In the small town cafes, in the office cubicles, in the teachers' lounges, at the book clubs and jewelry parties and in the YMCA locker rooms, Nebraska football fans are invariably talking about recruiting.
And in the midst of those conversations, perhaps someone will bring up that Nebraska, even if it hits an inside straight on the way to Signing Day, probably won't hit the top 20 of any of the team recruiting rankings. And perhaps someone, in response, will bring up that Nebraska inevitably has to find diamonds in the rough — the two-star, five-heart sleepers — and develop those players into starters and all-conference performers. They might add that NU has to rely on its storied walk-on program to augment each group of scholarship performers.
We'll address the walk-on program another day — after, probably, NU announces its most recent walk-on class. I want to see how big it is.
Today, we'll look at those scholarship “sleepers” — the low three-star and two-star prospects Nebraska has signed over the last ten seasons, and how those players turned out.
To do that, we'll use the Rivals ranking service, since Rivals has been around for a decade and has a handy scale to assist us. Rivals separates its three-star prospects into 5.7, 5.6 and 5.5 prospects. The 5.7 bunch are the high three-star prospects. The 5.5 bunch are low three-star prospects. So we'll look at all the 5.5 three-star signees, plus any two-star scholarship signees.
The only exceptions: All walk-ons who eventually became schlolarship players, and all special teams signees — kickers and snappers — since they're hardly ever better than a two-star prospect. Kicker Drew Brown was one of the nation's top kicking prospects in 2014, for example, and still a two-star recruit. We won't muddy the water with those signees, which are Adi Kunalic, Drew Brown, Gabriel Miller, Mauro Bondi and Jordan Ober.
We are thus left with 60 players over ten recruiting classes between 2006 and 2015. That spans three head coaches — Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini and Mike Riley — includes all of the Pelini era.
Out of that 60 players:
Five have been drafted by an NFL team — Keith Williams (2006 recruiting class), Marcel Jones (2007), Eric Hagg (2007), Roy Helu (2007) and Stanley Jean-Baptiste (2010).
Four have been first-team all-conference: Pierre Allen (2006), Hagg, Ricky Henry (2008) and Jean-Baptiste.
That's 8.3 percent of the 60 players for both NFL Draftees and 6.67 percent for first-team All-conference players.
I've then divvied up the players into six categories. You may quibble a bit on where a few players land, and if you want to debate that, we can, but you'll get the gist.
>> Eighteen players, or 30 percent of the 60 signees, were regular starters, which can be defined many different ways, but probably boils down to this: If you started for a whole season, or were the No. 1 guy at your position for a whole season, or you won a starting job midseason and played that whole season, you were a regular starter.
The 18: Mike Smith (2006), Mike McNeill (2006), Anthony West (2006), Allen, Williams, Jones, Hagg, Helu, Henry, C.J Zimmerer (2009), Brent Qvale (2009), Cole Pensick (2009), Jake Cotton (2010), Jean-Baptiste, Daniel Davie (2011), Byerson Cockrell (2014), Joshua Kalu (2014) and Chris Jones (2014).
Ten players, or 16.67 percent of the players, were regular contributors, but not regular starters: Ryan Hill (2007), Tim Marlowe (2008), Steven Osborne (2008), Courtney Osborne (2008), Brandon Thompson (2008), Taariq Allen (2011), Givens Price (2011), Sam Cotton (2012), Chongo Kondolo (2013) and Antonio Reed (2015).
>> Four players, for myriad reasons, were never major contributors in the program for the duration of their time at NU: Will Henry (2006), Micah Kriekemeier (2008), Tyler Evans (2010) and David Sutton (2011).
>> Five players, for myriad reasons, have not yet been major contributors in the program, but still have eligibility left: Corey Whitaker (2012), Dwayne Johnson (2013), A.J. Bush (2014), Zack Darlington (2014) and Sedrick King (2014).
>> Three players were part of the 2015 recruiting class and redshirted: Alex Davis (2015), Mohammed Barry (2015) and Matt Snyder (2015).
>> And finally 20 players, or 33.33 percent of the 60 signees, transferred, never arrived or left the program early before exhausting their eligibility, whether they were contributors or not.
The 20: Ben Martin (2006), Corey Young (2006), Anthony Blue (2007), Shawn Sullivan (2007), Mason Wald (2008), Antonio Bell (2008), Lester Ward (2008), Quentin Toailoa (2008), John Levorsen (2008), Khiry Cooper (2008), Tray Robinson (2009), Bronson Marsh (2009), Tobi Okuyemi (2009), Drake Martinez (2013), Ernest Suttles (2013), Glenn Irons (2014), DeAndre Wills (2014), Jariah Tolbert (2014), Larenzo Stewart (2014) and Trai Mosley (2014).
There are various stories in those 20. Anthony Blue had a promising freshman year, then lost two seasons to knee injury, then retired heading into his senior year. Bell played for a time at wideout and corner, got in some beef with Pelini, and was off the team as a senior. Suttles broke a bottle over a teammate's head before he ever started practice.
At any rate, the largest chunk of players is the group that either left the program early or never contributed in their career. And only 18 of the players — 20 if you want to put Price and Kondolo in there, which I don't since both only played a handful of starts over many years on campus — were regular starters.
Some more nuggets:
>> Of the 18 two-star non-special teams recruits signed over that time period, three — Cockrell, Cotton and Jean-Baptiste, a mid-summer enrollee that had no Rivals rating — became regular starters. Davis hasn't played yet.
>> Nebraska signed the most sleepers in the 2008 class — 12 of them. That was Pelini's first class, the far too big one, signed weeks after he arrived on campus. Of that 12, just Henry, out of junior college, was a regular starter, six transferred, Kreikemeier never played much, and Marlowe, Thompson and the Osborne twins were off-and-on contributors. That's 11 high school signees and zero regular starters.
>> Nebraska signed the second most sleepers in the 2014 class — 11 of them. (The 12th is Brown, NU's starting kicker; we don't count him for this exercise). Three — Cockrell, Kalu and Jones — started on defense. Five — Irons, Tolbert, Mosley, Wills and Stewart — either never arrived or transferred already. The other three — Bush, King and Darlington — haven't played meaningful snaps yet. The 2014 recruiting class was a bit of a rushed finish, since Nebraska's coaching staff wasn't quite sure if it'd have a job after that 2013 season. For Pelini and Co., the resulting class was a bit of a mash-up. Wills was a mystery recruit. Irons and Tolbert were clear miscalculations for the NU staff in terms of “fit” in Lincoln. Pelini was a big fit guy early in his tenure and it paid off. But that ideal had started to wane by the end of his tenure.
>> Four of the five NFL draftees came from Callahan's last two classes. Rivals probably — no, certainly — underrated Helu, but as I looked at ten years of classes, I didn't think Rivals missed on most of these guys. Maybe Qvale — but he played in North Dakota. Maybe Marcel Jones. Jean-Baptiste had been to a prep school and a junior college by the time he committed to Nebraska, and he'd never even played a game at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. Unrated was the right score for Jean-Baptiste. He was unknown to most not named Carl or Bo Pelini, and he played his first year at NU at wideout. Allen was a better basketball player in high school, and Hagg appeared to be a project until Pelini and his crew found a spot for him in their defense. Still, eight of the 18 regular starters came from Callahan's two classes.
Callahan had an eye for talent, even if Pelini developed that talent.
Pelini benefited from Callahan's eye for it, too.
The key takeways going forward:
>> It may not be the best way to get great skill players on offense: At least it wasn't for Nebraska. Other than Helu, the next best offensive skill player was Mike McNeill. In the Pelini era, the following skill recruits bounced or didn't contribute very much: Ward, Robinson, Marsh, Evans, Sutton, Irons, Tolbert, Stewart and, thus far, the two quarterback signees. Bell and Jean-Baptiste were recruited as wideouts who moved to defense. Osborne was a non-factor until his senior year. Maybe it should have been better than it was, but when you look at the catches and rushes from Nebraska players in recent years, it's mostly some of NU's top recruits. Plus walk-on Brandon Reilly.
>> It's much better for offensive linemen: Smith, Williams, Jones, Henry, Qvale, Pensick and Jake Cotton... that's not a bad starting five with two reserves. That's better, I'd argue, than what Nebraska had this year. It seems like a reasonable way to develop a pipeline if augmented with elite talent.
>> Aside from Allen — perhaps Davis down the road — it was a disaster with defensive linemen: Nebraska's generally struggled to recruit that position, but bargain basement prospects haven't really panned out for the Huskers. NU has used walk-ons instead.
>> It's been good for defensive backs: Jean-Baptise, Kalu, Jones, Cockrell Hagg, even West were long-time contributors.
>> Don't lean too much on the sleeper model: It doesn't pay the dividends you think it does. Had it produced 25 regular starters and ten regular contributors, maybe it looks better. But when you recruit these players, you want them to stay and develop. If a large chunk — up to a third — leave for whatever reason, that defeats the point of recruiting sleepers in the first place.
The four and five-star guys, you just expect some of them to leave or get fed up with the depth chart or whatever. A guy like Aaron Green, who had a great career at TCU after he transferred? Not a surprise. Because Green doesn't leave unless Ameer Abdullah's just that good, which he was. But when sleepers leave — and then don't transfer to better programs, or just don't play anywhere at all, it kind of confirms that you missed on the evaluation to such an extent that not only could you not develop them, but others couldn't either. And Nebraska clearly began to fall into that pattern.