Recruiting: Huskers offer Aurora's Austin Allen, first in-state target for 2017

Aurora tight end Austin Allen tries to break the grasp of Elkhorn South linebacker Connor Childs during the Class B championship game.

LINCOLN — Nebraska has three commits for its 2017 recruiting class, and a number of fans — and at least some recruiting pundits — figured Aurora’s Austin Allen would already be in the fold.

But Allen, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound athlete who could play a variety of positions in college but is getting recruiting attention right now as a tight end, isn’t ready to pledge to a school yet, despite what he called an “unreal” visit to Nebraska for its junior day.

He and his parents sat down with coach Mike Riley and his wife, Dee, for a half-hour. Allen loved NU and its facilities. Still, he said, he wants to get to know the Huskers’ coaching staff better, along with the staffs of a few other schools.

“I’ve heard nothing but great things about Nebraska’s staff, but if you’re going to spend five years at a school, you want to make sure,” Allen said Monday.

Iowa, Iowa State and Central Florida — where former Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost is head coach — have offered. UCLA, Ohio and Minnesota are interested. But it’s Nebraska, Iowa and Iowa State pursuing Allen the hardest.

ISU hasn’t been recruiting Nebraska for years, but new coach Matt Campbell has apparently changed that tune. Allen said he receives social media messages from at least two Iowa State coaches per day. He got eight letters in the mail — on the same day — recently. He visited Ames for junior day and liked the facilities quite a bit; Iowa State now has all the bells and whistles of a top Power Five program.

“The best part is their coaching staff,” Allen said.

Iowa offered, Allen said, after calling around to people not affiliated with Aurora’s football program.

“Iowa said its No. 1 focus was character,” Allen said. Iowa focused on the kind of person Allen was, he said, before offering.

A two-sport star — he was first-team Class B on The World-Herald’s All-Nebraska team in both football and basketball — Allen is the kind of guy who’d have a lot more recruiting attention if he played elsewhere. But he has good hands and moves well, and Aurora’s offense is a good blend of run and pass. NU needs tight ends. Allen is a top-shelf prospect, and there’s little doubt the Huskers want him in the fold.

So does a current Husker commit. Yep, Keyshawn Johnson Jr. isn’t just peer recruiting in California. Last week after he committed, he texted Allen.

“We’re going to get Nebraska back to where it’s supposed to be,” Allen said Johnson wrote in the text. “I can promise you that.”

Cal kids looking east?

Even if every California prospect who suddenly took interest in Nebraska after Johnson’s commit wanted to play for the Huskers, well, NU probably couldn’t take them all.

But that won’t stop Nebraska from trying to take as many as it can. Los Angeles Cathedral defensive end Hunter Echols, a UCLA commit, tweeted a picture of former NU defensive end Randy Gregory. “The Next Gregory,” wrote Echols. Well, we’ll see. One of his teammates, slot receiver Jamire Calvin, retweeted Husker fans and wide receivers coach Keith Williams all weekend. When and if all these California kids visit Nebraska, they’ll have quite the tour guide in Johnson.

Not that it’ll be easy to land some of those guys. It never is when UCLA and USC are involved.

In the last five recruiting classes according to 247Sports’ composite recruiting service, the Bruins and Trojans have combined to land 97 of the top 250 recruits. That is, in effect, 19 of the top 50 prospects in the state of California each year.

Throw in Cal and Stanford, and you have 124 of the top 250 prospects from the 2012-16 classes.

So those four schools secure, on average, half of the top 50 prospects in the state each year.

How about non-Pac-12 schools? How do they do?

Well, if you listen to Rivals’ Mike Farrell, the chances of a top prospect from California picking NU — like Calabasas cornerback Darnay Holmes, who has visited Nebraska many times — are pretty slim.

“I don’t think Darnay is going to Nebraska,” Farrell wrote. “As we get later into the recruiting year with top California kids, usually they stay west. It’s not often for kids to go cross-country or leave the state and when they do they go to the Notre Dames, Michigans and Ohio States of the world.”

Actually, they go to Oklahoma more than anywhere else. OU has secured 10 of the top 250 prospects over the last five recruiting classes. The Sooners just got, for example, linebacker Caleb Kelly.

After that: Notre Dame and Nebraska had six, Boise State and Michigan had three, and Alabama, Miami, BYU, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida State, Vanderbilt and SMU all had two. Ohio State, among many others, had one.

Why are Notre Dame and Michigan seen as having more sterling California recruiting résumés than Nebraska? NU has long tapped California, and the trend of recruiting there has never really ended. The 2012 Nebraska team, for example, had six starters — Taylor Martinez, Quincy Enunwa, Eric Martin, Josh Mitchell, Cameron Meredith and Daimion Stafford — from California.

I know, none of them were “elite” four- and five-star recruits other than Stafford. But you’re really splitting hairs when you separate Holmes and 2016 defensive back recruit Lamar Jackson into different calibers of recruit. There’s not much difference there, if any.

So NU had already proven in the most recent recruiting cycle that it could win a big recruiting battle in California. It has proved it many times over anyway, over many years.

But I’ll go ahead and posit that Farrell’s line is more about the narrative on Nebraska recruiting than any statistical history. And, for that, I don’t blame Farrell. Were I in his shoes — covering 120 teams — I’d probably have the same narrative.

One lasting legacy left behind by the previous coaching administration is the idea that Nebraska couldn’t do much better than it was doing in recruiting, that Husker fans were ingrates for thinking otherwise, and media who suggested otherwise were sowing the seeds of dissent and putting undue pressure on the team.

It’s not surprising that any national analyst or reporter would come to a conclusion about Nebraska’s lack of recruiting prowess. Not when the previous staff spent years telling local and national media about the challenges of recruiting to a place with five national titles, palatial facilities and a student-athlete support system that is a parent’s dream.

At any rate, at the end of the 2014 Minnesota game, ESPN analyst Brian Griese spilled the full beanpot on that narrative.

Griese, a Michigan Man who had to share his lone national title with Nebraska, had the clearest recitation of the narrative from a national guy:

“There’s a lot of pressure at this program. And you want there to be a lot of pressure. You want the fans to live and die with every single win and every single loss, and I think for Bo Pelini, the struggle is: This might be as good as this program can be right now. They might be a 9-4 program. They’ve been a 9-4 or 10-4 program for the past seven years. And with the competitive nature and landscape of college football, this might be the new reality for Nebraska. And it’s hard for Nebraska fans to accept that. It’s hard for Bo Pelini to accept that.”

One year later, as Nebraska was trailing 38-33 to Michigan State, ESPN recruiting analyst and sideline reporter Tom Luginbill took another moment — during a timeout — to explain why Husker football faced hurdles going forward.

Said Luginbill: “Such a great tradition here — a lot of winning, a lot of sustained years of success — but there are some challenges, too. Let’s take a look at some of those challenges in recruiting. So you take a look at the footprint at Nebraska. Look at the amount of ESPN 300 prospects that have come out in the last five classes — not only in Nebraska, but in the states that surround and connect to Nebraska.”

ESPN’s map showed 21 prospects total in seven states. One of them is from Nebraska and 14 of them from Missouri.

Luginbill again: “Then transition that to how many of those prospects ended up committing and signing with the University of Nebraska.”

ESPN’s map shows four prospects signing with Nebraska.

Luginbill again: “When you see numbers that low, that means that Nebraska is going to have to go in an entirely different direction and widen their net that they cast out for prospects, which is a very, very difficult thing to do in today’s college football landscape.”

Now, let’s be clear: Not all of this “landscape” narrative is inaccurate. Nebraska isn’t 300 miles away from Los Angeles. It does get cold here. There are high school players who couldn’t say much about the state of Nebraska outside of it having corn and a football team that wears red.

It is harder to recruit, in some ways, to Nebraska.

But it is easier in others.

Many of Nebraska’s sports recruit really well, in part because of those advantages already listed. While it’s true NU doesn’t have a facilities lead over schools the way it once did, they’re still pretty sparkling overall.

And, to be fair to Riley’s predecessor, Riley won’t ever know a day — as Pelini did — when he has to take a big official visitor over to the Devaney Center for a basketball game, amid ruins of decaying state fairgrounds and livestock stalls. Pinnacle Bank Arena — and the resulting developments around the arena — is a far more appealing draw.

Now Riley and his staff can capitalize on it. Here’s a shot at a recruiting class Nebraska hasn’t had in some time. Here’s a chance to shake up the narrative. It’s comfortable for recruiting analysts. I don’t really blame them; at this point, Nebraska will have to be an outlier.

But Nebraska football has long been an outlier anyway. It doesn’t have to be the Michigans and Notre Dames of the world.

It starts not with Holmes, but Tristan Gebbia, the guy throwing passes to Keyshawn Johnson Jr.

Nebraska has two quarterbacks — 1A and 1B, if you will — at the top of its 2017 recruiting board.

1B — Sayville, New York, signal-caller Jack Coan — picked Wisconsin last week.

1A is Gebbia. He’s visited Nebraska several times. He’s visited Ole Miss, too. That’s where his dad played football. Ole Miss also has a true freshman quarterback, Shea Patterson, who was the No. 1 QB recruit in the 2016 class. Gebbia has a better arm — at least on tape — than Patterson does. Ole Miss’ offense — spread pass, no huddle, read option — isn’t much of an NFL offense. Riley’s system is a better fit for Gebbia, a pro-style prospect.

If Nebraska does land Gebbia — who’s been pretty quiet about the process but could decide at any time — it’d be quite a coup, getting what may be the top quarterback out of California in 2016 and 2017. If not, Nebraska has an entire evaluation period in April to find new quarterbacks to offer. Just like NU did at this time last year, when it found Patrick O’Brien.

Has the “landscape” changed? Sure. You change with it. Nebraska’s not going to spend less money on football. It’s not going to become less passionate. The idea of “this is the best NU can do” is best left for media pundits. It might even be true.

But a football coaching staff can’t believe that.

Riley’s doesn’t.

Big Ten update

» Ohio State is halfway done with its 2017 recruiting class with 13 commits. 247Sports’ composite service rates it No. 1 nationally. For all the hoopla of Michigan conducting spring practice at IMG Academy, it’s OSU that has two commits from there. What’s more, the Buckeyes have a commit from linebacker Anjuan Simmons, who hails from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School — right across the street from Michigan Stadium.

» Michigan already has its running backs for the 2017 class in big back A.J. Dillon (6-1, 230) and little tank Kurt Taylor (5-9, 200), a nice runner out of Georgia. The Wolverines have done well.

» Northwestern is off to a sizzling start with seven commits, including Pittsburg (Kansas) athlete Trevor Kent. The Wildcats snatched away Kent before he ever took a visit to Nebraska. That’s a whiff in the 500-mile radius. Northwestern has four commits from Texas.

» The only Big Ten team without a commit is Minnesota, where new coach Tracy Claeys will have as much trouble recruiting top players as Jerry Kill did. The Golden Gophers have yet to name a permanent athletic director.

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