LINCOLN — Once upon a time near the middle of nowhere, before men in windbreakers with goatees, clipboards and smartphones could affix words like “nasty,” “strong” and “physical” to his name, a boy chopped wood, baled hay and took the biggest shovel he could handle to plunge into silage — that's cow feed — for a neighbor.
“You ever shoveled silage for cows? It's hard work, bud,” his dad, Brian Farmer, says now. “Hard work.”
For a kid working on his grandpa's acreage outside of Highland, Ill., Tanner Farmer — the crown jewel of Nebraska's power-packed offensive line class in the 2014 recruiting cycle — certainly had the name for agriculture.
“I helped as much as I could,” Tanner said, and the work created a natural strength in him. He benches 440 pounds and squats 650 pounds as a 6-foot-4, 315-pound 17-year-old.
“He's always been strong — and he doesn't realize how strong he is,” Brian Farmer said.
But Tanner wasn't long for the farm. Grandpa eventually had someone else work the land. And football and wrestling were already intertwined into his life. He started playing in the Highland Quarterback Club youth league at 5 years old. His dad was his coach. Brian was hardest on Tanner. The strength and preparation would reveal itself in time, after the coach of the Big Ten's worst team called Tanner into his office last year.
Yes, NU landed its highest-rated recruit — a four-star who Rivals ranks as the nation's No. 82 overall prospect — in part because Illinois coach Tim Beckman looked a gift horse in the mouth. Farmer had attended an Illinois camp and initially wanted to play there.
“He took us into his office, and we thought he was going to offer Tanner,” Brian said. “But he told him, 'I'm going to have to see you in a few more camps.' So we said, 'We're going to see what other options might be available.' ”
Fast-forward to April 21, 2013. Farmer didn't have an offer from any school. He barely had a rating. He headed to a Rivals camp in O'Fallon, Ill. — a town 20 miles from Highland, near St. Louis — to see if he could drum up interest. He was a state champion heavyweight wrestler with good film, a better physique — but no exposure.
“I knew he was going to tear the crap out of everybody,” Brian Farmer said.
Sometimes, far-flung football tales turn out to be true.
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It will not be ballyhooed like Alabama's offensive line class, or even perhaps like some teams' hauls in the Big Ten. But Nebraska got the big blockers it wanted for the 2014 recruiting cycle. They include:
Ľ Farmer, who projects to guard or center.
Ľ Las Vegas Bishop Gorman four-star Nick Gates, a 6-foot-4 275-pounder who turned down Alabama, Oregon, Texas A&M and UCLA and projects to right tackle.
Ľ Gretna's Mick Stoltenberg, whose 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame could fit nicely at left tackle once he fully recovers from a knee injury.
Ľ Lincoln Southeast guard D.J. Foster, who at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds joins his brother, tight end Trey Foster, as a Husker.
The roster leaves Farmer and Foster brimming with confidence about the class.
“I know Nebraska turns out great offensive linemen,” Farmer said. “The guys we have, we're going to be a powerhouse up front. We're going to work hard and shove the ball down your throat.”
Said Foster: “We'll be able to get a whole lot done. With the line we'll have — the experience we already have — we'll be in tune, figure out the offense and get going. I'm happy. We'll be able to do big things.”
Unlike Illinois' botched handling of Farmer, Nebraska courted Foster — who moved from Alabama to Lincoln as a kid and grew up a Crimson Tide fan — for years. The Huskers offered him as a sophomore. When Foster got offers from UCLA, Florida and Georgia, NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton used his one phone call to invite Foster and his parents for an unofficial visit to campus. When Foster got there, he was directed to a room with a conference table. He sat in the middle of one side. Coach Bo Pelini sat in the middle of the other.
“The other coaches just filled in the rest of the seats,” Foster said. The Huskers made their group pitch in person, just to Foster. Two weeks later, he committed.
“That was a big moment in my recruiting, when they showed me just how much they wanted me,” Foster said. “I never really thought this would be my kind of school. Turns out, this was a perfect fit for me.”
Gates was similarly pursued by Nebraska, which not only liked Gates' tenacity and versatility as a blocker — he pulls and down blocks with equal effectiveness — but wanted to pull a player out of Gorman, one of the top high school football programs in the country and a key hub for any team recruiting west of Texas.
Nebraska, along with most teams, learned about Farmer from the Rivals camp. That's because he was the camp's offensive line MVP. He got an offer from Western Michigan one day later. Farmer duplicated his impressive performance at a camp in Chicago. Missouri offered. Then, yes, Illinois changed its mind and offered, too. Nebraska's offer, from John Garrison, came two weeks after that, in late May.
Farmer attended Nebraska's camp June 11 and was gobsmacked by the campus, the facilities, the coaches, everything. Garrison and Cotton were “no BS” guys. No nibbling around the edges with them.
“It's kind of like he's going to have a surrogate father and surrogate grandfather right there with him,” Brian Farmer said of Garrison and Cotton.
“You can't get better than Nebraska,” Tanner Farmer said. “Everything out there was pretty much perfect. It really stood out to me how much better the academic support was than everywhere else, and I want to go the premed route — surgeon or pediatrician.”
Farmer committed to Lincoln. Not long after, Brian got a call from Beckman.
Beckman admitted he screwed up the evaluation.
“I told him: 'I'm glad you did, because Tanner's found where he needs to be.' And (Beckman's) rationale was they were only going to take one interior offensive lineman, and whoever the line coach at the time was — they've gone through three or four — thought this other kid was better than Tanner.”
That other kid, Nick Allegretti, committed to the Illini last March. He's a three-star — same as Farmer was at the time he committed to Nebraska.
But Farmer kept attending camps, taking down four- and five-star linemen and making a name for himself. He performed well at Nike's “The Opening” camp in Portland. He did the same during a week of practices before the Under Armour All-American game. Nebraska coaches told Farmer to have fun. Brian told Tanner to keep proving what he and mother Connie already knew: Tanner was built for this.
So, too, was Brian once. He played at Ole Miss, for one year, in the late 1970s.
“I basically threw my football career away from partying,” Brian said. “If you could do it wrong, I did it. I told Tanner: I can tell you how not to do it. I knew what it took, I just didn't take that route. But that was mine — this is Tanner's time.”
So Brian encourages Tanner to ignore recruiting ratings, even if Brian can rattle off where Tanner stands.
“He's no better than he was before, bud,” Brian said. “He's the same guy. That's why I don't put a lot of faith in these star ratings. If you don't go to their camps, how can they rate you? Tanner's the same kid he was, but some of these guys, begrudgingly, have him rated whatever they do. How good Tanner is — or he's gonna be — will be what he puts into it.”
Focus on what you can control, Brian said, which is effort, desire, and, yes, lifting. Tanner loves lifting enough to occasionally hit the weight room twice a day. Tanner didn't know just how good he could be, Brian said, until a few years ago. And it took those camp performances for the family to realize Tanner could have his pick of schools. Once Tanner committed to Nebraska, Brian fielded all mail and calls from opposing coaches. Tanner still doesn't know all the schools that coveted his services, but Brian said the list included Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and Mississippi State, “among 20 other schools.”
“When you give somebody your word and tell them you'll do it, you better damn well do it,” Brian said.
Pelini made his in-home visit recently. He promised Tanner nothing, Brian said, except an opportunity. Followers of Nebraska recruiting know that's been Pelini's style from the start. They know, too, that Pelini harbors a secret side for silliness. The Twitter jabs with Faux Pelini. The Harlem Shake dance. Add a wrestling match in the Farmers' living room to the list.
I bet you can't take me down, Pelini joked with Tanner. Farmer hesitated. Pelini is pretty tall and in good shape. But he's not a wrestler.
Go on, boy, Brian told his son. If he wants to go, go.
You scared to take me down? Pelini said to Tanner.
The strongest player in Nebraska's 2014 class got Pelini in a hold and lifted him up in the air. There, a potential takedown turned into a big hug between coach and player.
“It was a cool moment,” Brian said.
“We're going to have one hell of a line together,” Tanner Farmer said. “I can't wait to see what kind of havoc we wreak.”
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Video: Omaha.com signing day playlist: