HIAWATHA, Kan. — The high school stadium is something out of a rugged football dream: Half-inch grass in the August heat, a two-foot crown at midfield and old, yellow goalposts that lean gently into the back of each end zone.
Defensive lineman Peyton Newell wreaked a lot of havoc on that field the past three years. More than two months ago at Big Red Weekend, he decided he'd try to wreak a little more in college at Nebraska. He committed to coach Bo Pelini, all of his assistants — including lead recruiter Rick Kaczenski — and even the 2013 recruiting class that had just arrived on campus. Pelini razzed Newell over that last group.
“I couldn't help myself,” Newell said with a smile Friday, when the four-star recruit finally announced at a Hiawatha High School pep rally what had been a relatively well-kept secret outside of Husker media and message board circles: NU had landed its top defensive tackle prospect for the 2014 class, a guy who finished with 61 tackles — 37 for loss — and 10 sacks in 2012. He had 74 tackles in 2011, including 26 for loss.
To pick Nebraska, the 6-foot-2, 280-pound Newell had to spurn in-state programs Kansas and Kansas State, plus 31 other schools that offered. South Carolina was the only school more than two hours from home that made it into his top four, though USC, Georgia, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa were among those knocking.
He still hadn't informed KU and KSU coaches by the time of his announcement, though surely they must have known by the time he took the podium he wasn't staying in-state. Newell conceded he had phone calls to make after a long photo session with what seemed to be half the town and a short stint with the media in Hiawatha's weight room, where racks of free weights sat under the school's handwritten list of seven lifting records.
Newell owns five of seven, according to the wall, but those haven't been updated since his sophomore year.
“I'm sure they're not very happy right now,” said Newell of KU and KSU. “But, at the end of the day, it was my decision and where I think I can reach my full potential. Nebraska's going to be that place.”
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The Husker coaching staff went to considerable lengths to send home the message before Newell's commitment. Newell was an unofficial visitor to two of Nebraska's home games last year. NU invited him to Junior Day in early January. Newell's father, Frank, said Nebraska had every assistant in contact with Peyton in the spring. It didn't hurt that both Pelini and then-Athletic Director Tom Osborne gave Peyton's 6-year-old brother Bradyn a hug.
“It was never about accumulating offers, but seeing who's ultimately, really interested and narrow it down,” Frank Newell said. “A lot of schools preach family — Nebraska is family. It's the one of the few schools where everybody reached out to him. Rick Kaczenski, Terry Joseph, John Garrison. Position did not matter.”
NU gets an all-state player who's dominated at the Kansas 4-A level, the state's third-largest, as a stand-up defensive end and tight end. Peyton Newell said he plans to slide inside to a three-technique tackle once he goes to Nebraska and become a “sideline-to-sideline”-type player. In many highlight tapes, Newell lined up far outside the offensive tackle in a two-point stance and either blitzed unabated to the quarterback or bowled a blocker over with a quick bull rush.
In his school's roundhouse gym, Newell said he's ready to disprove doubters who suggest he so outclasses the competition in northeastern Kansas — Hiawatha is 18 miles from Falls City, Neb. — that he hasn't been properly tested. Those doubters include Rivals and ESPN, two of the four major recruiting services that still have Newell as a three-star prospect despite output that would suggest otherwise.
“I went to several national camps and got high marks, and I dominated at most of those,” Newell said after donning an old-school, black-and-red Nebraska hat with the Bill Byrne-preferred “Huskers” in script. He also thanked his mother, Missy, who died when he was 5 years old. “I'm definitely ready for the next level of competition.”
Nebraska also gets another recruiter. Newell said he'll work on building the Huskers' class immediately — and he has connections from national camps to do it. He said he considers himself, Tanner Farmer, Gretna's Mick Stoltenberg and Lincoln Southeast's Luke Gifford and D.J. Foster the “core” of the class and guys who will be key to building it. Newell plans to attend every NU home game — Memorial Stadium is two hours from Hiawatha — and woo whoever tries to visit.
“I'm definitely putting the pressure on,” he said. “I definitely want to get this class as good as we can. We will get there. The recruiting process takes a lot of time. But I plan on making this recruiting class what it should be.”
First assignment: Rohan Blackwood, the Brooksville (Fla.) Nature Coast defensive end who visits Nebraska Saturday and Wisconsin next week. Newell has already established an inner sanctum for his pitch: the Huskers' video game room, which Newell describes as “legit.”
“That's where I'm going to spread some Husker love,” Newell said.
He's waited long enough.