Watching Nebraska basketball play hard — and lose — at Indiana Wednesday night, it struck me again how much of a visitor the Huskers sometimes remain in their new league.
Listening to the Big Ten Network announcers, there's clear affinity for Hoosier hoops. As you'd expect. As, perhaps, there should be.
Indiana is a brand not only in college basketball, but in the Big Ten, familiar like a comfortable pair of loafers. Indiana competing for the Big Ten crown — while clearly benefiting from a soft schedule — is nevertheless a tide that floats all boats. So if the broadcast seemed a bit warm to Indiana's cause — and, from these ears, it did — well, it is to be expected.
For many years, in Big Eight and Big 12 broadcasts, the same was often true of Nebraska football. That warmth speaks to a lot of things — excellence, nostalgia, tradition, etc. — that Nebraska football represented. You could hear it in the voices of media and even opposing coaches like Mack Brown — who paid Nebraska an almost patronizing amount of respect while kicking in the Huskers' teeth — and Rick Neuheisel, whose teams generally just got their teeth kicked in.
I was reminded of this because it is an advantage Nebraska football lacks right now in its new league. At the long dining table of the Big Ten, it isn't seated at the head of the table or even precisely near it. Whatever cachet Nebraska may have drawn for Tom Osborne, who led the athletic department when the Huskers joined the league, it has largely lost, because Osborne has retired and generally keeps his distance from Mike Riley's football program.
The operation of Nebraska football belongs to a guy with less experience in the league than NU has itself. And so, invariably — for all of the recruiting advantages Riley brings to the table, for the personality and the NFL offense — it wasn't going to be easy erecting an elite 2016 recruiting class.
You had a coach learning a school. A whole new staff also learning that school. The coach and that staff learning an entirely new recruiting region. The region learning that coach and that staff. And then you had a 6-7 record and all the whispers in the wind of administrative discord above chancellor Harvey Perlman and athletic director Shawn Eichorst.
Nebraska finished 24th. Pretty good. Fifth in the Big Ten. Not breathing the rare air of the top 15 or the top 10, which, in my experience, is a cut or two above 25th.
To erect that kind of class for 2017, well, it'll take a coup. Not an insurrection. A bold move. A series of bold, swift moves. And it'll take winning more games on the field, too.
But it's hard not to see Nebraska's accelerated start toward the 2017 class — plus some changes in recruiting operations — as a sign that the Huskers intend to get precisely that kind of coup. If there's one thing that recruiting analysts touted about Riley's crew before they arrived at Nebraska, it was organization, and it does appear that organization is kicking in.
So early in the cycle, here are some things to watch closely:
>> Many more early offers. It's seemingly a daily event that Nebraska is offering some prospect around the country and that prospect is announcing that offer on Twitter. As Nebraska director of player of personnel Ryan Gunderson said Tuesday on "The Bottom Line," NU wants to be a "year-and-a-half" ahead in its prospect offers. So Nebraska is not only courting 2017 prospects but offering 2018 prospects — and, in one case, a 2019 prospect — as well. You can see all the 2017 targets here.
In a good Huskers Illustrated piece, Gunderson said that Nebraska's coaches are speeding up the pace with offers because the evaluations are happening quicker — and being done by NU staff.
Now, among those offers, it's better to pay closer attention, in my opinion, to this order:
— In-state. (None of those yet)
— Within the Big Ten West footprint, excluding Chicago.
— Within the 500-mile radius — that's Minneapolis to the Oklahoma/Texas border (north/south) and Colorado to Chicago (east/west).
— All quarterback offers (Nebraska will take one in the class).
— At positions of need (offensive tackle, defensive line, wideout, tight end).
— Junior college offers.
— Offers on three-star prospects in California who don't have USC and UCLA offers.
— Any offer made by linebacker coach Trent Bray, because Bray has proven he can attract interest from anyone, anywhere.
— Offers to prospects in New Orleans, Atlanta and Miami.
>> A growing gameplan in terms of satellite camps. Presuming there are satellite camps this year — the ACC and SEC want to shut those down — Gunderson said on TBL that Nebraska wants to explore having them in New Orleans, the Bay Area and St. Louis, since Nebraska found that attracting St. Louisians to Nebraska was a tough task. Gunderson added that he'd like to see the final vision on satellite camps include a variety of schools at one locale.
"(Hopefully) the trend will be where you can go to a satellite camp that has five different schools at it," Gunderson said. "It's got some premier schools, it's got some group of five schools, it's got some FCS schools and maybe some D-2s. Where you can be seen by a bunch of different people. That's hopefully where this thing trends. If a kid does have to pay $20, $30, $40 to go to a camp, at least he's not being seen by one school, he's being seen by five schools and getting all those different opportunities."
Gunderson's comments once again offer me the opportunity to stump for a Big Ten Combine, in which the whole stinking league allows Northwestern to pick some really nice high school field outside Chicago and welcomes every prospect in the nation who wants to come in and work out for every Big Ten school.
>> A heavy emphasis on five dates on the calendar. Nebraska's Junior Day in March, the April 16 spring game and three Big Red Weekends/Friday Night Lights events in June. Nebraska did a fair job of attracting prospects to these FNL camps, but there's some desire, I'm sure, to do better with the during-the-week camps where more instruction is done and some more individualized workouts can take place.
>> The quarterback situation resolved by end of spring? I think it might be? One of Nebraska's top targets, Calabasas (Calif.) signal caller Tristan Gebbia, just finished an unofficial visit to West Virginia and is now on an unofficial visit to Ole Miss, where his father played college football. Gebbia is scheduled to unofficially visit Nebraska March 5 along with other Calabasas teammates Keyshawn Johnson, Jr. and Darnay Holmes. Gebbia strikes me as a Nebraska or Ole Miss guy, but don't discount Washington, either.
Should Gebbia pick elsewhere, watch out for Sayville, N.Y. quarterback Jack Coan, an intriguing prospect out on Long Island who is spending this spring visiting programs all over the Midwest. He comes to Nebraska April 16. There's a lot of mutual interest there. Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf went out to see Coan in December and offered him after watching him work out. Coan's a winner, near the top of his class academically (he's taking four AP classes this year) and probably a little more mobile than Gebbia.
>> The Calabasas crew. Nebraska already has one Calabasas player in 2016 signee Marquel Dismuke. NU is seemingly in the lead for Johnson, whose dad, Keyshawn Johnson, Sr., played for Riley, and has visited Nebraska several times and seems to love the place. Johnson is a good prospect, but his buddy, Holmes, is a five-star stud who can jump out of the gym.