But first, some lengthy leftover notes from the 2016 class and signing day.
>> Did you sense the undercurrent of urgency in Mike Riley's comments and tone on signing day? It was there. His whole demeanor — the energy level, the even-handed approach to a decent class, his appraisal of winning the Matt Farniok recruiting battle — was a considerable upgrade over last year, when Riley was under the weather and at the tail end of a total career whirlwind.
To some degree, his whole first season at Nebraska felt a bit like a whirlwind, with more trial and error than there probably needed to be, the program bottoming out in that loss at Purdue, which felt then and feels now like an entire program testing Riley's resolve and purpose for this specific job. I wondered aloud after that Purdue game: Why was Riley here? Why he'd take the job? And what I saw from there was a better team, a more dialed-in coach and, by the bowl game, a quarterback who was shook enough by a trying three weeks in November to fully embrace that senior season, and a whole program ready to, for a lack of better phrase, cut the crap. The Riley we saw on Wednesday was a crap cutter. He lost two recruiting battles late that probably chapped his rear end and, as a result, NU didn't get that bigger wideout it wanted. The staff also didn't seize control of the Noah Fant situation early enough or well enough.
Riley's point was clear: In order to avoid those mistakes in the 2017 class, Nebraska can't wait to start relationships during the evaluation period. It needs to happen now.
“I think what we have to do now — like today — going forward is really hit this thing hard and be able to get these guys here,” Riley said.
Nebraska fans should be encouraged. This wasn't “happy to be here” Mike Riley. That guy held sway a little long for NU fans' taste. Riley had more command and competitiveness Wednesday than perhaps I've heard from him other than after the Iowa game.
>> It's hard to pick a top crust of signees in this class — for me it's more like a top 12 than a top six — but, if pressed to do so, I like most the potential of Lamar Jackson, Patrick O'Brien, Quayshon Alexander, John Raridon, Tre Bryant and Marquel Dismuke. Bryant is roughly as good as the player Nebraska fans followed with such fanfare in the 2015 class — Kendall Bussey. Alexander has the chance to be elite. I think it'd help him to play early, somewhere on the field. Ditto for Greg Simmons, Pernell Jefferson, Jackson and Dismuke. They'd all benefit from playing early. I think Bryant will play early because he could very well be the No. 2 I-back. Or even the No. 1 guy. And watch Derrion Grim. This is a polished player Nebraska got, not entirely unlike Jordan Westerkamp. Coach Keith Williams is bound to be tough on Grim in spring camp — that's because he knows he can play.
>> I've written more than once about the “regime change” recruiting class in a coach's tenure. That's a coach's second recruiting class — his first full class after he takes over a job. This 2016 bunch was Riley's regime change class. How'd he do?
Well, I thought it'd be bigger. I thought he'd have more scholarships to give — north of 25. I thought it could have been, honestly, Harbaugh-sized, around 28 or 29. Had it been, I think you would have seen a top 20 — and perhaps a top 15 — class.
But it wasn't, and Riley hinted for many months that it wouldn't be, and at least some of that ties back to fewer players leaving the program than most of us expected, and NU giving some of the open scholarships to contributing walk-ons like Ross Dzuris and the now-departed Lane Hovey.
I've long knocked Bo Pelini's “regime change” class. Not so much for its production — 12 guys started at least one season at NU, and the class included Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead — but its size of only 20 players. The 2009 class had more value than Pelini's 2008 class, but because that first class was so big — 28 guys — the second class was smaller. Ditto for the 2010 class, which was also productive. The 2009 class ranked 28th. The 2010 class ranked 22nd. But they had just 20 and 21 players, respectively.
For Riley to match Pelini's three-year total, he'd have to sign that 27-member class in 2017. With 22 seniors next season, that just might happen. I'd argue it needs to happen.
>> The top four recruiting coaches according to 247 Sports were, in order, Mike Cavanaugh, Trent Bray, Brian Stewart and Williams. Although those rankings don't precisely take into account difficulty of recruiting those prospects — Cavanaugh had an easier go, since two of his four were already committed to NU when he arrived here — I think those four coaches are, indeed, NU's best. Bray landed guys from, let's see, Florida, New Jersey, Louisiana and Colorado (JoJo Domann). Stewart landed guys from California, Florida and Ohio. Williams gets an assist on Lamar Jackson, plus Derrion Grim and JD Spielman. Good work. Williams, invariably, will be a key to NU landing Keyshawn Johnson, Jr., should that happen.
>> What value are silent commits to a program like Nebraska? The Huskers lost what amounted to three — Tremayne Anchrum, David Reese and Dez Fitzpatrick — this year. They're of some value to Alabama — which surely knew it would clean up on signing day and lined it up that way with a series of dramatic announcements. I'm not sure how they help the Huskers.
>> Nebraska swung and missed in Georgia this year, and I remain dubious that Nebraska can successfully recruit there. As I wrote last year, it's just darn hard to be successful down there. This year, among the top 50 prospects in Georgia, all of five signed with schools other than the ACC or SEC. USC got two players and Michigan, Central Florida and Georgia Southern got one each. By contrast, among the top 50 prospects in Louisiana, Arizona State, Memphis, Houston, Tulane, Louisiana Tech, Oklahoma State, Colorado, Stanford and Nebraska landed players in 2016. I think NU can spend a lot of time — a lot of time — in Georgia and never squeeze much out of it.
>> More in Ohio. The state of Ohio is not that impenetrable. Kentucky got eight of the top 50 prospects from the state. Boston College got a player, Iowa State got a player, Indiana got two. Nebraska needs to hit that state harder. NU is hitting the state of Michigan hard — it thought it had David Reese and Dez Fitzpatrick — but it'll have to beat Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa and Western Michigan in the state. Those are the top six up there, and all six do well.
>> Michigan and Ohio State recruited on a different tier than the rest of the league in terms of overall roster depth and elite defensive linemen. Michigan State got a lot of those pieces, too, but Michigan and Ohio State landed better quarterbacks, running backs and linebackers. The Spartans were dinged when one of their top recruits, Auston Robertson, was arrested in mid-January on a battery charge. He's not signing with MSU at this time. Back to Michigan... I doubt you'll see again Jim Harbaugh's pump-and-dump method of building a recruiting class. For one thing, he may not get to use satellite camps. For another, he'll know better than to round up a bunch of prospects who may not even fit the “Michigan Man” profile, then drop them late when, you know, they don't fit the profile. He's coached a year now. He knows what he has.
>> I like Iowa's class more than some others do; I had the Hawkeyes sixth in the Big Ten and second in the Big Ten West. I like the defensive ends Iowa landed — were a few of them at Nebraska, you wouldn't be complaining — the two big-bodied running backs and the linebacking corps. When Iowa has been good, those three units tend to be very good, and this recruiting class addresses that. I've also heard good things about mystery quarterback Nate Stanley, whom Wisconsin tried to thieve late in the process. But Iowa still lacks explosive athleticism and speed at the skill positions, and without a few home run hitters, you're asking your team to grind and grind. Iowa doesn't have much margin for error. That said, Iowa recruited Fant very well, outhustling Nebraska at the start and bringing coach Kirk Ferentz in late for a good finish. Don't underestimate Ferentz's role in helping Fant cancel that official visit to Minnesota and return to Omaha South's basketball team the same week. Ferentz has some respect in Omaha, and he's earned that.
>> Illinois and Purdue struggled in recruiting. These are teams with unstable coaching situations, uninspired fan bases and gameday atmospheres that, having seen them in person, are frankly a little depressing. Illinois has some potential in the atmosphere department — it's a cool old stadium with a neat, open-air tailgating event out in front of it — but Purdue probably does not. I wish those schools well. Nebraska can't make a habit of losing to them. They are Kansas. Losing to Kansas twice got Billy C his walking papers.