Lamar Jackson

With a 6-7 record, NU couldn’t sell four-star defender Lamar Jackson on winning. But it could sell wins. He witnessed the Michigan State game.


LINCOLN — Happy Hope Day.

National signing day is a national holiday, a national hope holiday. Nobody has a bad signing day. Everybody has a good recruiting class. Hope is where you find it.

Even after a 6-7 season.

You want hope? Here it is, Husker fans.

Nebraska signed a recruiting class that ranked in the top 25 of two recruiting services and in the top 28 of two others.

This, months after a season of unmentionable games and memories you hauled out to the side of your street in a trash can — not the recycle bin, mind you.

Now, we’ve been down this sugarplum lane before. Bill Callahan signed the No. 1 class after a 5-6 season. But that was also five years after the last Big 12 championship, and the 1997 national title was still an image in the rearview mirror.

Bo Pelini had a few top 25 classes, but always after he won.

What Mike Riley and his staff have done here is noteworthy, and full of hope, considering some of the circumstances in 2016.

To wit:

» The kids who signed up for Big Red were not born when the program won its last national championship.

» The coaches who recruited them have never won a championship in the college game.

» Nebraska has bells and whistles but no longer leads the country in bells and whistles. Everybody’s got ’em.

» You had the Michigan Man himself, Jim Harbaugh, bothering to take a poke at the 6-7 threat that is Nebraska, reportedly intimating to a tight end recruit that all he would be doing at NU is blocking. That should tell you right there Harbaugh didn’t catch many Husker games last fall.

» Finally, talk about hurdles. One reason four-star receiver Desmond Fitzpatrick didn’t come to Nebraska was not wanting to play in the weaker Big Ten West division.

Hey, Purdue and Illinois, could you pick things up a bit? Oh, right. Nebraska lost to both last year.

Maybe what Fitzpatrick meant was he didn’t want to play in such a tough division.

This likely is not one of the great recruiting classes in the history of Nebraska Februarys. We won’t know that for at least three years, anyway, but chances are Riley didn’t send away for a national title Wednesday.

But considering the doubts that followed him and his staff here from Oregon State a year ago, and the doubts that were intensified so many weekends last fall, this was an impressive effort.

A year ago, Riley was the fresh face, the anti-other guy, full of sunshine and wonder and enthusiasm about “getting” to recruit to Nebraska. And the reaction around Nebraska was, this would serve the new guy well. Being glass half-full is half the battle here.

But then came the season and so many clunkers, and you wondered how this would impact recruiting. Riley could sell hope. He could sell opportunity and playing time.

But could he sell winning? Kids want to go where they can win. For further evidence, see the brand names in the top 10 of the rankings.

Well, yes. That is, he could sell wins. Michigan State. UCLA. And thank goodness for that 5-7 bowl bid.

For instance, California defensive back Lamar Jackson, arguably the top player in the class, was on hand for the win against Michigan State. Jackson was there to see the American Bandstand scene that took place after the breathless comeback win.

Did that help? It didn’t hurt. A kid can see 5-7, but if you pull him aside and sell him vision, sell him, ‘This is what the plan is once you come aboard ...”

And then when you get your at-bat on ESPN against West Coast brand name UCLA and you connect, you’ve got another selling point.

When you finish 6-7, it’s all about selective narrative.

“What made it better for us was our finish,” Riley said after Wednesday’s press conference. “What we tried to emphasize was the finish. Look at what we became down the stretch.

“Lamar Jackson was here to see Michigan State, and so he could see what was going on. The UCLA game, that was important, too, in selling our vision.

“When you don’t do as well as you want, you can overcome it if you know what you want to become. We just don’t want to do that (6-7) again.”

This was a good day, a good class, and the thing is, it could have been better. If four-star defensive back Isaiah Simmons (Clemson) and Fitzpatrick (Louisville) had chosen NU, the class ends up in the top 20.

There’s a lot to like with who’s coming. Nebraska needs offensive linemen, quarterbacks and pass-rushers. Matt Farniok and John Raridon are “big” gets to help bolster the line. NU needs to start matching quarterback talent to scheme, and Patrick O’Brien appears to do that.

The Huskers didn’t get a player from Texas, but a new California pipeline might be developing. Check back in a month, when Keyshawn Johnson Jr. says he’ll announce from among NU, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and USC.

That’s a commit that could light a fire for Riley. But first things first. Nebraska needs to get back to winning the division. Riley did the recruiting part, getting the highest ranking in the West.

Rankings are rankings. What happened Wednesday will mean more if Nebraska can rediscover the lost art of developing players.

Boyd Epley, the strength and conditioning icon who is back as assistant athletic director for S&C, says the edge is coming back.

It’s there in the new Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab, where Epley has revived his performance index testing. And in strength coach Mark Philipp’s program.

“The lab is very impressive to recruits,” Epley said. “We take them through, and it opens eyes. I just wish we could put them through tests when they’re here.

“I’m very excited about what we’re doing in strength and conditioning. (Athletic Director) Shawn Eichorst approved $200,000 for new equipment and Mark (Philipp) is doing a great job with it. He had the idea to take out the 20 power racks and go to double racks, so we went from 20 stations to 40 stations.

“And the new program that Mark has put in this offseason is very impressive. Everyone is buying in. We have momentum in recruiting. We have momentum in training. I couldn’t be more excited.”

Weight room buzz on signing day? Now there’s your sign of hope.

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Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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