LINCOLN — Fundamental fairness. This is the phrase Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst uses to describe the direction in which he’d like to see college football recruiting move. He’s not a big fan of “level playing field.”
“I hear the ‘level playing field’ all the time — there is no ‘level playing field’ in college athletics,” Eichorst said Monday. “Clearly not in the Power Five (conferences).”
I agree with that. College sports are competitive. There are millions of dollars involved. Eichorst didn’t have any exact figures Monday, but he said Nebraska spent more than $1 million on college football recruiting last year and probably the most NU has ever spent in the history of the school. Not every school — not most schools — will spend that much or recruit as nationally as Nebraska.
But fundamental fairness, Eichorst likes and believes college football recruiting can achieve.
Eichorst is an optimistic guy. College football recruiting would test any optimist’s mettle. Nevertheless, Eichorst is in the thick of the issue as a member — and the Big Ten’s representative — of the NCAA Football Oversight Committee. Eichorst is also the chairman of a subcommittee focused specifically on camps and clinics. Obviously, camps are no longer solely designed for youth development and safety awareness. They are recruiting events, sometimes set to rock music.
Satellite camps held in ACC and SEC country — or FBS coaches working as guest coaches at camps hosted by smaller schools in those regions — are a hot button topic among Power Five programs. The ACC and SEC have offered proposals — to be voted on by NCAA membership in April — that could effectively end the practice starting this summer.
Considering Eichorst’s own coach, Mike Riley, uses satellite camps to help identify prospects — Miami Southridge cornerback DiCaprio Bootle’s commit to the 2016 class is a direct result of NU working a camp in Miami — it makes sense that NU would want to keep those camps, or have some way of evaluating prospects in person without having to make those prospects pay thousands to travel to Nebraska’s camps.
Eichorst makes clear: He’s not on the subcommittee because he desires a specific outcome on the satellite camp issue. In fact, he’d rather the NCAA membership didn’t try to address recruiting in a “piecemeal” way. Instead, he wants to see “full-scale” comprehensive reform, a package of ideas that, in theory, satisfies the whole membership.
“I think we can come together and reach some amicable solutions that aren’t geographically based,” said Eichorst, who has also worked at South Carolina, Wisconsin and Miami, which gives him a “fairly global perspective” of the recruiting issue. That’s valuable.
The ACC and SEC also appear strongly against any movement that allows Northern schools to get a closer look at Southern prospects. From my perspective, this is little more than self-interest on the part of those schools. Not that it’s necessarily wrong to be self-interested, but there’s no particular case to be made that Northern schools evaluating kids without the financial wherewithal in the towns where they live is somehow penalizing them. It’s not penalizing them at all. It’s giving them more access and opportunity.
What’s the downside to the athletes?
“A lot of coaches have made that observation,” Eichorst said after I made that argument to him. “Over time, recruiting has gone from a regional activity to a national and global activity. And with that, we have to evolve. There needs to be fundamental fairness that permits institutions and young people to weigh their options in a way that is not disadvantaged by geography or resources.”
What does that look like? Eichorst has an open mind to examining the whole process.
“As we look at recruiting today and all of the moving pieces — you look at access, evaluation and signing — you have a calendar, you have coaches who can do certain things, aren’t permitted to do other things. When you look at that in the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure what we’re doing is the most effective and efficient — for everybody. Our coaches. Our institutions. Our high school coaches. Our prospects. Our current student-athletes.”
But I wonder if, deep down, the ACC, SEC and other schools near lots of prospects really would want reform. The current system — with a dose of protectionism built into it — favors them. A truly free market may not.
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Whether he intended to do so or not, Riley in the middle of the season created a recruiting scorecard for a specific skill.
“We don’t have enough of those guys — it might even be an outside ’backer type — who can rush the passer,” Riley said in late October. “We’re probably five or six guys short of those kinds of people. We are looking. Might they come from the junior colleges? Yes. But you’ve got to be right in the junior college recruiting.”
As it turned out, Riley and Nebraska didn’t land that junior college pass rusher, or at least they haven’t with one week left in the recruiting cycle. Immediate impact, junior college players occasionally become available in the summer, but, for all intents and purposes, junior college recruiting ends on signing day.
And since defensive coordinator Mark Banker said in early January that landing another top pass-rusher was a “must” for NU’s defense, Nebraska fans will likely have to settle for Collin Miller, Pernell Jefferson, Ben Stille and Quayshon Alexander being those guys.
That quartet — two outside linebackers and two defensive ends — is the Huskers’ pass-rusher haul for 2016, should things stay the way they are.
It’s a group with upside and potential. Alexander could play about four positions if I were the coach. Miller had a monster senior season. Jefferson and Stille strike me as redshirt types who can grow into good fits for the Big Ten. Nebraska is now recruiting more with size and strength in mind. I like that.
Is there any immediate impact in there? Usually, fall camp tells the tale — and camp tells it quick. It’s hard to measure maturity for all the rigors of the game until the kids actually arrive and get after it. Antonio Reed, a two-star prospect in the 2015 class, was ready, and few would have predicted that.
But NU failed to close on any of its junior college defensive end prospects. The one that stings the most perhaps is Arizona Western’s Jonathan Kongbo, who transferred to the school last summer from Wyoming, of all schools. Nebraska already had one Arizona Western commit at the time — linebacker William Johnson has since chosen UAB — and Kongbo had no reputation whatsoever.
He’s now the No. 1 junior college prospect in the nation. Since Nebraska has to excel to some degree at diamond mining, unearthing a prospect like Kongbo, before he blew up on the radar, would have helped. NU’s most recent target, Butler County (Kansas) Community College end Tramal Ivy, wasn’t eligible out of high school and has more work to do to make it out of Butler now. NU and Ivy appear to have, as they say in the recruiting world, parted ways.
NU also missed on some of the top high school defensive ends and linebackers in the region. Xavier Kelly (out of Wichita, Kansas) went to Clemson. Carter Coughlin stuck with hometown Minnesota — he’s from Eden Prairie — despite the Gophers losing coach Jerry Kill. Carlo Kemp — who went to Kenny Bell’s high school in Boulder, Colorado — is heading to Michigan. Top defensive ends in the Big Ten footprint chose Michigan State and Iowa much earlier in the process.
So, Nebraska will take those four pass-rushing prospects and try to develop them. NU has five talented guys (one linebacker and four defensive linemen) coming off redshirts and plenty of defensive tackles and ends on the roster who have made no impact in the program thus far. It’s from this group that NU will have to build its pass rush after being downright anemic at times in 2015.
I won’t sugarcoat it — Nebraska could have done better. But rebounding with Jefferson and Miller so late in the process helps. Riley’s staff is well-organized and consistent, and that helped NU land two very productive prospects two weeks before signing day.
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Several quick notes and items to address:
» Nebraska may not get any commits this week, but one who could pull the trigger by week’s end is Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Washington offensive tackle Matt Farniok, who took his final official visit to Iowa last weekend. Farniok isn’t the chattiest guy, but the Iowa recruiting sites all suggested Farniok had a good visit. Considering the time and effort spent on recruiting Farniok, the Huskers need to win this one. I’m not sure they will, either. Nebraska is battling Iowa also for Detroit-area lineman Alaric Jackson, who visits NU Friday.
» The Huskers lost out on one offensive tackle target Monday when Nashville (Illinois) prospect Royce Newman committed to Ole Miss. Without any SEC titles in 52 years, the Rebels are a recruiting juggernaut. Strange, isn’t it? Loads of top players — including some from the Midwest — going to Ole Miss to not win anything in particular. How does Ole Miss do it?
» Waterford (Michigan) Mott wideout Desmond Fitzpatrick will announce his college choice Feb. 1 at his high school. He visits Arizona this weekend. Elk Grove (California) Franklin defensive back Lamar Jackson has probably already made his decision, but he announces it via Bleacher Report video on Feb. 2.
» If, in theory, Fitzpatrick and Lamar Jackson say yes, and Farniok and Alaric Jackson both pick Iowa, it’d be fair to say Nebraska recruited skill players far better in this cycle than it did linemen. NU’s two top offensive line commits, John Raridon and Bryan Brokop, were committed to NU before the current coaching staff arrived.
» All four prospects, of course, could pick Nebraska, which would be an impressive finish — the kind Nebraska needs.
» After his weekend official visit to Nebraska — during which he was entirely silent on Twitter — Olathe (Kansas) North athlete Isaiah Simmons on Monday posted a photo of himself with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables conducting an in-home visit. The Tigers offered Simmons 10 days ago. NU has long had Simmons as one of its top prospects.
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