Tom Osborne didn’t pay attention to star rankings. What he did was rank recruiting classes after they finished their Husker careers. His scale, according to a 1991 interview, went like this:
4 points: A difference-maker, "definitely a cut above."
3 points: A "good, solid" player — one who played most of his career and started for a year or two.
2 points: A backup.
1 point: Someone who never contributed.
In Osborne’s eyes, a good class averaged 2.8 or 2.9. A bad class was in the 2.3 or 2.4 range.
I hate to disagree with a man who won 255 games, but I’d tweak Osborne’s scale a bit. The longer I follow recruiting, the more I realize it’s about finding the four-point guys and (to a lesser degree) avoiding the one-point guys. The two- and three-point recruits kinda run together.
The true measure of a class isn’t how many guys become solid starters or play special teams. Even terrible teams have players who fill those roles. What you need are standouts.
Let’s look at two Husker recruiting classes to demonstrate my point.
In 2000, Frank Solich signed what may be the worst Husker recruiting class ever. It’s not all Solich’s fault, there were a rash of injuries. Coaching staff turnover in ’03 and ’04 didn’t help, either. But this group was an outright disaster.
Among 21 signees, there wasn’t a single all-conference player. The best players were T.J. Hollowell, Benard Thomas and Ira Cooper. The disappointments included Manaia Brown, Thunder Collins, Lanny Hopkins, Jason Richenberger, M.J. Flaum and Chris Septak.
According to Osborne’s scale, that class earned a 2.33 (give or take a few hundredths).
That’s one extreme, OK? Now go back four years to 1996, when Osborne signed what may be the best Husker recruiting class of the scholarship limit era. Here’s what is interesting. Of 18 signees, six never even lettered.
The next six were solid starters or backups: DeAngelo Evans*, Clint Finley, John Gibson, Loran Kaiser, Willie Miller and Khari Reynolds.
* Obviously, Evans could’ve been elite had he stayed healthy.
Now look at the top six guys: Mike Brown, Ralph Brown, Russ Hochstein, Carlos Polk, Dan Alexander and Steve Warren. All were first-team all-Big 12. Four were All-Americans. All played in the NFL.
Yet according to Osborne’s scale, the ’96 class was only a 2.5 (give or take a couple hundredths).
Those two recruiting classes don’t even belong in the same ballpark. The ’96 class was like a modern-day Nick Saban haul; the ’00 class was like a modern-day Purdue crop.
I’m not calling out Tom Osborne here. He was working in an era when it was just assumed that NU was going to get its share of All-Americans. He valued depth, which — regardless of how many studs he signed — was the absolute most important quality of his program. It increased his margin for error, which is why he won nine games every single year.
If you give me a choice between an All-American and a bust (five total points) vs. a two-year starter and a veteran backup (five total points), it’s not even close. You can fill in the gaps when a prospect doesn’t meet expectations and becomes a backup. What you can’t do is snap your fingers and find All-Americans.
Which is why it’s absolutely critical to hit a few home runs every February. Nebraska doesn’t need three-year starters who earn honorable mention all-Big Ten. It needs Ameer Abdullah, Maliek Collins, Prince Amukamara and Lavonte David. And it needs two or three in every class! Without them, the Huskers will continue their mediocre ways.
Not to get all geeky on you, but it’s not unlike drafting fantasy football players. If you select 15 “pretty good” players, you’ll be a pretty bad team. If you get Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, Rob Gronkowski and 10 scrubs, you’ll be great. Why? The gap between the 90th percentile and the 60th percentile far exceeds the gap between the 60th percentile and the 30th percentile.
There is one caveat here. As mentioned earlier, busts still matter. Because the walk-on program isn’t what it used to be, Nebraska can’t afford too many strikeouts. The offensive line classes of the early 2000s and the defensive line classes of 2010-11 were disasters and they forced coaches to play guys who weren’t good enough. Opponents exposed those weaknesses and won games because of them.
There is still value in a player who works his way up the depth chart and starts his senior year (even if he redshirts). But the reality is, Nebraska has fallen on hard times the past 15 years NOT because its classes dipped on Osborne’s four-point scale. Not because of too many busts or too many guys who fell into the "contributor" category.
Nebraska has fallen on hard times because there aren’t enough Ameer Abdullahs. This isn't like the Kansas City Royals where a collection of singles will get the job done. Nebraska needs home runs.
For Mike Riley’s sake, he’ll sign a few on Wednesday.
* * *
>> You know which recruiting class breaks all the rules? The famous 2005 class.
Because it was so large (33 members), Bill Callahan’s bumper crop featured a plethora of difference-makers AND busts. On one side, there was Ndamukong Suh, Zac Taylor, Matt Slauson, Phillip Dillard and Zach Potter. On the other end, there was Harrison Beck, Chris Brooks, Justin Tomerlin, Craig Roark, Brock Pasteur, Leon Jackson and the Picous.
But again, if you give me a package deal of a future NFL player and a bust, I’ll take that over two ordinary starters.
>> Four years ago, I attended my first and only Super Bowl media day. I got some really good stories out of that trip, features on Dave Tollefson, Jason Licht, Prince Amukamara and Tyler Sash. But the memory that stands out is Ciara. Here’s the lead of my 2012 story:
She wears a Tom Brady jersey, a gold watch and black stilettos tall as a football.
Her name is Ciara and she came all the way from Hollywood — or wherever singers/models/actresses/dancers live — to Super Bowl media day.
Now she’s standing right behind Danny Woodhead, singing softly into his ear.
“Like a virgin...”
A tabloid TV show camera is pointing at Woodhead, who is supposed to finish the lyric. It’s all part of a quiz about Madonna, the Super Bowl halftime entertainment.
Woodhead rushed for almost 5,000 yards at North Platte High School, almost 8,000 at Chadron State College. At this moment, he’d rather sprint back to Nebraska than finish that lyric.
“Don’t know it, sorry,” Woodhead says, smiling. “Sorry, Madonna.”
I still cringe when I picture Danny's face in that moment.
Four years later, Super Bowl media day is going primetime. Why? Because it’s a spectacle. Dan Wetzel finds the woman, Downtown Julie Brown, who put the ball in motion. Good stuff.
>> Sometimes the media has to be smart enough to say, “You know what, this isn’t actually a story.” Michael Rosenberg on Cam Newton’s critics. Great column.
>> Really nice story on Ted Ginn Jr. reviving his career as his dad, the prominent Cleveland high school coach, fights cancer.
>> I’ve written about it before, but choosing which jersey to buy your 5-year-old at Christmas puts a lot of pressure on a parent. You take the process too casually and next thing you know your son is promoting a child abuser (ahem … Adrian Peterson) or a backup quarterback (ahem ... Peyton).
You want to choose a player who’s a great player, a good role model and someone who isn’t going to change teams anytime soon. Two months ago, I picked — you ready for this? — Calvin Johnson.
Now the Lions wideout is pulling a Barry Sanders and retiring in his prime (or pretty close to it). I’m not going to tell my son, but he’s probably gonna figure it out in September. Maybe I can persuade him it’s one of those cool throwbacks.
>> Nebraska has resisted the trend. Rather than find a date to play Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium or Oklahoma State at JerryWorld or Florida State in Atlanta or (insert your favorite scenario), the Huskers keep scheduling home-and-home series.
I have urged NU to add a neutral-site showdown — I think it’s great for exposure — but Cecil Hurt examines what happens when a big-time school schedules too many. Alabama has basically stopped playing home-and-home series.
>> Which true freshman will have the biggest impact on college football in 2016? Bruce Feldman surveys anonymous head coaches and focuses on a special (uncommitted) defensive tackle.
>> ESPN does a nice job pulling together a year of Jim Harbaugh’s antics on the recruiting trail. And here’s Harbaugh writing a love letter to Ann Arbor in the Players’ Tribune.
>> Austin Meek on the increasing zaniness of recruiting.
>> Omaha native and UNL graduate Paula Lavigne is one of the best investigative sports reporters in the country. Her latest, on sexual assault allegations at Baylor, is worthy of your time.
>> Remember the old days when MLB teams built their pitching staffs around elite starters? Wait, that was like two years ago! Now star-studded bullpens are all the rage. Why? Largely because teams have discovered the dangers of letting opposing hitters get three at-bats against the starter. Good story from Jayson Stark.
>> One of the Twin Cities’ most storied high school hockey programs goes extinct. “We just ran out of kids.”
>> Joe Posnanski with a smart feature on Draymond Green and the difference between “best” and “most important.” Coaches will like this.
>> In Friday's Chatter, I put Creighton's chances of making the NCAA tournament at 55 percent. Safe to say I didn't expect the Jays to lay an egg against Seton Hall. Now CU is probably going to have to find a way to win one of those big road games, either Villanova, Xavier or Providence.
>> I spent Friday night at Wahoo Neumann. So did Danny Langsdorf, actually. The Husker offensive coordinator was checking out Neumann junior Noah Vedral. I was watching one of the best small-class games I've seen in years. St. Cecilia beat Neumann. This Friday, the Cavaliers host Class C-1 No. 1 Columbus Scotus. If you love small-town hoops — and 78-foot gym floors — you should find a way to get there.
>> Finally, I’ve been doing this blog for 4 1/2 years and sometimes I fear I’m just regurgitating things I’ve written before and don’t remember. (Come to think of it, I may have written that exact sentence two years ago).
Anyway, when Mad Chatter hits five years, I’m just going to start posting old blogs and see if anyone notices. Today I’m giving you a heads-up. This is from February 2012, but it’s as interesting now as it was then:
Close your textbooks. Take out a piece of paper and pen.
Time for a pop quiz.
The subject material: recruits who got away from Nebraska.
You know that Gale Sayers spurned NU for Kansas. You know Larry Station went to Iowa. You know about Blaine Gabbert and Josh Freeman.
But I have 11 more standouts who — before they became household names in the NFL — almost became Huskers. I reveal the answers at the bottom of the Bites, but don’t cheat. And don’t get cocky — the quiz gets harder as you go along.
Player 1 might be the biggest Husker recruiting miss of all time. Out of Pensacola, Fla., he finished his prep career No. 3 on the all-time national rushing chart with almost 9,000 yards. He told his friends the final two contenders were Nebraska and Auburn. The color he wore to school on signing day, he proclaimed, was the team he would choose. When he showed up wearing red and white, it appeared the Huskers had a new I-back. But it was all a hoax. He shocked everybody by choosing the home-state Gators. He went on to win three Super Bowls and break the NFL’s all-time rushing record.
You thought Player 1 was good? Player 2 may have been even better in college and in the NFL. In 1991, he had his own big decision to make. He wanted to play running back in college, but most schools wanted him in the secondary, including Nebraska. He loved his recruiting visit to Lincoln so much that he considered the change. “As good as Nebraska is, and the way they treated me, there’s not a doubt in my mind: I would consider changing, ” he told The World-Herald that winter. “That’s how fun it was.” But, in the end, he couldn’t give up offense. He picked a WAC school and rushed for 386 yards in his second college game. In the NFL, he won a Super Bowl and an MVP. Twenty years after saying no to Nebraska, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Nebraska recruited another Louisiana native in the winter of ’91. Player 3 was a versatile quarterback prospect. He was 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, but was better known for his speed. His senior year of high school, he rushed for 23 touchdowns and threw for 17. He considered Oklahoma and Arkansas, among others, but eventually settled on NU’s fiercest rival, where he went 0-3 against the Huskers. In the NFL, he played receiver and quarterback.
Player 4 strongly considered Nebraska in 1984. He came from Dallas, where his speed prompted scholarship offers from all over the country. It came down to NU and Notre Dame. He chose the Irish and turned into the nation’s most outstanding player. Then he became one of the NFL’s most prolific receivers of all time.
In 1997, Player 5’s college decision came down to Nebraska and an SEC school. As one of the nation’s best prep running backs, he wanted to play for Tom Osborne, but “Nebraska was just too far away from his family” in Atlanta, his mother told the World-Herald. Six years later, he rushed for 2,000 yards in one NFL season.
As a high school senior in 1989, Player 6 owned the second-best 100-meter dash in the country — 10.42 seconds. He originally signed as a receiver with Southern Cal, but didn’t qualify. That summer, he chose Nebraska, which allowed Prop 48 athletes. He intended to sit out a year and join the Huskers in 1990. Instead, he backed out, went to junior college for a year and re-signed with USC. He became a first-team All-America wideout in ’92, then played 12 years in the NFL.
Tom Osborne recruited a pair of quarterbacks, Player 7 and Player 8, in the same year, 1994. Osborne already had Tommie Frazier, but these two recruits wanted to follow in Frazier’s footsteps. Player 7 came out of Chicago. Player 8 was from Atlanta. Each had Nebraska in his final two choices. Player 7 opted for the Big East, where he played football and basketball. Player 8 went to the SEC, where he played quarterback and wide receiver.
Player 9 was ranked among the top 15 prospects in the country in 2002. Ron Brown earned his verbal commitment two months before signing day. But the 300-pound defensive tackle backed out and played closer to his Salt Lake City home. Too bad, because now he’s one of the NFL’s best defenders.
Before Player 10 became a star pass rusher in the pros, he was one of the top defensive prospects in the Midwest. In 1998, he chose his home-state Hawkeyes over NU.
Player 11 almost joined junior-college teammate Brandon Kinnie at Nebraska in 2009. If he had, imagine what NU’s defensive line would have looked like.
Bonus: Name the only player on this list who didn’t make a Pro Bowl.
I've listed the answers below. I hope you didn't cheat.
1: Emmitt Smith, Florida
2: Marshall Faulk, San Diego State
3: Kordell Stewart, Colorado
4: Tim Brown, Notre Dame
5: Jamal Lewis, Tennessee
6: Curtis Conway, USC
7: Donovan McNabb, Syracuse
8: Hines Ward, Georgia
9: Haloti Ngata, Oregon
10: Aaron Kampman, Iowa
11: Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida
Bonus: Curtis Conway