LINCOLN — During the biggest recruiting weekend in memory — that line has become a broken record since coach Mike Riley arrived at Nebraska — Husker football will try to use a secret weapon.
Mom and Dad.
Starting this year, the NCAA allows football programs to pay for the parents or guardians of a prospect to accompany their son on an official visit. Some teams — especially in the SEC or Texas — won’t see much of a change from that rule. Nebraska will, big time. Parents can’t just drive from California, Michigan or Washington for an NU football game, and some of them couldn’t previously afford to fly in on their own dime. But now the Huskers can pay.
“It’s an awesome rule — we should have had it forever,” Riley said. “I really like it when the parents come.”
“To me, it’s huge,” said NU offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, who has the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle — five-star prospect Foster Sarell — visiting this weekend for the Fresno State game. “Some people could afford it. Some people have so many official visits that they probably can’t afford it (for all of them). And then there’s obviously people that just flat-out can’t go. I think that is a great, great thing for us. ... We as a staff have always tried to encourage parents to come.”
Some staffs mean that last part more than others. Parents and their sons generally tend to be impressed by different things. Nebraska’s strengths — if you don’t know them, go back and read our “Big Red Machine” special section from Sunday — play very much to the parents. NU does “substance” well, making up for a slight shortage of “sizzle.”
Cavanaugh uses a word often said by Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst.
“What are your 'separators?'” Cavanaugh said. “I think the people at Nebraska, the Life Skills, and Dennis Leblanc, what he does with his academic staff — that’s second to none.”
Imagine being a parent of one of this weekend’s top recruits, and the whole “NFL” pitch being but a small part of the story. Nebraska will tout its student-athlete perks — the seemingly endless supply of fresh food, the laptops, the postgraduate options, the community service opportunities, the phalanx of academic counselors — that some of these kids have never enjoyed in their life. Imagine seeing all that spread out before a parent who works 50 hours a week to make ends meet.
That’s a pretty good pitch — that the Huskers could make only intermittently until now. Parent official visit turnout should be higher than it has been. And getting Mom and Dad in Nebraska’s corner has long been a key to securing a commitment from a player far away.
“If a guy wants to see a school and know everything about it, his parents should be in on it. We should be able to pay for it,” Riley said. “And the unfairness part of it really hits home when you’re a little bit rural. Guys have to travel a distance, and it becomes more expensive for their parents to come. This evens things out a little bit.”
With the crop of prospects planning to visit Memorial Stadium this weekend, Nebraska needs all the allies it can get.
Sarell, from Graham, Washington, is the headliner because offensive tackles this athletic and this big — 6-foot-6, 315 pounds according to Sarell’s coach, Eric Kurle — are rare at the high school level. Rarer than fast, shifty wideouts. Sarell is the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect according to 247 Sports, No. 2 according to Scout and No. 3 according to Rivals. Has there ever been a higher-rated prospect on campus?
“He’s so athletic and he has such great feet,” said Kurle, whose son is a lineman on the team. Kurle has known Sarell since youth football. Sarell has long been the biggest kid his age, Kurle said, but he moves easily for that size. Sarell played basketball and baseball growing up, but his “great feel” for football — and his size — made him a fit for that game, Kurle said. Sarell played quarterback as a kid. Now he protects them.
Sarell started getting scholarship offers in the ninth grade, and one of his strongest relationships has long been with Cavanaugh, who has recruited Sarell for four years.
“Those two get along really well,” Kurle said. “Coach Cav is the kind of guy the linemen like. He’s down to earth and a father figure.”
Nebraska has had mixed success luring top offensive line prospects. I enjoy the way those stories come together — or don’t.
Coaches promptly turned Baker Steinkuhler into a lanky defensive tackle. They coaxed Tyler Moore to Nebraska for one year before he left — remember the hubbub over that? — then spent several seasons pursuing Andrus Peat, only to see Peat pick Stanford on signing day. Current starting left tackle Nick Gates was a big win, but not an easy process — Gates, a Las Vegas Bishop Gorman graduate, probably wouldn’t be at Nebraska without the connection between former offensive line coach Barney Cotton and Gates’ high school coach. Cotton now calls plays for that same coach, Tony Sanchez, at UNLV.
Last recruiting cycle, Matt Farniok was a big win — Nebraska coaches want to redshirt him, but they love his upside and potential — but he isn’t the same caliber of prospect of Sarell. Perhaps only Peat was.
The Cardinal will be in the mix for Sarell, as will Washington. Notre Dame and Alabama probably round out the top five, Kurle said.
Sarell is only the start of this weekend’s star-studded group. Here’s a closer look at other guys headed to Lincoln. Visits are fluid based on any number of things, but here’s whom Nebraska expects:
» The Detroit duo. Nebraska football is potentially hosting three five-star prospects this weekend, as well as its usual trio of prospects from Calabasas (Calif.) High School — Darnay Holmes, Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Tristan Gebbia. You know those guys pretty well. Johnson and Gebbia are Husker commits, while Holmes — who may be making an unofficial visit — is a five-star athlete who could play cornerback or wideout.
But my interest turns most on two prospects from Detroit Cass Technical High School: five-star wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and four-star defensive back Jaylen Kelly-Powell. They face each other each day in practice.
“They get better, that’s for sure,” Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher said.
Cass Tech is one of the top programs in the nation; MaxPreps has Wilcher’s team ranked No. 20 this week. More than that, Cass Tech turns out really good prospects for the Big Ten; the best player in recent years, running back Mike Weber, will be Ohio State’s starter this season.
Along comes Peoples-Jones, the 2015 Nike Sparq ratings champion. I pay attention to that, in part because the last two Husker recruits to finish in the top 100 of those ratings — Tre Bryant and Dedrick Young — will play or have played as true freshmen. Peoples-Jones’ highlight tape is perfectly sufficient in all the usual ways wideout/kick returner tape tends to be — the top 20-30 receivers all have pretty great highlights — but I particularly liked two plays in it: One where he dives for the end zone without a hint of an angle, but makes it anyway; and a downfield block he delivers that’s worthy of Kenny Bell’s shot in the 2012 Big Ten championship game.
“Donovan wants to do everything the right way,” Wilcher said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Peoples-Jones gets it done in the classroom — he has a 3.9 GPA. Kelly-Powell has a 3.8. Kelly-Powell is one of my favorite of Nebraska’s targets in this cycle. He visited for Friday Night Lights and played it a little cool at the start of the event, but was fired up and one of the top players there by the end.
Wilcher intimated that Kelly-Powell’s opinion of Nebraska is playing a role in the dual official visits.
“Jaylen came back and raved about it,” Wilcher said.
» Two California kids from perhaps the nation’s top shutdown secondary: Jaylon Redd and Thomas Graham from Rancho Cucamonga High School. Redd and Graham — top-100 prospects according to at least one recruiting service — play in a secondary that has four guys with FBS offers. The 5-9, 180-pound Redd is stockier but acrobatic when going for the ball, while the 5-11, 175-pound Graham has excellent closing speed and good technique. Both played safety last season, but project to corner in college. Redd is equally skilled as a back on offense.
The 5-9, 175-pound Calvin has a broader range of suitors — Alabama, Notre Dame, Ole Miss and Oregon State are in the mix — but significant interest in the Huskers.
Here’s what he told us he’s seeking: “Just a second home, a place where I feel comfortable at and see if I can see myself there for the next three, four years.”
If you’re wondering whether NU receivers coach Keith Williams was talking to prospects during his suspension, the answer is yes: Calvin said earlier this week he’d been talking to Williams “every day.”
» A big defensive tackle. That would be Dallas Bishop Dunne’s Damion Daniels. The 6-3, 315-pound prospect visited over the summer for Friday Night Lights. He’s a big, strong, hydrant-shaped kid. The three-star is a work in progress, but possesses the kind of size and agility that have won him major offers from LSU, Michigan, Iowa and Texas, among others.
» The top commit in Nebraska’s class. That would be linebacker Avery Roberts of Wilmington, Delaware, whom linebackers coach Trent Bray plucked from the East Coast over Penn State and other schools. Roberts is good enough to keep attracting attention, so NU wants to lock down the commit on this visit.