LINCOLN — Don't devolve into star-driven signing day histrionics. (Another Husker bummer.)
Or farm out your opinion to a scouting service. (Middle of the pack among Big Ten and power conference teams.)
Instead, look at Nebraska recruiting with clear, focused eyes. And divide NU's 2014 recruiting class in two parts.
Ľ That 15 to 17 player “core” Nebraska courted over the course of a season. It not only includes many of NU's highest-rated prospects — Tanner Farmer, Monte Harrison, Nick Gates and Peyton Newell among them — but comprises the guys who most “get” Bo Pelini, his staff and their culture. And since Bo harps on culture and chemistry as much as any coach I've ever heard — and since that culture and chemistry has delivered six straight nine-win seasons in the face of startling, roller coaster inconsistency — that core is the nuclear engine of La Cosa Bostra.
Ľ The remaining “cobbler,” comprised of mystery ingredients, recruited during a January crush of private plane rides and commits. It was a whirlwind brought on by head coaching changes elsewhere, the Shawn Eichorst-silence-fueled uncertainty in November and the general feeling that, once a football season begins, Pelini locks in something fierce on game prep.
The Huskers' core is strong-to-excellent. It's balanced and athletic, just a notch below Ohio State and Michigan's core groups in the Big Ten. I suspect Pelini loves it. At his press conference Wednesday, he talked glowingly — at least for him — about many of the players in the core. He knows them. He's scouted them for a year. They're Bo guys.
Harrison, a wide receiver, is a “phenomenal athlete” who “can do anything he puts his mind to,” Pelini said, while the coach had to watch only one half of linebacker Jaevon Walton in person before he turned to former defensive backs coach Terry Joseph and said, “I want him on our football team.” Quarterback Zack Darlington is a “winner” and a “leader.” NU's trio of talented offensive linemen — Gates, Farmer and D.J. Foster — had long-developed relationships with John Garrison and Barney Cotton.
Pelini trumpeted the value of live scouting, of evaluating character over time, of polling his own current players on whether a recruit would fit the self-starter, take-responsibility culture of his program. Pelini has high standards and NU's academic support system runs with the speed and efficiency of a German auto, but underneath that, there's a take-care-of-business, this-is-what-you-make-of-it vibe in North Stadium. So scouting the CQ — character quotient — is part of what makes his program tick.
Now — the cobbler. It may have the same CQ of the core, but a mad dash through the Southeast in search of good frames and better film created an exhausting month for the coaches. New names popping up daily. Secret visitors. BOOM patrol. One late prospect — Newnan (Ga.) safety Markell Boston — wrote “Tic” on Twitter and never wrote “Boom.” Auburn snatched him up.
Blake McClain was a head trip, decommitting from Florida State last week, spending seven hours with the Husker coaching staff — who just happened to be at his high school right after he decommitted — committing on an official visit to NU, then flipping to South Carolina on signing day, to allegedly accede to his parents' wishes.
It's possible McClain would have been an All-American at Nebraska. But I'm dubious that he was a long-term fit.
I'm not evaluating what you or I think Pelini's recruiting pitch should be, but rather what it is. He doesn't sweet-talk. Pelini wants talent, too — he dismissed on Wednesday any notion that football size and skill takes a back seat to intangibles — but he is not inclined to babysit in the weight room or the film room.
So Nebraska needs as big of a core — known properties, simmered in culture — as possible. But it seems few teams reach the middle or the bottom of prospect lists quite like the Huskers.
“Instead of maybe having three or four guys, you might need to have 11 or 12 guys,” Pelini said. “We talk about turning over every stone. We have to evaluate and keep evaluating.”
How, for example, did Nebraska find Lineville (Ala.) defensive end DeAndre Wills, whom none of us had heard of until last week?
“You know, I don't know,” Pelini initially said. Then he remembered. “We were called. We got a call about him. We were out recruiting. And obviously, from there, we kind of did our homework.”
As much as NU could, anyway, in two weeks.
The results are low or under-the-radar guys who might be big hits — or whiffs. And in an area without 15 prospects to pluck, whiffs hurt. More than they hurt SEC schools. Every class has misses — the 2011 bunch, with all of those four stars, was a bit of a flameout — but since Pelini arrived, according to Rivals' database, 14 of the 43 players who pledged after Jan. 1 never arrived or left Nebraska's program before their eligibility was up. That included seven from Pelini's first class in 2008 and three from last year in Ernest Suttles, Dimarya Mixon and Tre'vell Dixon.
While the Huskers have hit on Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Corey Cooper and Alfonzo Dennard close to signing day, Pelini's system and personality seem tailor-made for collecting as many early commits as possible and letting them simmer in Husker culture.
Pelini's bosses — heck, his assistants and everyone in North Stadium — do know this, or should. The man can close in a living room — I've heard the stories from enough parents and high school coaches to insist that — and his pitch is appealing to certain players, even high-profile players. The question is: Are those players being found, contacted and fully courted five months before June camps, or are they whatever falls through the cracks to December? Is the support system in place? What's the long-term plan to create early, annual momentum?
Heading into its fourth Big Ten season, Pelini said Nebraska is still tinkering with its approach.
“We haven't moved in Nebraska,” Pelini said. “But do (recruits) perceive us more like a Big Ten school, where we're going to be playing in the snow every week? Obviously it's not reality. Do (recruits) perceive the Big Ten different than the Big 12? Has our reception been different? What has been our success rate? ... We've kind of moved east. How does the Big Ten Network affect it? You have to acquire data. That happens over three years. You have to evaluate it.”
Folks know my take: local/Big Ten region for the lines/tight ends, regional/nationwide for the skill players, the end of the earth for the quarterback. Pelini believes in a national approach. Fine. He seems to like SEC country. Fine. But he doesn't want to forget California and Texas. Fine. But he also wants character. Fine. And football smarts. Fine. It's not an easy meal to prepare, but fine. Nebraska has the money for a soccer and tennis complex, so it has the money to support this, its prime cultural export. Whatever system Nebraska has to create to fulfill the vision, create it. If a new coach moseys along, create a system to fit his vision. Set the vision, support the vision. Pelini's preferences are not — and have not been — a big secret, so now it's a question of support. (Pelini could crack the internal whip a little harder, too.)
Extra private planes for recruit visits were a big help in January, Pelini said. I agree. It helped create a better 2015 junior day, quite frankly, that's already produced four commits and may produce several more in upcoming months. Without the planes, does Nebraska get New Orleans running back Kendall Bussey on campus? Without the planes, does Cotton make a crucial January swing through South Dakota to check in on linemen whom Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Stanford and SEC schools want to recruit? Auburn plucked the best offensive lineman from Kansas in 2014. Alabama got the best offensive linemen from Minnesota and Iowa. You already know what kind of recruiting machines they run.
The two NU recruiting jobs posted last fall have yet to be filled, although Pelini described a good meeting with “administration” in progressing toward that.
“What's the best model here at Nebraska to get done what we have to get done?” Pelini said of the meeting's main topic. One presumes Eichorst was involved. “I thought it was a very productive meeting and one where, going forward, we're going to have a plan in place we're going to all feel good about.”
If it helps the Huskers build its core and avoid the January crush, that plan can't come soon enough.
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Video: Omaha.com signing day playlist: