in recent years, doesn't that reflect positively on Pelini's coaching? That partially depends on if you're an NU fan who's satisfied with Pelini's average record of 9.6-4 in his first five years, and how you digest what follows.
The 2008 team had 15 draft picks on it. The 2009 team had 14. The 2010 team has 12 so far, pending results from the 2014 draft. That's not bad. The Huskers had more talent than we might initially perceive.
The quality of the players Nebraska has been facing in conference changed, too. In 2008, NU played 14 future first-round draft picks in the Big 12 schedule, including Robert Griffin III, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Sam Bradford. In 2009, NU faced 13 first-round draft picks, only because Bradford and Griffin were hurt when Nebraska played Oklahoma and Baylor, respectively.
In 2011, Nebraska played three first-round draft picks in the Big Ten, and all three were offensive linemen: Iowa's Riley Reiff (2012, No. 23 overall) and Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler (2012, No. 27) and Travis Frederick (2013, No. 31). In 2012, obviously, only Frederick makes the list.
It's worth noting that Russell Wilson, the 2011 Wisconsin quarterback, could end up being better than Griffin and Bradford in the NFL. He's the best Big Ten player NU faced in 2011. He torched the Huskers for 18.2 yards per completion and two touchdowns in a 48-17 win.
Looking at mock drafts for 2014, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby join the first-round draft list. If they do, that'd make five Big Ten first-rounders and only one offensive non-lineman.
Nebraska indeed had to change when it joined the Big Ten, but the league, especially in 2012, was not at full strength. NU has less talent; so does the league surrounding it. Hence, the records are roughly the same. And, I'd argue, the coaching is about the same.
Neither NU nor the Big Ten particularly thrilled NFL scouts this year, as just 22 players were picked in all seven rounds. Considering the Big Ten has a distinct NFL flavor in terms of strategy — and considering doormat Illinois had the most picks of any Big Ten team — that number stinks. The lowest since 1994. The Big Ten was a bit of a whipping boy back then, too.
But it changed, rapidly, first with Penn State's 1994 team that finished undefeated, then with Michigan's and Ohio State's national titles in 1997 and 2002. From the end of that 1994 draft through Ohio State's 2008 BCS title game loss to LSU, the Big Ten had a renaissance of sorts. Two titles, three Heismans and three first overall NFL picks. Since Pelini's Tiger defense made a fool of OSU's offense in that game, though, the Big Ten has been pretty bleak — on and off the field.
Nebraska's time to make hay in recruiting and development is now. The window is wide open. Ohio State and Michigan intend to close it.
If they do, and NU hasn't caught up, one could see a scenario emerging where the Buckeyes and Wolverines morph into de-facto SEC teams. Certainly, that's the intent. The Huskers have twice hooked up with SEC teams in the last two bowls, and found themselves quite competitive — for three quarters.
But in the fourth quarter of both games, Nebraska was outscored 14-0. Quarterback Taylor Martinez became target practice for Georgia's and South Carolina's terrific defensive front sevens. Just as NU had used superior talent to beat Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State in the fourth quarters of 2012 games, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks rumbled in the ring with Nebraska for a while before their athleticism struck the knockout blow.
After the 2012 Capital One Bowl, then-NU secondary coach Corey Raymond — who's since moved on to LSU and landed a five-star recruit for the 2014 class — said this: “Just be honest. Look at them, look at us. It's pretty obvious.”
Georgia had eight picks in the 2013 NFL draft. South Carolina had seven. The Huskers had two.
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