McKewon: Big recruiting weekend an opportunity to begin Blackshirts rebuild

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, right, will have several top recruits visiting Lincoln this weekend.

LINCOLN — Though its defense was viewed as the weaker of its two units, Central Florida’s speed, athleticism, aggression and instincts in a 34-27 Peach Bowl win over Auburn were a stark contrast to, well, just about everything in Nebraska’s defense in 2017.

By season’s end, when Luke Gifford was officially out with a hip injury, the Blackshirts were broken in spirit — the bizarre final month of Bob Diaco’s tenure as defensive coordinator ensured that — but there were warning signs in terms of ability for much of the season.

Three local three-star recruits — Gifford, Mick Stoltenberg and Ben Stille — were the most consistent or, in Stille’s case, the most surprising. Nebraska’s defense looked slow and not very strong. It didn’t reset the line of scrimmage very often.

Tackling in the secondary? Angles and technique and toughness? Only from Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams, and only intermittently.

NU’s first big recruiting weekend of January feels in part like an attempt to address some of those deficiencies ahead of the traditional signing period that begins Feb. 7.

While Lancaster (Calif.) Quartz Hill quarterback/athlete Matthew Tago is set to see Lincoln this weekend, the bigger intrigue lies on the defensive side. Among their visitors, the Huskers likely will have two pass-rushers with national recruiting profiles, their top remaining target at defensive end, a four-star cornerback, a four-star safety and a potential transfer who played as a freshman at Mississippi.

The transfer is Breon Dixon, who could be a nickel/safety/linebacker in NU’s system. Originally a four-star prospect out of Loganville (Ga.) Grayson, Dixon built a relationship with Nebraska’s Atlanta-area recruiter, Sean Beckton, when Beckton was at UCF.

The same is true of Lawrenceville (Ga.) Archer cornerback Taiyon Palmer, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound corner who is a four-star recruit according to the 247Sports composite. Beckton tried to recruit Palmer to UCF, which didn’t have Palmer’s interest. Nebraska does. NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher are part of the recruiting effort, too.

“Coach Beckton is good people,” said Archer coach Andy Dyer. “He’s been recruiting the area for about eight years.”

Palmer was originally committed to Duke. He backed off the Blue Devils before the early signing period. Dyer said Nebraska, North Carolina State and Vanderbilt are the three teams to beat for Palmer.

“He has very good ball skills,” Dyer said. “He can go up and get the ball, but he can also match routes very well. And he takes cares of business off the field. You never have to worry about that stuff with him. It’s never a distraction.”

Nebraska still needs more natural pass-rushers — in a 3-4 those tend to be outside linebackers — and NU is hosting two this weekend: Bergen County (N.J.) Catholic’s Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Lithonia (Ga.) Miller Grove’s Caleb Tannor.

Jean-Baptiste — 6-5 and 205 pounds — is the prototypical outside linebacker. Think Randy Gregory. Yep, that much upside. Ohio State and Texas A&M offered him a scholarship for a reason.

Jean-Baptiste’s Hudl film shows him running down ball-carriers from the backside of plays and swamping quarterbacks before they can scramble.

A consensus four-star recruit, Jean-Baptiste had 11-1/2 sacks and 88 tackles en route to becoming NJ.com’s defensive player of the year.

“He’s really just a great pass-rusher,” Bergen Catholic coach Nunzio Campanile said. “He’d make a dominant defensive end or, if you made him an outside linebacker, he can do that, too.”

Jean-Baptiste has to look hard at the Ohio State offer, Campanile said. But Nebraska’s staff — when it was at UCF — recruited Jean-Baptiste before anyone. NU defensive line coach Mike Dawson has the longest relationship, Campanile said.

What’s more, Nebraska may be able to offer earlier playing time. Stille showed flashes as a pass-rusher, as did Gifford, but you can’t pencil in either for eight or nine sacks a season. Guy Thomas has the physical profile for it as he comes off his redshirt season.

Tannor — 6-4, 220 pounds — is a little closer to Thomas, but leaner and a little more polished. He was committed to Georgia until November, and he is scheduled to visit Ole Miss next week. Florida and Auburn, according to recruiting reports, are also in the mix.

At defensive end, Independence (Mo.) Chrisman’s Daniel Carson will make his long-awaited official visit. A consensus three-star prospect, the 6-5, 260-pound Carson would be paired with signee Tate Wildeman as true 3-4 defensive ends. Carson told Husker Online his other two finalists are Miami and Texas.

At safety, Mansfield (Texas) High’s Cam’ron Jones has visited officially, so he’ll be making an unofficial visit with his teammate Corbin Frederick, who’s mulling a Husker preferred walk-on offer. Jones held off on committing or signing with Nebraska in the early period.

Other planned visitors this weekend:

»   Tago, 6-4, 230: Nebraska is recruiting him for quarterback, and among recent NU signees, he most resembles AJ Bush. Tago is a little bigger and perhaps a more accurate passer. He decommitted from UCLA in December. He’s planning a visit to Washington State on Jan. 19.

»   Miles Jones, 5-8, 165, RB/WR, Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage: The 247Sports composite three-star prospect played for one of the nation’s best teams, a 14-0 juggernaut that had four players with at least 400 yards rushing. Jones had 695 — 11.4 yards per tote — and 401 receiving yards. He’s committed to Vanderbilt. Running back, slot, Jones fits both roles.

»   Jarrett Bell, 6-5, 295, OL, Norco (Calif.) High: Bell decommitted from Alabama in November and has since taken a visit to UCLA. NU is flush with guards, so perhaps Bell can play some tackle.

»   Mike Williams, 5-10, 175, WR, East Mississippi Community College: Williams committed to Nebraska on Wednesday night and will see the campus this weekend before enrolling. Williams is a rare recruiting story — two years ago, he was headed to UT-Martin before a late scholarship offer to Georgia Southern — and Nebraska may have stolen one. UCLA and Texas Tech were interested in offering. Williams received a three-star grade from Rivals and 247Sports.

Bits and pieces

»   Huskers Illustrated reported Cedar Hill (Texas) Trinity Christian running back Maurice Washington will not visit this weekend but will choose another date. He’s scheduled to visit Tennessee next weekend.

»   According to the 247Sports composite rankings, Nebraska sits 36th nationally with 15 commits. Rivals has NU 47th, but the Huskers’ per-star average is 3.33, 20th nationally. ESPN has the Huskers 33rd. Nebraska will likely finish with at least 20 recruits, which means its class could crack the top 30.

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