In the Great Nebraska Talent Debate of 2015, we have had arguments for both sides ... from all sides. And, might I say, good arguments. Detailed arguments. Whatever Nebraska's football team is doing on the field, I assure you, this 3-6 program is being covered from every angle with so much depth you could have four practice stations.
In order to talk about recruiting, we really, on some level, have to talk about the talent on hand, and the stories of the last two coaching changes and the talent those teams had on hand. Maybe, to some degree that helps us get to what may be the longest stinking BFRU of all the long, stinky.
It's been awhile, you see. There's been a season — an interesting one — to cover and recruiting, because this is one of those kinds of years, has been pretty quiet on the surface. Not behind the scenes, per se — not when you look at the size of the recruiting weekend coming ahead. A little quiet on the surface.
I don't think it's going to be quiet from here on out. Especially on defense. We'll get to the prospects in a minute. First, the talent debate.
Let's start with something I wrote in the wake of Nebraska's 36-33 loss to Miami, when the talent debate was already kicking into gear:
Nebraska doesn’t have junk talent. Enough of that. That’s the past, too — the old recruiting lament. Hey, 9-3 talent isn’t junk, it’s 9-3 with a shot at better if you play it right. Waiting several years to “restock” is a risible argument and Riley, to his credit, wants no part of it. Nebraska had enough talent to beat BYU and Miami. And it has more talent than any team not named Michigan State left on its regular-season schedule. And even that talent gap isn’t as wide as you might think.
Since I wrote that, I probably ought to agree with it, and I do.
But I'll revise my thoughts, oh, 17 percent or so.
>> It's accurate that Nebraska had enough talent to win every game up to this point. I didn't think the Huskers would, per se — before the year I pegged Wisconsin as a win, Minnesota as a loss and thought one of the road games, either at Illinois or Purdue, would be a trap game — but I thought they could. And this remains true. Nebraska is not rolling junk football players onto the field.
>> That said, Nebraska's injury situation after that Miami game — especially at linebacker, wideout and the defensive line — got worse. And losing a starting quarterback, especially one as experienced as Tommy Armstrong, even for one game, is a recipe for losing. (Even if, yes, Nebraska's run game at Purdue was embarrassing.)
>> The gamebreaker in the mold of Ameer Abdullah hasn't emerged and probably wasn't going to, but, right now, Nebraska only appears to have one great player on the roster: Maliek Collins. There might be great potential. There might be undeveloped or untested potential — which, to some degree, is on the coaches. There might be guys who just had to redshirt for maturity or weight-gaining reasons. But great players? I'd wager Nebraska had four — Abdullah, Collins, Randy Gregory and Kenny Bell — with a fifth (Nate Gerry) on his way there. Gerry has regressed as a playmaker — part of that is scheme, part of that is coaching and part of that is Gerry — and three of the other four left. Nebraska needs more "make a play" dudes. Armstrong does, but some of the basic stuff — like converting third-and-4 with patience and accuracy on a short pass — is a challenge.
>> Over many years, I've come to believe that at least some part of turnover margin — as it pertains to takeaways — comes down to guys who just make plays. Nebraska doesn't have enough of them. Yes, the scheme hasn't married up very well with what the Huskers have, but NU has forced three fumbles all year. Three. (NU has recovered four, but fumbles can be unforced.)
>> While I think the recruiting services do an excellent job and have for years, I've been making my own self-rankings of players and analysis over the last 3-4 recruiting classes of teams in the Big Ten. I'll offer up those thoughts quickly:
Northwestern: Steadily improving for years. The Wildcats already played and are well-coached, especially on defense, but I felt like the talent was waning during poor years in 2013 and 2014, especially among older guys on offense. Northwestern is recruiting better. Not better than Nebraska, but better.
Illinois: Pretty hit and miss, from my vantage point, but I've liked a few of the defensive linemen and linebackers who rolled through, and Illinois pinpointed some decent wide receivers in Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek.
Minnesota: I saw the Gophers regressing in recruiting for several years before turning in what I thought to be solid classes in 2015 and the upcoming 2016 class. I'm dubious that Minnesota is moving forward in the Big Ten West, but I was dubious of that two years ago, too.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes have one of the best offensive line developmental systems in college football, so you can largely wipe off the board any low rankings of their prospects in that regard; Iowa knows what it is doing there. I've long questioned the quality and number of offensive and defensive skill players. I still do. But Iowa's 2015 class — and now its 2016 class — appear better to me than the 2013 and 2014 bunches.
Wisconsin: I think some hurt is on the horizon, personally. The Badgers and coach Gary Andersen — who wants to recruit good athletes who are sometimes on the academic fringe — wasn't a good recruiting mix, and I think it'll hurt the program, to some degree, for a few years, as will Bret Bielema's feast/famine cycles.
Purdue: Improving, especially in the recruitment of select athletes in SEC country. And the one thing Purdue has done — how I don't know — is consistently recruit quarterbacks with potential and offers and interest from other programs. Purdue has perhaps recruited the position better than any other Big Ten West school. Odd, but true.
So even if Nebraska has enough talent, injuries have dulled it, defensive scheme has dulled it, and there aren't enough elite guys — at least not yet, or at least not this year — to create the kind of margin between Nebraska and other teams in the West so that games don't come down to the fourth quarter.
I've watched each of Nebraska's five Big Ten games in person and several times on DVR. And I just don't see that much difference on the field. This was true, to a great degree, in 2012, too. That season, I questioned whether Nebraska had the horses on defense to make a big run. The Huskers did in part because most of that 2012 defense had five years in Bo Pelini's scheme — which masked the lack of depth and great athleticism — and in part because Taylor Martinez had one whale of a season. And, in part, because when Rex Burkhead went down, Abdullah stepped up. It was a good combination of playmakers and seasoning that overcame some of the talent problems. Until NU's best defensive lineman got hurt against Iowa, a 4-8 team Nebraska beat 13-7. That was the straw that busted the Huskers' back. That's how tenuous it was for most of that year.
So, in short, yes: Nebraska has more talent than its 3-6 record. But you knew that. What Nebraska lacks is a major talent gap between it and most of its peers in the Big Ten West. Nebraska has 40 juniors and seniors. Out of that bunch, I see four or five NFL Draft picks. I see two guys — Collins and wideout Jordan Westerkamp — making an All-Big Ten first or second team this year.
It's not enough. And when you read into some of the comments from coaches — such as coach Mike Riley saying Nebraska needs five or six pass rushers or defensive coordinator Mark Banker talking about confidence and finishing plays on defense — you get the sense the 2016 class could be rather big and Nebraska's staff, with a clearly accelerated timeline, is ready to be aggressive.
The Huskers seem to know, now that they've been picked off a few times because of bad coaching or bad decisions or just not enough good players, that it's an all-hands-on-deck approach for what I like to call the "regime change" class. It's usually one of the biggest classes in a coach's tenure. An "all the king's horses and all the king's men" moment — right out of Gary Oldman in "The Professional" — if there ever was one.
This was also the case in 2005, when Nebraska signed 30 players in Bill Callahan's big class — the one that got all the hosannas from recruiting gurus — to account for some of the talent gaps in the program, especially, at the time, on offense.
The class had its flaws, especially along the offensive line, where guys like Craig Roark, Rodney Picou, Jordan Picou and Brock Pasteur don't inspire dreams. But Callahan got two Big 12 Players of the Year — Zac Taylor and Ndamukong Suh — in that class. He also recruited quite well around Suh, landing Barry Turner, Barry Cryer, Ola Dagunduro and Zach Potter. And he got running back Marlon Lucky, who was better than every running back on Nebraska's roster has been so far in their careers.
In 2009, Pelini had a much smaller class. That's because he chose — or, more to the point, he allowed some of his assistants to choose for him — to recruit a giant class just a month after he'd arrived on campus. It should be noted that when this talent finally came to flower in 2012, Nebraska did play for the Big Ten title just as the 2009 Husker team played for the Big 12 title using some of the players recruited in the 2005 class. But I think the 2009 class — which included Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead — could have been better if it had been bigger.
Which brings us to the 2016 class.
As it stands, Nebraska has 17 seniors on scholarship. You can see that on our scholarship distribution chart. Big Ten rules allow teams to go three over the 85-scholarship limit — that is, NU could have 88 players on scholarship until it gets time to pare it down over the summer — so, in theory, NU could go to 20 commits with just 17 seniors.
Of that bunch, it appears possible that Kevin Williams will attempt to get a sixth year of eligibility. So that's 16. It goes back up to 17 if Adrienne Talan — who left the team before the season began and is not expected to return — is gone for good.
Generally speaking, in any given year, every team has some kind of attrition. It's just natural — the way of things. So maybe that knocks Nebraska up to 21, 22 open scholarships. Nebraska's staff had been operating with a low 20s figure prior to the season.
Whether or not the Huskers stand pat on that range or go north of 25, depends on three factors:
Players declaring early for the NFL Draft. Specifically, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, who has stiff-armed any questions about the draft to this point. Getting Collins back for his senior year would be bigger than any potential recruit the Huskers could land, but each player has to weigh decisions in their own way.
Players leaving the program/being shown the door. Or, in other words, extra attrition. These would be players the coaches wouldn't necessarily want to leave, but do, and players who either see the writing on the wall or process out for disciplinary reasons.
Players put on medical hardship. There are a few Huskers who have been so chronically hurt throughout their career that it may be a consideration.
Right now, Nebraska has 15 commits. Of that bunch:
>> Running back Aphonso Thomas (Van, Texas) continues to be hotly pursued by SMU. Thomas intends to be an early enrollee wherever he goes. Since Nebraska is pursuing other running backs committed elsewhere — such as Kansas State pledge Tre Bryant — it's unclear whether Thomas is bound for Nebraska.
>> Defensive end Quayshon Alexander (Wayne, New Jersey, DePaul Catholic) remains committed to the Huskers, but he took a visit to Michigan and will take more visits. His older brother, Kiy Hester, is a starting defensive back on Rutgers' team. Alexander was long destined to be a guy who weighed all his options. I don't have any special information on Alexander, but I've long thought him to be a tenuous commit.
>> Eden Prairie (Minnesota) athlete J.D. Spielman is so good — he's averaged more than 10 yards per carry and had five non-offensive touchdowns — that he could play a whole bunch of positions and may be able to kill several birds with one recruiting stone, a kind of Jacquizz Rodgers for Mike Riley's offense.
>> Quarterback Patrick O'Brien intends to enroll early. O'Brien is having a stellar season — 2,357 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, 79-percent completion rate — and will be seen as the crown jewel of the class if he pans out like coaches hope he will.
>> Nebraska has one silent commit, presumably for the 2016 class, who doesn't want to announce his commit yet.
What do I think will happen in terms of attrition? I think it'll be on the high end. I think you'll see Nebraska's recruiting class near 25. I think you may see one or two players explore the medical redshirt angle and I think a few more will leave. Don't presume they'll all be scrubs, either. Some players, even promising ones, just don't feel there's a fit and they move on.
Here's where Nebraska's recruiting class ranks according to the services:
247 Sports Composite: 28th nationally/6th Big Ten
Within those groupings, here are the top 100 and 250 and 300 players in each class:
Center John Raridon: No. 38 Scout, No. 76 247 Sports Composite, No. 83 ESPN, No. 209 Rivals
Quarterback Patrick O'Brien: No. 211 247 Sports Composite, No. 215 Rivals, No. 293 Scout.
Safety Marquel Dismuke: No. 133 ESPN, No. 240 Scout
Offensive tackle Bryan Brokop: No. 263 Scout
Linebacker Quayshon Alexander: No. 294 ESPN
* * *
Defensive end: Right now, the lone commit is Ashland-Greenwood standout Ben Stille.
Offensive tackle: Nebraska may not have any in the class unless Brokop moves out there — he could play guard in college as well — but the Huskers will be on the hunt for them, since only David Knevel, Nick Gates and Christian Gaylord will be scholarship guys in the program after this season. The rest will come from this class.
Running back: Assuming Thomas isn't the guy, Nebraska needs to sign one, and will sign one.
More linebackers: Especially if Alexander is wavering.
Safeties: Nebraska has very few in the system that it trusts. We know that by the fact that true freshman Aaron Williams started on Saturday ahead of several other players, and we know that because NU was trying to recruit safeties late in the 2015 class when it appeared to be in good shape at the position.
With that, we begin the prospect rundown.
Here, again, is the key for the player entries:
Name, Ht/Wt, Pos, Town/School: Top schools involved
247C: 247Sports Composite ranking
After each designation, you’ll see numbers. Here’s the key for those:
Star ranking/National ranking/Position ranking
An “NR” means they’re not ranked at this time. A bolded ranking denotes the prospect’s highest evaluation. An italicized ranking denotes the prospect’s lowest evaluation.
Tre Bryant, 5-10/195, RB, St. Louis Christian Brothers: KSU, NU, Minnesota
Long a commit to Kansas State, Bryant decommitted on Twitter in advance of his weekend visit to Nebraska for the Michigan State game.
Bryant is one of several running backs Nebraska is pursuing, but he seems to fit the mold Nebraska wants: A little stocky, decent moves, decisive in his cuts. He's on the shorter end, which Nebraska coaches don't seem to mind, either. It's really about range of motion and shiftiness. Bryant visited Minnesota last weekend.
Kingston Davis, 6-0/245, FB, Prattville, Ala.: Michigan, NU, UF, LSU, Ole Miss
ESPN: 3/NR/74 (as RB)
A diamond in the rough located by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh during his long southern tour of satellite camps, Davis committed to the Wolverines and now has a whole slew of teams interested, including Nebraska, where he'll take a visit this weekend.
"I would tell you that I base my running style on Eddie Lacy and how he runs," Davis told Husker Online. "I see myself as a feature back at the next level. I am not being recruited as a fullback. I am being recruited as a feature back."
Davis has good moves for his size. Alabama and Auburn haven't offered. If they do, well, you know how that goes. (Unless it's Ameer Abdullah, who stuck to his guns and stayed a running back.)
Prattville is a suburb of Montgomery, incidentally.
David Reese, 6-1/235, LB, Farmington, Mich.: Michigan, Texas, Louisville, NU
Another Michigan commit who fits in as a middle 'backer in Nebraska's defense. Reese plans to visit Texas, as well, and remains committed to Michigan. This seems like a Texas commit, but Nebraska will get its shot to impress. Detroit metro kid.
Desmond Fitzpatrick, 6-2/190, WR, Farmington (Mich.) Waterford Mott: Louisville, NU, Illinois, Indiana
Despite being committed to Louisville for more than a year, he'll visit Nebraska this weekend. Reese is his former teammate. Fitzpatrick caught 60 passes for 1,317 yards and 23 touchdowns this season.
Lamar Jackson, 6-3/206, S, Elk Grove (Calif.) Franklin: USC, Michigan, Utes, Devils, Arizona, NU
Here's where Mike Riley's California recruiting roots help: Jackson might be the best defensive player in Northern California, and he'll take a visit this weekend to Nebraska after visiting Michigan, Arizona and Arizona State. USC may be the leader, but Jackson told Rivals the Trojans must retain Clay Helton to get his commit. Long-shot commit here, but one never knows. Nebraska could use him. Daimion Stafford type, only four years instead of two.
Markell Simmons, 6-1/200, S, Pima (Arizona) C.C.: NU, Beavers, Utes, Frogs
Simmons visits Nebraska this weekend. He played at Pima — in Tucscon — last season, posted a good enough season to sit this one out, and will thus have three years to play three seasons wherever he goes next. Running back and wideout at a Tucson high school. He's grown a few inches since then. Late bloomer who will get a lot of looks late, especially on the West Coast. Nebraska will have to press for this one.
Brandon Drayton, 6-2/172, S, Largo (Fla.): Nebraska, Iowa, Canes, Louisville, Indiana
247: 3/1183/172 (as WR)
247C: 3/870/123 (as WR)
Drayton is an intriguing guy who's gone quiet for much of the recruiting cycle, but Iowa has been there for some time and will get the first official visit on Nov. 13. Nebraska then gets a visit on Nov. 26 — when Iowa visits town. This seems to be a two-horse race with Miami, rather unstable in its coaching situation, waiting in the wings. According to several recruiting services, Drayton will pick his school on Signing Day. I like this kid. Good range, better physicality.
Jonathan Kongbo, 6-6/250, DE, Arizona Western C.C.: Ole Miss, Auburn, NU, Washington, USF, Vols
A teammate of current Husker commit William Johnson, Kongbo played football for one year in Canada, briefly attended Wyoming and now plays at Arizona Western. He has a good upfield burst, combines moves with a decent power rush, and he hits pretty hard. He doesn't seem to have that Randy Gregory puma lateral speed, but he'd be a major contributor on the Huskers' defensive line. Pay little mind to the lack of rankings. He's good.
Jordan Bonner, 6-6/230, OLB/DE, Northeastern Oklahoma J.C.: NU, Vols, UK
Bonner's new to the radar, as this Husker Online piece points out. Originally from Cleveland — who knows how he got down to NEO — Bonner is a tall, cut guy who's good at running around tackles and has better-than-average balance. For a guy his size, he can run laterally, too. Were Nebraska to land both Kongbo and Bonner, I think the pass rush would be in better shape than it is this year.
Tremayne Anchrum, 6-3/270, OG/OT, Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern: NU, Clemson, Buffs
Could this be the silent commit? Anchrum has visited Nebraska twice but postponed announcing a decision — when it was really down to NU and Colorado — to visit Clemson. Since then, silence. Anchrum is rather underrated, perhaps because of his height and weight. At least on tape, he's the tackle — right now — Nebraska is recruiting, and he's playing good competition.
Shaun Beyer, 6-5/210, TE, Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kennedy: NU, NDSU, Iowa
He was offered by Nebraska on Wednesday, according to Huskers Illustrated, although he's been committed to North Dakota State for some time. Now that NU has taken a peek, you'd expect Iowa to do the same. Iowa State, off in its own world, doesn't bother with such prospects. As the Hudl film shows — great ball skills.
Terrell Lucas, 6-3/225, DE, Hollywood (Fla.) Miramar: NU, Michigan, Duke, Cal