Week one of fall camp at Omaha Central.
Teenagers cluster in purple and gold practice jerseys for their second workout of the day.
At one station, they run through tackling dummies. At another, they go 1-on-1, crunching pads. At another, they shuffle side to side in pass coverage.
These are the same drills high school kids have repeated for decades. This is how they prepare for Friday nights.
But something is missing, here and at practice fields across the Metro.
Blue chips. Headliners. Future Huskers.
For decades, a recruiting pipeline from Omaha to Memorial Stadium supplied Husker football with building blocks for a dynasty.
Rodgers. Rimington. Green. Crouch.
Now there's a lack of both quantity and quality. Look at the numbers:
• The past four years, Nebraska has signed 11 in-state recruits to scholarships. Prior to that span, 15 was the lowest of any four-year stretch on record. Recruiting numbers for Lincoln and outstate Nebraska are close to normal. What's missing is Omaha prospects.
• From 1995 to 2010, Nebraska signed at least one Metro-area recruit every year. The average was 2.5. The past two years, NU has signed none. Fourteen prospects have pledged to Nebraska's 2013 class. About 200 more have reportedly received scholarship offers. None are from the Omaha area.
• Nebraska hasn't signed an Omaha Public Schools student to a scholarship since Niles Paul in February 2007. That drought is unprecedented in the 40-year era of NCAA-mandated scholarship limits.
• The most glaring gap is speed-position players, especially running back. From 1984 to 1995, Nebraska signed eight I-backs from Omaha high schools. In college, they rushed for a combined 17,000 yards. NU has signed just one Omaha feature back since 2003 — Collins Okafor had two career carries.
• Since Bo Pelini arrived in December 2007, Nebraska has signed only four high school players from Douglas and Sarpy Counties: Okafor, Sean Fisher, C.J. Zimmerer and Bronson Marsh. Two of those — Okafor and Fisher — committed to NU prior to Pelini's arrival. Marsh was a grayshirt.
• Nebraska hasn't released a depth chart for 2012, but it's likely that only two Omaha-area players — Fisher and Elkhorn walk-on Spencer Long — will start.
Recite any or all of those facts to members of the Omaha football community and you'll likely get a response like this:
“Blows my mind,” said Omaha Skutt coach Matt Turman, a former Husker walk-on.
“Hard to fathom,” said lawyer George Achola, ex-Husker running back and former Creighton Prep star.
What's going on? Is Omaha experiencing an unprecedented slump? Or has Bo Pelini's program raised the bar for local prospects and missed potential contributors?
Depends whom you talk to. Theories abound. One man's explanation is another's excuse.
But no one can argue this point: Nebraska, a program trying desperately to climb back to national prominence, could use a few more guys like Calvin Jones, Pat Tyrance, Ken Clark, Keith Jones, Jim Skow, Mark Traynowicz, Rik Bonness, Jerry Murtaugh, Joe Orduna ...
Barney Cotton is a former Omaha Husker, too.
In 1971, the same fall Nebraska won its second straight national championship, Cotton put on his first set of football pads. He was in ninth grade.
Three years later, the 205-pound offensive lineman from Burke High signed to play for Nebraska.
Now Cotton, 55, spends hundreds of hours a year studying Metro football, recruiting prospects for the Huskers. The offensive line coach says “there's no question” he notices a downturn.
“We would love nothing more than to have five Division I players come out of Omaha,” Cotton said. “It just hasn't happened the last couple of years.”
The irony, Cotton says, is that Omaha football may be better than ever. Seven of the past nine Class A champions have come from the Metro. Eight times the runner-up was an Omaha team, too.
“There's great Division II and I-AA talent here,” Cotton said. “It's just unfortunate that there hasn't been the five or six BCS-caliber kids that you sign out of high school.”
Nebraska isn't the only one passing on Omaha-area prospects. Since the bumper crop of 2008, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who left the state and made NU look bad.
Omaha Central's Daryle Hawkins is a receiver at Oregon. Linebacker Cole Fisher, a Millard North grad, is at Iowa. They are the only Omaha natives on scholarship at out-of-state BCS schools.
But be careful judging a prospect's talent by his scholarship offers.
Spencer Long didn't receive a Division I offer. Now he may be the Huskers' best lineman. Mike Caputo, a two-year starter at NU, received little high school fanfare.
That leads to one of the most common theories behind the Metro-area scholarship lull.
“Nebraska has got to the point where they think they can get the in-state kids to walk on,” Turman said. “We don't need to offer them a scholarship because they're going to come here anyway.”
The Nebraska roster has almost 150 players, including 22 walk-ons from Douglas and Sarpy counties alone — one of every six Husker players is from Omaha.
By all accounts, Pelini's staff has good relationships with Metro high schools. But according to some coaches, NU has raised the performance standard for a full ride.
“I think scholarships are a little harder to get than they used to be for Nebraska kids,” Central coach Jay Ball said.
Said Fred Petito at Millard North: “Seems like they're doing a lot more long-distance recruiting.”
The numbers back it up.
In the mid-'80s, due in part to scholarship reductions, Nebraska's average recruiting class dropped to about 22 prospects, where it's been pretty steady ever since. From 1983 to 2008, NU signed 5.8 in-state recruits per year. The 1998 recruiting class, which Tom Osborne helped compile, included nine native sons.
Nine is equal to Nebraska's crop the past three years combined. One in-state recruit in 2012 — Lincoln Southeast's Sam Cotton — was the lowest number on record. It coincided with a walk-on class Barney Cotton believes is one of Nebraska's best ever.
Seven true freshman walk-ons made the 105-man fall camp roster, including three from Omaha.
“There's some scholarship (upperclassmen) that aren't here because we think that some of these (walk-ons) have earned their spots,” Cotton said.
Cotton and NU recruiting coordinator John Papuchis say local recruits are the priority in every class. They receive preference.
“The very first guys we decide to recruit and offer early are in-state,” Papuchis said.
Said Cotton: “The further we have to go, the harder it is for us to sign somebody. So it behooves us to uncover every rock in-state and every kid in a 500-mile radius.”
Nebraska evaluates every prospect carefully. First the recruiting coach takes a look, then the position coach, then the coordinator.
“Then it goes to Bo,” Cotton said. “A kid has to go through all those steps to get an offer. And we try like heck to get a 500-mile radius kid. But it doesn't always happen.”
Tom Jaworski, former Creighton Prep coach, remembers NU looking closely at Jon Lechner, an all-state left tackle and 2009 graduate. Pelini and Cotton said they might offer him a scholarship. They decided not to.
Two years later, the Huskers vigorously pursued Millard North's Devin Bass, an all-state corner, but didn't offer a scholarship. Like Lechner, he's at Ohio.
“We've had some great players go (to Nebraska),” Petito said. “I thought Devin was in that category. I was kind of surprised they didn't offer Devin. I really was.”
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Other borderline D-1 scholarship players since 2008 included Skutt's Christian Dudzik, a safety who went to North Dakota State; Millard North lineman Damond Parker, who's at Iowa Western Community College; and bulldozing Gretna fullback Andy Janovich, who walked on at NU.
“That kid's a man,” Ball said.
But if those players are good enough to compete at Nebraska's level, why don't other BCS schools offer them?
Because, according to some high school coaches, NU has had such a stranglehold on the area that many rivals don't bother recruiting here. If a Nebraska player is really good, they figure the Huskers will sign him.
“They're not going to invest the time,” Petito said.
Turner Gill did. In January 2010, the then-Kansas coach put the full-court press on Millard South quarterback Bronson Marsh, the state record-holder for career total yardage. One week before signing day, Nebraska responded with a grayshirt offer — Marsh sat out the 2010 season before receiving a scholarship.
Is NU playing chicken with in-state recruits, trying to get scholarship-caliber players for free?
Marsh's high school coach, Andy Means, doesn't think so. He cites Lincoln Southwest senior Josh Banderas, who received an early NU offer and committed in April.
“If a kid is legit,” Means said, “they're gonna offer him.”
Tom Jaworski says you can look back and find a few guys who could've played at Nebraska. “But they weren't difference-makers or program-changers,” he said.
At the end of the day, it's possible Omaha is simply going through a bad talent cycle. The combination of size, speed and skill necessary to excel in the Big Ten just isn't here. Doesn't mean it won't return.
In 1988, Nebraska signed just one Omaha recruit. In '89, for the first time in the scholarship era, NU signed zero. What was wrong with Omaha?
The next winter Calvin Jones arrived at NU, then Tony Veland and Clester Johnson, then Damon Benning and Clinton Childs.
A week from Thursday, a new season begins.
Hundreds of anonymous Omaha-area teenagers — from Seemann Stadium to the Elkhorn River — get a chance to show their stuff. To slip on their pads, step under the lights and chase the legacies of Eric Crouch and Ahman Green.
Twenty years ago, nobody had heard of them, either.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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What factors are disrupting Omaha's prep pipeline to Nebraska? Here are four theories worth pondering:
• System changes.
The drop in Nebraska's in-state scholarship numbers roughly coincides with the end of the Osborne/Solich eras. Coincidence?
The old coaching staffs were made up of assistants who had spent most of their adult lives in Nebraska. Naturally, they formed a bias toward in-state kids.
Moreover, the Huskers had so much depth that coaches could afford to take unpolished prospects.
Said former Creighton Prep and Huskers I-back George Achola: “We knew, in a state of 1.5 million people, we were not going to recruit top-notch wide receivers every year. We were not going to get 3,000-yard passing quarterbacks every year.
“The genius of coach Osborne and his staff was, we're going to create a system where we're going to get those maybe borderline-type kids. We're going to feed them, grow them, create a program where they can be successful.”
Then go find a few game-breakers like Tommie Frazier or Turner Gill. Nebraska has changed, Achola said. It doesn't develop kids as well. And now it's trying to recruit just like everyone else.
The NU offense requires more versatility. Linemen need to pass block. Receivers need soft hands. And because there isn't as much depth, coaches need players to contribute early in their careers. They're more likely to find polished players in high-population states.
Recruiting rankings encourage coaches to seek ready-made players, Skutt coach Matt Turman said.
“In order to be perceived as a big-name school,” Turman said, “that school needs ‘X' amount of three stars and ‘X' amount of four stars and ‘X' amount of five stars.
“They're going after the guys that already have their name out there.”
• Nebraska high school football may be lagging behind.
Most coaches don't think so. But remember, kids across the country are playing more and more. They're honing skills 12 months a year. They're participating in organized spring football.
Turman thinks spring ball “would help a ton.”
Football players go nine months without wearing pads. For linemen, especially, that's a huge disadvantage, Turman said.
An NSAA rule change to allow even 12 practices in late May and early June “would do wonders,” Turman said.
Last Wednesday “was the first day we'll put pads on since we got beat in the playoffs last year,” Turman said. “It's hard to develop if you're not doing it all the time.”
• Maybe it's not a matter of talent, but interest.
Thirteen years after Nebraska's last conference title, the consequences of the Husker slump might be showing up.
“The kids growing up now, they have no clue, no historical perspective,” Achola said. “They do not understand the history or the tradition.”
When you have such an established program with a longstanding leader — when the team is winning championships — kids aspire to be part of it. They're driven to participate, especially when they see other local kids succeeding.
“We wanted to play football at Nebraska,” Achola said. “We grew up wanting to play for Tom Osborne.”
Kids everywhere are specializing in sports at an earlier age — especially in metro areas, where opportunities are many and competition is sharp. A great small-town athlete, even if he doesn't love football, plays anyway because his friends are playing. His school needs him. That's not necessarily true in Omaha anymore.
Remember how Barney Cotton 40 years ago didn't even put on pads until ninth grade? By that point these days, a lot of would-be football players have already targeted another sport in which to specialize.
OPS football recruiting numbers have dropped the past four years. But look at basketball. The district is stronger on the hardwood than at any point in at least 20 years.
“Football is not the passion that it used to be,” Achola said. “I think there are other things kids want to do.”
• Bad timing.
At the end of the Callahan era, when the talent level was high, Nebraska lost five Omaha-area players to major programs.
In 2007, Omaha Central lineman Harland Gunn went to Miami, where he started three years — he's now on the Dallas Cowboys roster. Papillion lineman Kyle Dooley thrived at TCU.
During Callahan's final year, Shaun and Shane Prater committed to Iowa — Shaun earned all-Big Ten honors. Elkhorn's Trevor Robinson chose Notre Dame, where he started 40 games.
Had NU landed those players, the recent numbers from Omaha would look better.
“If the current staff had been there in '07, Harland Gunn would've been at Nebraska, I believe,” Central coach Jay Ball said. “And I believe Shaun Prater and Shane Prater would've been at Nebraska, too.”
— Dirk Chatelain