In many ways, Nebraska has come to resemble another Michigan State in the B1G. The Huskers have an offense predicated around the run game (8th in the nation this past year), a proud tradition on defense (#35 in the nation this past year), and all resulting from 'meh' recruiting efforts. Unlike State, where we can blame lackluster February finishes on rising powers around it, Nebraska's problem is inherent in its location, as assistant Ross Els helps explain.
"I want to be done now," Els told ESPN.com. "The problem is we aren't going to get a ton of commitments, obviously, until we get kids on campus. And because of our small population base around here, it's hard to get kids to come visit us right away when we're not paying for it. It's expensive."
As the recruiting time frame for exceptional high school talent moves ever forward, the relatively late frame where prospects are eligible for official visits has been hurting the Huskers more and more. This isn't Ann Arbor, where the fertile recruiting grounds of Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, Akron/Cleveland, etc. are all a short drive away. No, the nearest recruiting area is...uhh.. Kansas City? Northern Texas?
It's why, as the previously linked article states, Nebraska must show patience when it's recruiting prospects that want to get their decision out of the way before their senior season, but simply leave them out because it's more feasible to make a swing through Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State than Lincoln.
Of course, relying on the latter half of the recruiting season to make an impression also leaves you vulnerable at times. Such was the case this past year, when a couple of up-start SEC coaches poached a few Huskers leading into National Signing Day.
Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The first decommitment was Christian Lacouture, a name that Michigan fans might be familiar with. The NE DL was first committed to Texas A&M, then chose the Huskers over Michigan and LSU, then finally decided LSU was the place for him. The strange part of all of this is that the 290-lb defensive tackle was allegedly told that Nebraska had plans of playing him as a hybrid DE/LB once he got to school. While he was only around 270 at the time, the coaches had to know he'd be adding weight once he got into the program, right? Anyway, he's apparently already carved out a role in the 2-deep at LSU, so good for him.
But once we got closer to the end of the cycle, tempers were (allegedly) a bit hotter around Lincoln. So when FL WR Dominic Walker called Bo Pelini and staff to tell them he'd decided to attend Auburn instead, things got a little awkward.
It was hard for Walker to make that call to Nebraska on Friday, but he knew he had to do it. He said he didn't handle the Vanderbilt situation as well as he could have back when he decommitted from the Commodores in October and he wanted to make sure and do the right thing this time.
Even his mom was afraid for him when he made the call to head coach Bo Pelini and his staff on Friday.
"It was a very tough decision. They were [mad]. They were very mad. But I thought I had to call them like a real man should," Walker said. "But yeah, they were mad. Coach Pelini said, 'Best of luck, you're going to need it.' "
Wide receivers coach Rich Fisher also was in on the call.
"Coach Fisher said, 'I can't believe you,' " Walker said. "It was really awkward."
That little stroke of misfortune was soon followed up by another, once more at the hands of a first time SEC coach. This time it was on the other side of the ball, as four-star safety Marcus McWilson decided that Kentucky was where the opportunity and passion was at. He also made some interesting comments on how Nebraska's staff tried to...uhh.. dissuade him.
"It didn't impact me," McWilson said about the effect of the Cornhuskers recruiting against UK. "I'm my own person."
There are some coaches who manage to skillfully recruit negatively, weaving doubt into recruit's minds where doubt shouldn't exist. Then there is the Nebraska staff, whose pitch is filled with all the intricacies of a playground taunt. No, Marcus does not believe Kentucky is a bad place to go, and yes, you do look like sore losers.
BUT. This column isn't meant to be a maelstrom of malice against the Husker's staff, and certainly not against the recruiting class they brought in. I mean, like Northwestern, this style of recruiting just resulted in an 11-win season against a pretty tough schedule. The Huskers managed to bring down Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Minnesota. They even hung close with a Georgia team that should probably have been playing the National Championship game, and barely lost to Pac-12 runner up UCLA.
Players like top-100 RB Terrell Newby and four-star LB Marcus Newby (unrelated) show that the Huskers still can reach from coast to coast for top talent, while the poaching of DE Randy Gregory from Purdue shows that they can dish out the decommitments just as they take them. Guys like WR Kevin Gladney, OL David Knevel, LB Courtney Love, and DL AJ Natter form a solid core of guys who are under-rated by recruiting services for one reason or another (say, for being a late-riser from Canada), and QB Johnny Stanton will be very much in the mix to replace Martinez once he goes.
RB Terrell Newby. As I mentioned earlier, this team is run-oriented to the max. While Newby may have 2 established veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, that's really it. Everything else comes down to a fellow freshman and a bunch of walk-ons. Last year, the 3rd most used RB had 52 carries for 348 yards. That may not have been enough to keep Braylon Heard from transferring to Kentucky, but that would be nice load for a freshman acclimating himself to college ball. I mean, if you want comparisons, look at Michigan's stats from last year. Senior Vincent Smith didn't have close to that many carries last year. I'm betting Newby sees the field this year, and carves himself a role that he occupies until Ameer Abdullah leaves.
DE Randy Gregory. Being the top JUCO DE has meant pretty good things for the past couple of years. Take a look at Miss St. DE Denico Autry, who ended this past season with 4 sacks and 9.5 TFLs. Or years past, where Tank Carradine, Jason Pierre-Paul and Bruce Irvin have all parlayed their success in the JUCO rankings into first/second-round draft territory. Gregory could very well end up in the same position as these guys, but like them, he'll probably spend his first year spelling other DL on passing downs. That's still a very scary thing.
LB Josh Banderas. Nebraska ended up with one of the most complete linebacker classes in the B1G (or country, for that matter), landing three kids that are rated as four-star recruits by at least one service. If you're comparing this to Michigan's 2012 class, then Banderas is the Joe Bolden of the group. Although he didn't enroll early, the Army All-American is the most likely to end up at the MIKE linebacker, pitting him against two other very young guys- a RS Sophomore and a RS Freshman with one combined start between the two. Although he says he hopes to play the WLB position at NU, he seems the most likely of the three to be in the middle.
LB Courtney Love. I know, I know. Another linebacker? But the LB position is wide open right now, after Nebraska lost all three starters to graduation. Love enrolled early and is slated to play the WILL linebacker position. He'll have to battle RS JR Zaire Anderson (who started last year but is coming off injury) and RS FR Michael Rose for playing time, but if he can get past Rose, he'll be groomed to replace Anderson.
S DJ Singleton. Nebraska lost all three linebackers- they also lost both of their starting safeties. While it looks like JRs Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson are in line to start, Singleton should come in and challenge for a spot after spending an extra year as a post-grad. After career backup Wil Richards, there's really nothing on the depth chart. Expect Singleton to come in and immediately compete for a backup position.
DOWN THE LINE CONTRIBUTORS
TX RB Adam Taylor. Nebraska already has their 'big back' needs sowed up this year with Imani Cross pushing Abdullah for a starting spot. Long term, however, Taylor could continue the tradition of big, punishing Nebraska backs. First, though, he'll need to put on some weight and ride the pine.
QB Johnny Stanton. Nebraska's sort of set at QB this year. After a redshirt year, though, Stanton will be given every chance to replace Taylor Martinez, even if RS FR Tommy Armstrong currently has a big leg up. Stanton is known as Johnny 'Tebow' by his teammates, and to a certain extent, it fits. Stanton's a big dude that's more likely to run you over than run around you a la Martinez, and his limited arm strength might hurt his career prospects as a QB.
OL David Knevel. The late-rising Canadian ended up choosing Nebraska over offers from Alabama, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Missouri, and others. Knevel's a raw kid with plenty of upside who could develop into a productive LT by the time he's finished in Lincoln.
WR Kevin Gladney. As some of you might (but almost certainly don't) remember, I'm a pretty big fan of Gladney. When I ranked all of Michigan's WR offer recipients in what is now a bizarrely-formatted big board last year, I had Gladney on the same peg as the likes of Marquez North and James Quick. Here's a snippet of what I said from last year.
All in all, I'm a bit surprised Gladney doesn't have a more expansive offer sheet (Nebraska, MSU, and Michigan are the only ones to throw their hat in the ring right now). His size and quickness would have most college coaches salivating. Not as well developed as Laquon Treadwell, but still has a very high ceiling for development down the road, so long as he adds significant weight.
LB Marcus Newby. Yep, the last of the trio. Newby needs to add weight, but he's not far behind Love or Banderas as far as talent goes. While he might end up being the Royce Jenkins-Stone to Banderas/Love's Bolden/Ross duo, he's simply too good to leave off the list. His future looks like it's at the WLB position, but we'll see if they move him or the other 2 around to give all 3 a chance to see the field.
COMPARING THEM TO MICHIGAN
Nebraska's average (.8619) is pretty respectable compared to what we've been seeing so far. Also interesting- Nebraska's average recruit is 6'3, 234, one of the first we've seen that's actually bigger than Michigan's. Looks like the power run game in Lincoln isn't on its way out any time soon.
On to the recruits. Nebraska's top recruit (Terrell Newby) would be Michigan's 10th best recruit with a 247 composite average of .9403. Their second best non-JUCO recruit (Adam Taylor) would have been good for Michigan's 15th best recruit. Certainly interesting that their top two non-JUCO kids are running backs, is it not?
NOTES AND CHARTS
--> As I mentioned above, Kevin Gladney was offered by Michigan. No one else in the class was. Michigan seemed on the verge of offering David Knevel at one point, but it never came through. DJ Singleton was offered by Michigan in 2011, but that offer didn't come again once he stayed for a year of post-grad. Michigan also dabbled with Courtney Love, but he committed to Nebraska too early for anything to come of it.
--> Nebraska's 2014 class, so far, has really suffered from the problem I mentioned earlier. It seems timeframes get earlier and earlier every year, and 2014 is no exception. While they did beat out Ohio State for FL QB Zack Darlington, the rest of the class is fairly unremarkable. LONE EXCEPTION- MO TE Freedom Akinmoladun. He's currently the odds-on favorite to carry the flag out of the tunnel when he's a senior.
Holy diversity, Batman
As with Northwestern, I have to ask 'who am I?' to judge when their somewhat lackluster recruiting efforts parlay into an 11 win season. However, a lot of that has rested on the tap-dancing, sometimes-awe inspiring sometimes infuriatingly hilarious arm and legs of Taylor Martinez. Martinez has kept defenses somewhat earnest enough to keep the pounding on the ground going. Will they be able to keep that up when Martinez is gone and the B1G is somewhat stronger? I suppose time will tell.