LINCOLN — When Ryan Held took the head coaching job at Highland (Kan.) Community College two years ago, the program was one of the worst in junior college football. Losses of 89-0 and 90-7 attest to that.
But the former Nebraska walk-on receiver and graduate assistant turned Highland around quickly. The team won six games this year — including an upset win at Butler (Kan.) Community College, where Held had been offensive coordinator.
Defensive end Joe Keels, one of several prospects making official visits to Lincoln this weekend, was a big part of that turnaround. The Huskers wouldn't mind flipping the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Kenosha, Wis., native from a Wisconsin commit to Nebraska.
“He's definitely open,” said Held, who played for the Huskers in the 1990s and whose staff attended an NU practice this spring. “He's heard about the success and tradition of Nebraska. Joe just wants to make sure he's making the right decision.”
Keels, a high-three, low-four star end depending on the service, had “five or six sacks” in the pass-happy Jayhawk League, Held said. Highland, about 30 miles from Falls City, Neb., used Keels as a pass rusher, occasionally dropping him into coverage.
“Joe's athletically able to do a lot of the things Randy Gregory can do,” Held said, making a comparison with the Huskers' budding defensive star. Gregory has been on a tear in wins over Northwestern and Michigan. And though NU's defensive coaching staff sometimes gets dinged for its scheme, when Bo Pelini and John Papuchis get a signature piece like Gregory — or Keels — they highlight him.
Whether NU can flip a talent like Keels, who strikes me as more of a cross between Avery Moss and Greg McMullen, is one of the questions of this recruiting weekend.
Nebraska gets its biggest game of the year versus Michigan State, an afternoon kickoff time, spring-like temperatures in mid-November and a decent list — as of Thursday — of official visitors.
Here are the guys not committed to NU heading into Lincoln:
Raymon Minor, 6-foot-3/205 pounds, athlete, Richmond (Va.) Benedictine: Versatile high-three/low-four star who could play wide receiver, cornerback, safety or even linebacker if he bulked up a little. Ohio State has offered, but nearby Virginia Tech is the team to beat. NU continues trying to bust down the door in the mid-Atlantic region; defensive coordinator Papuchis hails from Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C.
Chance Waz, 5-10/165, safety/corner, Pflugerville (Hendrickson) Texas: A Colorado three-star commit, Waz is taking the trip with Pflugerville teammate and NU commit Trai Mosley. Nebraska not only wants to flip Waz — a big hitter who needs a little weight — but hold onto Mosley, a dynamic corner who now has an Oklahoma offer.
Josh Keys, 6-2, 190, cornerback, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College: The three-star prospect likes the blow-up shot more than most and shows good skill as a kick returner. Several SEC schools have offered. Leaves his feet too much, but he's strong, with speed.
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Husker commits making their official visits include athlete Demornay Pierson-El and quarterback Zack Darlington, the Apopka, Fla., prospect who is taking off the rest of the season to recover from two concussions. Darlington committed to NU over Ohio State this summer without having seen a game. Saturday will be his first.
“I've been told they have a great fan base, but I am excited to see it myself,” Darlington said by text.
Whether Darlington is cleared for spring practice — remember, he graduates in December — he'll be a key cog in NU's recruiting class. He's a natural leader. He group-texts other Husker commits. Given that Nebraska will honor Darlington's scholarship regardless of his recovery, there will be few better ambassadors for the program.
As you examine the three quarterbacks that NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck has recruited — Darlington, Johnny Stanton and current starter Tommy Armstrong — you do notice that connective vocal piece among all three. Not only do they like being out front, they're comfortable, even aggressively comfortable in their own skin. There are comfortable kids who are too quiet and loud kids whose loudness masks insecurity, but Beck looks for — and, in my opinion, finds — the right blend of enthusiasm, toughness and humor.
“You can't time it, you can't weigh it, it's not a star — you can't put a star on it,” Beck said. “You gotta find it. Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah, (Kansas quarterback) Todd Reesing, all the guys I've recruited. I look for the guys who have that 'it' factor. Love playing the game. Put teammates first. Do whatever they have to do to help their team. Work hard. Smart.
“I've been a lot of places, met a lot of people, seen a lot of things. I've coached at all different levels. You're able to have a great measuring tool for what's successful and why. One common denominator is: There's players like that on those teams.”
From hoops to football
There are players like Gregory, Moss and Zach Sterup on good teams, too. That is: Kids who grew up stars in other sports but switched to major college football when the time was right. In the case of Gregory, Moss and Sterup, it was basketball. Each of them needed a little time to mold their physiques to football — Gregory still battles to keep on weight, and I suspect Sterup has to eat a lot of calories to pull it off — but continue to watch this trend in college football. It's not going anywhere.
In Moss' case, he was repeatedly prodded in his Tempe, Ariz., high school by the Peat Brothers — former Husker Todd and current Stanford Cardinal Andrus — to play football. He finally did. When Pelini went to Moss' high school to recruit Peat, he saw Moss.
“Does this kid play football?” Pelini asked. Moss hadn't played much at the time. He's now one of the better young defensive ends in the nation.
“You could see the things that I would look for in a defensive end,” Pelini said at his weekly press conference.
Moss said he got strong basketball interest from UC Santa Barbara, Pepperdine, Denver and Boise State. He was second-team all-state in basketball as a senior, with an 18-point, 21-rebound, four-block line in an Arizona state title game. By then, he'd already signed with Nebraska to play defensive end.
“I had so much more opportunity in football,” Moss said. “I still turn on the TV and watch the NBA and college basketball and think about how it might have been. I still go to the rec in the offseason and push my little rec dreams.”
Sterup, the Hastings St. Cecilia grad thrust into playing time by injuries, needed two years to develop into a guy who's headed for a starting job next year. Pelini said Sterup, 6-8, was “around 250” pounds before college. He's listed at 315 now.
“Some of it is guesswork, but trying to figure out where they are now and what is their ability and what is their frame and how much weight they are going to be able to put on,” Pelini said.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after Thursday's practice: