LINCOLN — Ross Els is like a lot of Nebraskans you know. Hard-working. A little self-deprecating. Pragmatic. Blunt. The Lincoln native and Husker linebackers coach doesn't oversell. Not his unit, his coaching of it or the 2013 recruiting class that he's in charge of assembling.
“We want to fill up this class as soon as possible and hang on like crazy until Signing Day,” Els said.
Not an ounce of spin in that line. And usually recruiting coordinators, by their very nature, try to spin it a little.
Els is an intriguing fit — the right one — as NU's recruiting coordinator. I initially thought coach Bo Pelini made a curious choice picking him to succeed John Papuchis, who himself succeeded The Professor, Ted Gilmore. When Pelini culled Els from Ohio's staff, I wondered if Els would be thrilled just to merely return home and find a place at a BCS program.
Happy to be wrong. In Els' second year with NU, he's challenged some of this staff's preconceived notions and made good tweaks to the Huskers' recruiting process.
“You need someone like Ross who is constantly pushing what we need to do recruiting-wise into continuing to evaluate,” Pelini said. “That's one of the biggest keys. You can't just say OK, the guys we've evaluated up to this point, that's it.”
Said Els: “We're trying to find new ways to recruit at Nebraska.”
Els asks the right questions. He handles the recruiting media well; they'll tell you Els “gets it.” He listens for prospects' subtle answers. And he's come up with big tent pole weekends as a potential solution.
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So here comes a glut of official visitors — Els foresees around 15 of them, the most in recent memory — for Nebraska's game against Wisconsin. Some are NU commits who came for Els' summer brainchild, the Big Red Weekend. They decided they wanted to attend the same game. The Badgers. The alternate uniforms. The Saturday night scene.
“So let's get the non-committed kids in there too, and let's see if we can show them what a family we have,” said Els, who's taken Nebraska's close-knit, us-against-you vibe and turned into a selling point straight out of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates playbook.
Now Els will call upon NU's recruiting support staff to pull off a lot of logistics while the coaches prepare for Wisconsin.
“All hands are going to be on deck,” Els said. Graduate assistants, student interns, you name it. Nebraska has to make sure the right people pick up the kids and their parents at the airport and settle them in for a Friday to Sunday crash course in all things Husker.
Current Nebraska players play their part — high school commits naturally want to meet Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead. When freshman Imani Cross took his official visit, running backs coach Ron Brown told him: You gotta call Rex. Burkhead's visit at a basketball game played a part in Cross, one of Nebraska's most talented freshmen, committing.
“I was just trying to bring him on board,” said Burkhead, who also hosted Kenny Bell on his recruiting trip. The two played “Call of Duty” most of the night.
Coaches and players will get some time around the prospects Friday night before the long Saturday, when recruits will get to see how NU prepares for a big game. Sunday, there's a little more time to deliver the message and look for a yes. And the Huskers do want a “yes” from non-commits on the visit, Els said.
The biggest prospects this weekend also double as the biggest need since Ryan Klachko and Tyler Moore left the program — offensive linemen.
»Six-foot-3, 265-pound J.D Hinnant appears to have narrowed his list to Nebraska, California and Oregon, where he'll make an official visit Nov. 17. The Huskers project Hinnant to a guard or tackle spot.
»Six-foot-8, 290-pound David Knevel is the mystery tackle prospect, a Brantford, Ontario, native who's flown onto the radar the past few months. A number of Big Ten programs, including Wisconsin, have offered, and Alabama is sniffing around.
»Six-foot-6, 280-pound Phoenix native Kenny Lacy committed to UCLA after the Bruins beat NU 36-30 in the Rose Bowl, but the tackle prospect will still take all of his visits. He went to Arkansas on Sept. 14 and still has California and Oklahoma on the list.
»Six-foot-6, 295-pound Christian Morris is the second of two UCLA commits making the trip. Morris committed to the Bruins in mid-July. The four-star tackle prospect from Memphis, Tenn., kept open his options, however, and has offers from Clemson, USC and Oklahoma, among others. Nebraska will be his first official visit.
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None of the four hail from the Big Ten region; that's a sign that NU remains committed to national recruiting. Els said that in spots where Nebraska has had success — California and Texas among them — the time and effort poured in won't change.
But Els does want to edit NU's work elsewhere, spearheading a coaches' meeting last week on the very topic. Els wants to take hours from where Nebraska's “spinning our wheels” and redistribute them to the Big Ten region. Specifically Ohio, where Nebraska could use three coaches to split the state and scour for talent.
“Because of my ties, there are probably some areas of Ohio that we are going to recruit harder than other areas of Ohio,” said Pelini, referring to Youngstown Cardinal Mooney. “That's something we're continuing to keep an eye on and making sure we do have a presence there and going forward and determining whether we need to put another guy in that state. Because that's a big state.”
Can Nebraska consistently pull excellent skill talent from anywhere other than Mooney? I posed that question to Els, pointing out that NU's most dynamic athletes — Taylor Martinez, Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, Rex Burkhead, Jamal Turner, Charles Jackson — aren't from Ohio.
“Ohio State gets them,” Els said. “They can't get every single one of them. We're going to beat them every once in awhile. We think we can.”
I think so, too, but it also means winning in places where Nebraska's struggled for the last decade: Iowa, Missouri and Colorado. In 247Sports top 247 for 2014, you'll find seven players from those states. NU should offer all of them. I don't think it's unreasonable to land five of them.
But that's 18 months away. Els, the pragmatic one, just wants to pull this weekend off without a hitch — and with a few more commits for the family.
Pelini wants to add another selling point.
“The best thing we want to show the recruits a ‘W' on the scoreboard,” he said.
Contact the writer:
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