LINCOLN — We interrupt a bad start to Mike Riley’s first season to remind readers: Don’t ignore the long view of roster management, talent acquisition and, yes, salesmanship.
We tend to turn down the volume on recruiting during the season because games are in play and those results trump the recruiting scoreboard. (Which, if you’re keeping track there, Nebraska ought to be 4-1.)
But during Wisconsin week, it gets turned up. It should be a pretty big tentpole weekend for recruits — official and unofficial visitors alike. Nebraska’s prized quarterback recruit, Patrick O’Brien, is scheduled to be in town. So, too, is a contingent of 2017 prospects from Calabasas High School in California. Although NU has already hosted several official visitors for games this year, Saturday should be a showcase — with California weather to boot.
NU needs to put its best foot forward in recruiting, and it can do that even in a season when the team is struggling out of the gate. Heck, even if the team were 4-1 or 5-0.
No matter the record, Nebraska isn’t top 20 nationally in talent. In the Big Ten West, is that talent still good enough for 9-3 or 8-4? Yes. That’s a reflection on the division, though. And that’s no reason to get complacent, given that the Big Ten schedule expands next season to nine games. You’ll notice Ohio State is on that schedule for the next four years. And regardless of the Buckeyes’ current stumbling, they’re not going anywhere in terms of talent.
NU’s margin of error, as you’ve seen already this season, isn’t very big. That’s not an excuse for bad losses. But it informs the closeness of the games, especially when injuries have taken a big chunk out of the defense.
We’ve seen what small margins of error can do to the Huskers. In 2013, an offense that looked explosive before the season got smacked hard with injuries. Nebraska pulled out three heartstoppers — over Northwestern, at Michigan and at Penn State — but lost four games by double digits to UCLA, Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa. A season with a dream schedule — eight home games — went for naught.
Similarly, we saw, in direct terms, how mistakes in defensive line recruiting left Nebraska vulnerable in the 2012 Big Ten championship. Notable whiffs and an inability to correct the problem quickly enough sank the Huskers against the Badgers after a frantic month of incredible wins.
Though recruiting services aren’t perfect — I’ve written at length about their struggles to correctly judge Midwestern kids like Husker safety Nate Gerry — there is enough data tied to the 247Sports Composite Service, a formula that combines a variety of service ratings, to draw reasonable conclusions about the relative talent coming into a program. Here are the national and Big Ten rankings for the last five Husker classes:
Now the rub: While those classes aren’t bad, nine signees in the 2013 class — including stud Randy Gregory — either never showed up or have already left. Seven players from the 2014 class have either left or never shown up. Another seven players from the 2014 class — the weakest of the Bo Pelini era — haven’t played a significant snap. And of that gaudy 2011 class, six of the top nine signees left the program early or never arrived.
As for the Huskers’ bad habit of loading up late on prospects in the 2013 and 2014 classes, some of those choices backfired on them. NU landed four defensive ends in January 2013 and 2014. None of the four has played a major snap; three of them aren’t even here.
So, as hard as it is to balance a tough season and a decent-looking recruiting class, the Huskers have to do it.
NU is at 15 commits now. Assuming roster attrition — and I am — I still think Nebraska could end near 25 commits. The quartet of linebackers remains a strength, and I’m a big fan of the two wideouts — J.D. Spielman and Derrion Grim — Nebraska has in the class. They’re dynamic guys in the De’Mornay Pierson-El mold.
O’Brien is a top-end quarterback completing 80 percent of his passes this year. He’s just mobile enough, and he has a strong arm. And he’s 6-foot-3. Those few extra inches, in my viewing experience, make a difference on screen passes. He’s the most important prospect in the class, as quarterbacks always are. Nebraska’s 2012 class, modestly rated, at least produced Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe, the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks. Before those two, you’d have to go back to 2009 with Taylor Martinez to find a Husker quarterback recruit who panned out. That’s a pretty long drought.
As for the 2016 class, Nebraska is 28th now in the 247Sports Composite rankings. That’s not bad, but four Big Ten teams — Ohio State (No. 1), Penn State (No. 4), Michigan (No. 9) and Michigan State (No. 12) — are in the top 12. Wisconsin (No. 23) and Minnesota (No. 32) are having strong years, too.
The Big Ten isn’t sleeping on the recruiting trail anymore. Urban Meyer woke up everyone. Nebraska was never sleeping, but it has to hustle. A big weekend — with a win — would help the Huskers.
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