LINCOLN — In 35 years of living or working in this state's four biggest cities — Omaha, Lincoln, Memorial Stadium and Grand Island — I've learned most Nebraskans are pragmatists. Ross Els, native Nebraskan and the Huskers' recruiting coordinator, certainly isn't above practicality.
He likes the caliber of players coming for the Big Red Football School camps, which start Friday with quarterback and kicking academies. Thus far, the list of players who plan to attend the June 15 Big Red Weekend stands up in quality and quantity to last year's bunch, which included 2013 signees Nate Gerry, Zach Hannon, Marcus Newby and Terrell Newby.
“But you don't always know who's going to show up when it's on their own dime,” Els said. “You get a little bit nervous.”
Nebraska's not going to be pitching woo to an empty room next weekend. Still, the fact that the NCAA doesn't allow official, paid visits until the fall of a high school player's senior year is a mounting problem for schools who aren't surrounded by BCS talent — and an obstacle for kids who just don't have the money to see schools in the summer.
Els has research since 2008 that shows roughly half of Big Ten recruiting classes have been filled by Sept. 1. That's a lot of players who likely had to pay to tour a school. At least some of those commits didn't want to disrupt their senior seasons with whirlwind official visits. Think about those 48 hours, and you can see why: A kid gets done with his game Friday night, hops on a plane Saturday morning, spends every hour on campus drinking up the program from a fire hose, watches a night game until 11 p.m., drinks from the fire hose again Sunday morning, eats lunch, gets the big talk from the head coach, talks to 14 recruiting services on the drive back to the airport and hops back on a plane to go home.
Whenever Nebraska plays a road game, I perform some version of this routine without the bruises and recruiting talk. My brain by Sunday night is a three-pound bag of cold, clinking marbles.
“Why should a kid have to play his game Friday night and fly in here first thing Saturday morning?” Els asked. “When's he going to recover from his game? What about schoolwork? This is more about the kid's welfare.”
More recruits used to take official visits in December and January — some still do — but most coaches want the commits much sooner and push for it. Coaches want to use the months after the regular season to work on the next class. Which leaves kids committing in the summer.
“The low-income kids can't afford to visit X, Y, Z,” Els said. “It's just unreasonable.”
Els' modest proposal — one he discussed with former athletic director Tom Osborne — is to have one month in the summer (say, June) before their senior year when prospects can take paid official visits. It respects the prospect's financial reality. It respects the high school program. And it gives schools that want/need to recruit nationally — like Nebraska — the chance at a more even playing field.
If coaches accelerate the recruiting calendar, prospects who want to leave home shouldn't have to pass around a collection plate to make a life decision. And I wouldn't be surprised, despite the shifting tectonic plates within the NCAA, that member schools could agree on this change soon. Coaches are around in June for camps anyway. Nebraska should keep pushing for it.
NU 'in the mix'
Els said Nebraska's April/May evaluations went “even a little bit better than we expected.” NU assistants got strong feedback from more national targets at or near the top of the Huskers' board.
“We're in the mix with some really, really good players,” Els said.
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Echoing comments he made to ESPN earlier, Els said Nebraska would like to be full now, but “we don't panic.”
“I feel really good about the conversations we're having,” Els said. “I'd expect a few more to jump in the boat here pretty soon.”
Look for the Huskers to look at guys who blossom physically in their senior years — 2013 signees Ernest Suttles, Dimarya Mixon and Dwayne Johnson fit that bill — as potential late targets. No arguments here. Texas is a case study in why not to trust sophomore and junior evaluations too much. The Longhorns managed to let Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel go elsewhere, stumbling through the quarterback wilderness since 2010 because of early, cocksure offers that haven't paid off.
Nebraska could be handing out a few more offers at its camps next week. Two in-state defensive ends — Gretna's Mick Stoltenberg and Millard West's Harrison Phillips — will be among those looking for a scholarship. According to Husker Online, Omaha North running back and 2015 prospect Calvin Strong will camp at NU, too.
Zack Darlington will work out at Nebraska's Quarterback Academy. Kendrick Doss, who had planned to make the trip to Lincoln for the same camp, told Big Red Report that he couldn't attend because he's having wisdom tooth surgery.
The attraction of IWCC
Lost in the low-scoring Shrine Bowl was the steady, heady play of former Omaha North quarterback Zach Martin, who completed 7 of 13 passes for 77 yards, occasionally throwing into a stiff north wind. One pass thrown with the wind should have been a North touchdown if South Sioux City's Nate Rogers — who later caught the game-winning touchdown — had hauled it in.
Martin had evaded several rushers near midfield and thrown a dart to Rogers, who loomed behind the entire defense, muffed the catch and then stood on the east side of UNK's Foster Field contemplating the botch for a good 10 seconds. Later, Martin never got a chance to heave a last third-quarter pass with the wind because the North committed a false start, then time ran out.
Still, the Iowa Western signee showed a lot of good things in his limited work — better than fellow Iowa Western recruit and former Lincoln Southeast quarterback NaJee Jackson, who threw two interceptions. Martin's ball kept good rotation with or against the wind. He kept a drive alive by hitting Wahoo's Tyler Kavan on third down. He's added weight — nearly 20 pounds, he said — to his 6-foot-3 frame since the end of the high school season, in which the Vikings finished as runner-up to Millard North.
A decade ago, Martin probably would have been weighing a lower-division scholarship offer against walking on at Nebraska. But Iowa Western — junior college national champions in 2012 — is a third path. Martin will take two more years to try to land a scholarship at a major FBS program, much like former Reiver Jake Waters did when he committed to Kansas State over Penn State last winter. Waters is one of two favorites to start for the Wildcats next season.
“Coach (Scott) Strohmeier and his guys run a great system,” Martin said. “They definitely get you ready for the next level.”
The roster is mostly comprised of Iowa natives, but Martin's former North teammate, cornerback Chris Tyler, is at IWCC now. Lincoln Southeast running back Devin Washington — a personal favorite for his hard-nosed running style — and Millard North's Michael Milenkovich are heading to Council Bluffs, too. Iowa Western's success of sending 17 players last year to Division I FBS schools makes it attractive for the future, as does its relatively urban setting. The jucos in Kansas churn out a ton of players, but those schools and towns can be spartan, unforgiving.
Omaha Creighton Prep coach Chris Nizzi said neither advantage is the top reason metro kids are giving deeper consideration to IWCC.
“No. 1, they win,” Nizzi said. “A lot of kids want to be a part of that.”
Scanning the nation
>> Iowa picked up its fourth and fifth commits for 2014 in Washington, D.C., cornerback Omar Truitt and running back C.J. Hilliard of Cincinnati.
A three-star, 5-foot-11, 180-pound player who could play offense or defense, Truitt pulled the trigger quickly for the Hawkeyes. It's the first recruiting victory for new Iowa assistant Chris White, who came from the Minnesota Vikings.
White also landed the 5-10, 180-pound Hilliard, whose highlight film shows an impressive burst.
>> Pittsburgh-area linebacker Chase Winovich became Michigan's 12th commit on June 1. That was nine days after Akron star linebacker Dante Booker committed to Ohio State. Both players held offers from the Buckeyes and Wolverines. Eight of UM's commits hail from outside the Michigan/Ohio region.
>> After Scranton, Pa., offensive tackle Noah Beh committed to Penn State on June 1, the Nittany Lions are two-thirds finished with the 2014 class. PSU stands at 10 commits and can sign 15 players next year because of NCAA violations from the Sandusky scandal.
>> Illinois wants to bust the door down in Chicago. 247Sports reported Wednesday that Illini coach Tim Beckman worked out more than 700 players at three camps in the Windy City metro.
>> Texas A&M landed one of the nation's top quarterback prospects this week when Kyle Allen picked the Aggies over Ohio State, Notre Dame and UCLA. A&M signed two quarterbacks last year, and Johnny Manziel is but a sophomore. I know pundits presume Manziel will turn pro after his third year in college, but if SEC defenses adjust to him and Kevin Sumlin's offense like I suspect they will, the sledding won't be so easy this season.
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