LINCOLN — In Bo Pelini's first six years as Nebraska's coach, he signed 132 players to scholarships. Forty-three of them — 32.5 percent — committed after Jan. 1, roughly within a month of signing day. Some of the best players in the Pelini era — Alfonzo Dennard, Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell among them — were late commits.
So the Huskers aren't done putting together their 2014 class before the Feb. 5 signing day. Not by a long shot.
Wide receiver Jariah Tolbert became the first January commit of the 2014 class Friday. That gave NU 20 commits, three of whom — cornerback Byerson Cockrell, defensive end Joe Keels and quarterback Zack Darlington — plan to start classes Monday. Before Nebraska left for the Gator Bowl, Pelini said NU could have a “full” class; that is, 25 signees. There are plenty of players the Huskers still want to add to the mix, and they've been aggressive about pursuing players committed to schools that just lost head coaches (Louisville and Vanderbilt) while doing their usual evaluations of high school seniors. NU coaches think a player can mature in his final year of high school in ways a junior film won't show, so they evaluate and offer accordingly.
New dead period rules made it more difficult to jockey for in-home visits or official visits. Coaches couldn't make face-to-face contact with prospects from Dec. 16 through Jan. 15. But starting Friday, Nebraska has nine players lined up for official visits during the next three weekends. And that number could grow. between the official visits, coaches will hit the road, hop on planes and try to woo prospects in their homes.
Here are the positions where Nebraska is still searching for commits, and the most prominent players in that search.
Nebraska has one corner already on campus, Cockrell. He's long, a decent hitter and he'll fit in somewhere. Preferably at corner, but somewhere.
Job one for the NU class is keeping Pflugerville, Texas, cornerback Trai Mosley as a commit. He's reportedly looking around at in-state schools. Mosley's a little short — 5-foot-10, 171 pounds — but so was Dennard. Mosley can jump and run. NU has to dissuade him from looking elsewhere in the wake of secondary coach Terry Joseph's departure.
After that, Nebraska may welcome two more corners. California junior college corner Kweishi Brown — a 6-0, 180-pound three-star prospect who finished with four interceptions and 16 pass breakups — visited in December, liked the school and would compete immediately to start opposite Josh Mitchell. He'll also visit Arizona State and West Virginia. Oregon State offered Saturday. Deion Hallmon, a 6-0, 175-pound three-star from Weston (Fla.) Cypress Bay High School, is a former teammate of current Husker Boaz Joseph and visits NU on Friday and Temple on Jan. 24.
Recent coaching changes at Louisville put 6-3, 180-pound Michael Johnson back on the market. The three-star from Hialeah, Fla., will visit Louisville on Jan. 24 and Nebraska on Jan. 31. Indiana's in the mix, too. But Louisville hired its defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, on Sunday, perhaps in an effort to shore up the recruiting class. If he played corner, Johnson's frame would be akin to that of Stanley Jean-Baptiste, only with a bigger upper body.
If none of the three commits to NU, don't expect the Huskers' coaching staff to quit looking. More offers will go out. Nebraska needs numbers at corner.
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Nebraska's landed studs at guard in Tanner Farmer and D.J. Foster. The only current commit who might land at tackle is Gretna athlete Mick Stoltenberg. He could play tight end or defensive end, too. Colorado transfer Alex Lewis is another player who could emerge at tackle, but Lewis, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for his part in a summer fight in Boulder, has not officially joined the team.
So the Huskers remain on the prowl for several prospects, and could sign two more. Las Vegas Gorman tackle Nick Gates — a 6-4, 275-pound three-star — has been at the top of NU's list for a year. He camped at Nebraska. He visited Nebraska. His high school coach has a strong connection with Husker coach Barney Cotton. But Gates is one coveted prospect. Oregon, Texas A&M and UCLA — all of whom have strong recent résumés on the offensive line — are in the hunt with the Huskers, as is Arizona.
Two more giants are scheduled to visit. The first is 6-9, 310-pound Denzel Ward, a three-star from Chicago who visits Jan. 24 He decommitted from Purdue in December and told HuskerOnline last week that he's down to Syracuse, South Florida and NU, with UCLA lingering in the picture. The second is 6-6, 290-pound Kenyon Frison — a three- or four-star prospect depending on the service — who committed to Utah last February but plans to visit Lincoln on Jan. 24. Arizona State and Oklahoma are battling for Frison, too. He's from West Valley City, Utah. Because Lewis' situation appears to have cleared up some, a junior college tackle may not be in the plans.
Nebraska has four commits — Robert Lockhart, Monte Harrison, Jariah Tolbert and Demornay Pierson-El — but has two more coming for visits. Glenn Irons, the New Orleans Edna Karr High School teammate of Tolbert, is a 5-10, 170-pound, two-star slot receiver. He'll visit Nebraska with Tolbert on Friday. If he has an offer, he could commit. DeSean Blair — a 6-4, 180-pound three-star out of Jacksonville (Fla.) Sandalwood, is a Louisville commit looking around in the wake of Bobby Petrino's hiring. He's scheduled to visit Friday, though Tolbert, NU's most recent commit, has a similar frame. Blair told Rivals.com that Petrino wants him to visit Jan. 24.
Though Ameer Abdullah returns for his senior season and three more scholarship running backs will join him, Nebraska's open to adding the right back to its class to join Larenzo Stewart, a small speedster who's been committed since summer. Durable and tough to tackle, Stewart is similar to Northwestern's Venric Mark.
NU's made a full-year push for Falcon, Colo., athlete Kalen Ballage, a 6-2, 215-pound four-star power back who visited in December. He's technically a soft commit to Arizona State, but still open to change his mind. Players still to visit include Taurus Phillips, an unrated 5-9, 175-pounder from Beacon, N.Y. NU's main competition for now: Villanova. But Phillips' highlight film shows a long-striding, dynamic runner who could help on kick returns. Dallas three-star athlete Corey Avery (5-10, 170) remains slated to visit Jan. 24. Avery visits Texas one week earlier. Nebraska also offered a Vanderbilt commit — four-star Chicago running back Mikale Wilbon (5-9, 195) — after it became clear that James Franklin was headed to Penn State. Of the bunch, Ballage would be the biggest splash, while Phillips offers the most intrigue. His Hudl profile claims he runs a 4.43 40-second dash, and he ran for 1,074 yards on 79 carries out of a single-wing, option offense.
Nebraska would add Richmond, Va., four-star athlete Raymon Minor to the roster, then find the best position for him — probably linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Minor could rush the passer or cover, and you can see NU moving toward more hybrid defenders for a variety of offenses. Minor has Virginia Tech and Miami in his top group. On the line, Cincinnati commit Spencer Williams — a 6-foot-4, 220-pound three-star prospect from Jacksonville, Fla. — recently got a Nebraska offer. Williams would be a lean end who could drop back into coverage in a given circumstance.