LINCOLN — Harrison Phillips thinks it might have been a coincidence. He's clear about this. Nebraska had asked him to call a few days prior, but he just hadn't found the chance.
But as soon as the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder announced on Twitter Saturday that he'd received, after a full week of camp, an offer from Stanford, NU coaches started sending Facebook messages. Barney Cotton, Rick Kaczenski, John Papuchis and Bo Pelini. And they haven't stopped since. The Huskers held out in offering Phillips until watching him in camp. But when Phillips finally reached Pelini Monday night — remember, per NCAA rules Pelini can't call recruits right now, they can only call him — the Husker coach said he was ready to make an exception to a rule.
“He said, 'I don't really like to offer big kids as athletes, but we want you on this team, and we're offering because we're interested in you as a player,'” Phillips recalled. Nebraska hasn't decided whether the Millard West star — should he pick NU — would play defensive end, tight end or center. It would appear that, for now, the Huskers don't care where he starts out. They want the person.
It's a risk anytime you recruit a guy without a perfect position in the system, but, with Phillips, it's a worthy risk. In-state kid, good motor, motivated, smart, plays with leverage. Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney historically and consistently found a place for that type of kid at Nebraska, especially when good FBS programs — Stanford, UCLA and, yes, Kansas State — come knocking. Even if all of them don't pan out, you make the room. There's a difference between a perfect plan — which, in recruiting, doesn't exist — and a sound one. Offering Phillips is sound.
I got a kick out of seeing excuses being made Monday for why Phillips wouldn't get a Nebraska offer — including the 3-4 vs. 4-3 debate — and watching that kick over into desiring his commit Tuesday once he got the offer. NU did the evaluation on its own timetable. Pelini made the final decision, as he usually does; remember that the defining decision of his tenure at Nebraska was selecting an athletic outlier in Taylor Martinez to be his quarterback. Pelini likes intangibles; Phillips has those. He likes playmakers; Phillips is one.
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So Pelini and Nebraska are making the room. In-state commits D.J. Foster, Mick Stoltenberg and Luke Gifford are making the pitch, Phillips said, for him to join the NU parade. But Phillips has made enough trips around the nation and earned enough offers that now he's going to do his homework. He intends to commit “sooner rather than later” so he can concentrate on Millard West's senior season, but other schools — with recent success of their own — have given Phillips something to weigh. And with Wisconsin now chewing on offering him as an offensive lineman, Phillips could have offers from both of last year's Rose Bowl participants.
“I love my options,” he said. “I think a few more schools may offer, but I think I'll start looking at the ones I have.”
The six that stand out so far, in alphabetical order: Duke, Kansas State, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, Stanford and UCLA.
I still like the Huskers, even if Phillips isn't tipping his hand. He knows how he feels about the attention, though.
“Great,” he said. “There's just so many choices.”
Hawkeyes start strong
Nebraska fans know the Huskers' 2014 class is off to a strong start.
But so is Iowa's. Perhaps even stronger than NU. The Hawkeyes are taking nearly full advantage of a strong in-state crop of talent, adding to the fold Thursday 6-foot-8, 250-pound Cedar Rapids tight end Matt Nelson, who picked Iowa over Stanford, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Florida State, among others. Nelson joins four more in-state commits — including guard and top 100 prospect Ross Piersbacher — in a class currently at nine commits overall and ahead of NU in the 247Sports Composite Recruiting Service rankings.
“We only know what we're told,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It's tough to get your hands around it. But I think things are going well. Feedback's been good. You always want to have 'X' amount of commitments by August or September, and then we'll start our second phase, pull back a little bit, and watch guys play as seniors.”
In other words, a similar strategy to Nebraska. Iowa's results fluctuate much more than the Huskers, however, because the Hawkeyes generally load up on in-state prospects regardless of where they're ranked in the recruiting services. The better the in-state crop, the better Iowa's class tends to turn out.
One of the newest Iowa graduate assistant coaches, DJ Hernandez, is the brother of Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end arrested this week on murder charges. Ferentz said DJ Hernandez hasn't missed any work in the last couple weeks. Of course, Ferentz said that on Tuesday, one day before Aaron's arrest. DJ Hernandez can't recruit off-campus unless he's designated to do so, but his connections in the Northeast should help the Hawkeyes expand their recruiting footprint.
Around the nation:
Ľ Ohio State's class kept rolling Thursday, adding one of the nation's top-rated offensive tackle prospects in Jamarco Jones out of Chicago. Jones had narrowed his list to the Buckeyes, Michigan and Michigan State. Jones is a good athlete, though I'd be surprised if he's really 6-foot-5, 285 pounds. (He seems shorter and stockier.) He'll need a year of seasoning in college; he's not a particularly polished player. But Ohio State wins another in-conference recruiting battle. Jones should have some good battles with another Buckeye commit, 6-5, 220-pound Norfolk (Va.) defensive end Jalyn Holmes, a high-four star.
The Buckeyes also landed their quarterback in 6-foot-4, 208-pound Stephen Collier, a dual-threat guy from southeastern Georgia who didn't start until three games into his junior year. Collier camped at OSU, won an offer and committed shortly thereafter. Nebraska fans should now feel unusually confident that, yes, NU beat the Buckeyes for Zack Darlington.
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Ľ Wisconsin picked up three commits in the last week, including one from 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive lineman Michael Dieter, the Genoa, Ohio, native who had an offer from Nebraska. Lacking the elite mobility to play tackle, Dieter was better suited to guard, where the Huskers already have secured commitments from top targets D.J. Foster and Tanner Farmer. Taiwan Deal — 6-2, 225 — looks like a worthy edition to the Badger running back legacy.
Ľ Michigan State didn't land Jones, but did get two more commits this week in 6-1, 260-pound running back Gerald Owens — he's rushed for 3,254 yards the last two years in a Camden (N.J.) area high school — and 6-5, 280-pound defensive tackle David Beedle, whose Detroit-area high school wears the winged Michigan helmet.
Ľ Illinois last week landed Kansas City-area linebacker Henry McGrew; Nebraska kicked the tires on the two-star prospect back in January but never offered. The Illini get a decent sleeper away from Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State. With the Huskers' wealth at linebacker, McGrew wasn't destined for much playing time.
Ľ Iowa State is doing well this cycle with 10 commits so far. The latest is 6-2, 185-pound Chicago-area running back Tommy Mister, who picked the Cyclones over Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Michigan State, among others.