LINCOLN — Publicly, it's been a quiet spring for Nebraska on the recruiting trail, aside from a water-rippling quote from recruiting coordinator Ross Els that set a few Husker fans on their ear.
He talked to ESPN about not comparing NU to Ohio State and Michigan right about the time I was changing my newborn son's diaper, so we'll get to Els' thoughts in a minute.
We'll start with the distinct unquiet around the Huskers' second commitment, defensive back Jason Hall. Though Hall was firmly under the radar when the Huskers offered — and when they got his commit — competing schools haven't been deterred from continuing to pursue the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder.
“Schools don't pay any attention to the fact that he's committed,” said Hall's South Grand Prairie High School coach, Brent Whitson. “He loves Nebraska, but he's still going to five or six camps this summer.”
Baylor, Kansas and Iowa have joined the offer parade. Ole Miss is close. Oklahoma is paying attention. Hall is a late-bloomer still gaining weight, Whitson said, and possibly getting taller. He's a perfect fit now for Nebraska's nickel position but could grow into an “alley” safety. That's where Whitson has Hall now, so he can help with run support.
The one advantage NU has — and a key advantage the Huskers take into Texas and Florida recruiting as a whole — is offensive coordinator Tim Beck. A former Texas high school coach, Beck also knows Florida, having played college football there. It was Beck who first discovered defensive tackle Kevin Maurice while on a scouting trip for another player.
And it's Beck who's part of a “special fraternity” of guys who work efficiently in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
“Tim's the same guy he was in 1998,” Whitson chuckled. “He just makes a little more money.”
Yes. He's the highest-paid offensive coordinator in the Big Ten now. And he's running one of the more innovative, faster-paced offenses in college football. That helped attract running backs Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby to NU's 2013 class despite lots of good running backs already in the program. It coaxed four-star athletes Alonzo Moore and Tre'Vell Dixon from Louisiana when they had options to stay in the South.
Can Beck's rise — and influence — woo more players from Texas and Florida?
A good test will be two skill players with Husker offers from Gator territory: running back Tony James and wide receiver Kenric Young, both from Gainesville High School.
The 5-10, 175-pound James, a high three-star, is the better prospect of the two. Florida, Ohio State and Oregon, among others, have offered. He fits NU and Oregon's offenses the best.
If Beck can lure both players to Lincoln for a summer visit, consider it a big coup — but, in a sense, more of the same. Nebraska's recruiting on the offensive side of the ball stays hot so long as the spread, no-huddle offense does. Players are willing to share if everybody has a hand in the scoring.
Now, as I initially wrote on our Big Red Today blog, here are those thoughts about Nebraska's recruiting strategy, and comments Els made to ESPN about the lack of early commits to the Huskers. His comments had many of Nebraska's most ardent recruitniks clicking the “send” button on message boards.
“You can't compare us to Ohio State and Michigan and Notre Dame,” Els told ESPN's Big Ten bloggers. “We will not fill up that quickly. If we're filling up that quickly, it's either because we just won the national championship and everybody wants to play for us, or we might be not very selective in who we're taking. We don't throw offers out there just to throw 'em out there.”
First, Nebraska's offering more players this year than it has in any other year under Bo Pelini. There's a strategy behind that, I think. It doesn't mean Nebraska's “throwing” offers out there.
Second, Els has brought more clarity and organization to Nebraska's recruiting process than other recruiting coordinators under Pelini. He did not rush or panic to hire giant recruiting staffs for NCAA rules changes that never made it past April. He created good Junior Day tentpoles in the winter and the summer with Big Red Weekend. Just months after the best class of Pelini's tenure, it's wildly premature to suggest the Huskers are lagging or lacking.
But there are times when Nebraska's staff — with encouragement from some local media — dwells too much on its limitations and not nearly enough on its considerable advantages. Even accounting for a decade of mediocre football, NU's recruiting rankings tower over the rest of the Big Ten West. Here are the average Rivals recruiting rankings for the last 11 classes, 2003-2013:
Northwestern 66.3 (This is a 10-class average since 2004 is not available for the Wildcats.)
The gap between Nebraska and the rest of its division is larger than the gap between the Huskers and Ohio State (13.2) and Michigan (11.5). And that average takes into account NU's 2003 and 2004 classes, which finished 42nd and 58th in the Rivals rankings. NU's average rank during the last nine years is 19.4.
None of the programs in states surrounding Nebraska, historically, are fit to carry NU's water. Is that arrogant? Probably. It's also true. The Huskers are the Boston Red Sox of the Midwest. Have been for 50 years. And that's how the coaching staff has to sell it. With that much swagger. More, even.
Unless it wants to troll with Minnesota and Purdue for every third-tier flyer down South, Nebraska will lose more recruiting battles than it wins in SEC country. But the SEC can't win in the Huskers' wheelhouse.
That means winning battles this year for Hiawatha, Kan., defensive tackle Peyton Newell (who likes South Carolina) and Kansas City-area players Monte Harrison and Jimmie Swain. It means knifing into the Hawkeyes' near-monopoly on the best prospects in Iowa. And it means continuing to win on the likes of Nate Gerry, the South Dakota freak athlete who signed with Nebraska and would be a high four-star on speed and measurables alone if he played in Texas.
Now back to the offering strategy. What do so many offers, especially in Florida, Texas and now Arizona, mean? That NU's dropping its fish traps all over the lake, so to speak, to see where the kids are biting.
A number of these athletes already have impressive offer lists. They're not going to swoon at a Nebraska offer, commit immediately and load up NU's relatively small class.
Back to another Els quote. I know what he means about “wanting to be done” and it's this: The Huskers want to be done when they have what they consider a top class. Not when just some prospect says yes.
I've been asked in email if Nebraska is struggling in the 2014 cycle. It's too early to tell. Once we knew NU coaches were going to evaluate hard in the spring, the odds of accumulating a ton of commits early went down.
But it puts more pressure on the summer and fall months for the Huskers to get the players they evaluated on campus for official visits. And it puts a greater onus on winning the local battles for players who have already been here.
Scanning the map
>> Duke really wants Millard West defensive end Harrison Phillips. The Blue Devils, Phillips announced on Twitter on Saturday, sent him 115 personal, hand-written letters in one day.
>> Northwestern, a Husker divisional rival, stays hot on the recruiting trail, landing three-star Plano (Texas) West running Auston Anderson over offers from Texas, Stanford, Baylor and UCLA. Nebraska kicked the tires on Anderson, but didn't offer the 5-9, 180-pounder. Now the Huskers will face a kid who runs a lot like Ameer Abdullah.
The Wildcats then landed their Kain Colter replacement in 6-2, 190-pound Dareian Watkins, a four-star athlete from Ohio who plays quarterback but can easily shift to wide receiver. They then snared another running back, four-star Justin Jackson, who attended Nebraska's Junior Day but never got an offer from the Huskers.
If Northwestern can keep coach Pat Fitzgerald and truly raise the $200-million plus for a lakefront practice facility, top 25 recruiting classes will be the rule, not the exception, at the end of the Purple Line.
>> Michigan beat rival Michigan State for four-star Southfield (Mich.) defensive end Lawrence Marshall, a 6-3, 225-pounder with good speed and a taste for freelance pass-rushing. He sets up on the line, but generally just shoots gaps, which could make him a better fit for linebacker in the Wolverines' 3-4 defense.
>> Penn State picked up three defensive back recruits — a four-star and two three stars — and are in a battle with the Wolverines for the nation's top safety, Paramus (N.J.) Catholic star Jabrill Peppers, who will visit Happy Valley for the second time this year. A fast, showboat Wildcat quarterback and blow-up artist on defense, Peppers is a five-star “just put him on the field anywhere” kind of guy.
>> Kentucky has seven commits for the 2014 class, including five from Ohio, where former Nebraska graduate assistant-turned-UK-assistant Vince Marrow has been making quick, impressive inroads.
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