LINCOLN — The map comes in a print version, too.
There it sat on a table at Mike Riley’s signing day press conference, a real, tangible version of Nebraska’s “Paint The Nation Red” map that went viral on Twitter for three weeks, when Husker football, under a new coaching staff, caused the right kind of ruckus among recruiting pundits.
A map that went over so well Pittsburgh copied it and named its own Twitter map “On The Prowl.”
A map that detailed where Riley and staff were headed, if not which recruits they were courting.
A map — and approach — that flung the doors open to Nebraska football fans.
“It’s almost been a revolutionary step forward for Nebraska’s football department,” ESPN recruiting senior writer Jeremy Crabtree said.
The recruiting revolution at Nebraska will be Twitterized. It will include a “fax cam” on signing day, complete with NU staffers in goofy costumes. It will be, unlike the guarded Bo Pelini era, rather fan-friendly. It’s already drawn positive reviews from the national media: ESPN, USA Today and CBSSports.com have praised Riley’s approach in recent days.
“We want to share what we’re doing,” said Ryan Gunderson, NU’s director of player personnel, who played for Riley at Oregon State. “We’re not trying to lock the door and close the blinds. We know that, what we’re doing, people are interested in. It’s fun and exciting.”
The man who hired him to bump up the excitement, Riley, echoed that thought Wednesday.
“I like the idea that we are fairly transparent,” Riley said. “Fans have fun following along.”
The hook among fans has been set. Now, a bigger question looms, one more pertinent to Nebraska’s standing in the Big Ten and college football: Can Riley and his staff land the kinds of classes that consistently put Nebraska in the hunt for league titles and playoff berths?
More specifically: Can Nebraska’s recruiting keep any kind of pace with national champion Ohio State’s?
Tasked with an even bigger challenge of recruiting at Oregon State, Riley generally turned in classes rated nationally in the 40s and 50s. As of Wednesday night, Rivals and 247Sports had Nebraska’s class at 31st. Scout had it 33rd. ESPN ranked it 30th. It’s as strong, on paper, as any class Riley had at Oregon State.
Riley aims to exceed that kind of ranking at Nebraska while using some of the creative efforts that served Oregon State well just to get in the top 50.
Riley’s recruiting staff — the fun bunch — thinks it’s doable.
“We can play with the big boys,” said Andy “Juice” Vaughn, director of football and recruiting operations, whom Riley hired away from Nevada. “We have the resources here. We don’t have to be scared. We don’t have to back down from anybody here.”
Among recruiting analysts, Gunderson, Vaughn, Riley and his assistants have already made a positive impression.
“They’re extremely hard workers,” said Scout national recruiting analyst Allen Trieu, who also specializes in Midwest region evaluations. “They really enjoy recruiting. And when you have some of the NFL ties Riley has, that’s going to make the kids more likely to listen.”
Said Crabtree: “I’ve been very impressed with what we’ve seen so far.”
Crabtree said he was equally impressed with some of Oregon State’s novel efforts to recruit under Riley. The Beavers used a recruiting budget far smaller than Nebraska’s — $430,882 in 2012-13, according to the USA Today, compared with $818,509 at NU.
Among the cost-effective methods Riley used that are likely to be duplicated at Nebraska:
» Satellite camps. While the NCAA doesn’t generally allow schools to host their own football camps outside their state, there is a loophole that Oregon State gladly went through: Beaver coaches — many now at NU — would work as guest coaches of a camp either hosted by a smaller-division school or some non-institutional entity. Oregon State was active in Texas and California, giving coaches a chance to scout lesser-known prospects while top-end prospects get to know the coaching staff.
“Getting in the door there is the hard part,” said Gunderson, who is looking at camps in Florida, Texas, California and Atlanta, among other places. “How we’re going to associate ourselves, we’re still figuring that out. We’ve got a bunch of opportunities right now. It’ll be good for our whole staffs to go to camps.”
» Aggressiveness on social media. Oregon State set aside a day in which prospects could send their film to the program’s official Twitter account for evaluation. The Beavers occasionally made offers after Riley saw the film.
“You know how these 15- to-18-year olds communicate,” Vaughn said. “The phone is always in your hand. That’s how they interact with the world and with us. If you’re not into it — two or three steps ahead, trying to figure out what’s coming down the pike and what they’re going to be into — then you’re going to be really behind.”
» A national recruiting philosophy. This fits snugly with what Nebraska did under Pelini, but Riley was no less committed to it at Oregon State. In his final full class in Corvallis, the 2014 bunch, the Beavers had signees from 13 states — including Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Oklahoma.
Riley doesn’t see that changing at Nebraska, which signed players from 13 states in its 2015 class.
» An emphasis on rigorous evaluation. Lest you think Nebraska’s new approach will be able all flash and sizzle, Riley spent more than 600 words Wednesday detailing what he looks for in a cornerback.
Don’t get the idea he’ll aim low at Nebraska.
“Our understanding on what people call a ‘five-star player’ is pretty complete,” Riley said. “...The evaluation to win the conference championship and national championship, we are going to be evaluating a lot of those same guys. Our opportunity to be able to get them may be a little bit different.”
With better opportunity — and different, more transparent recruiting methods than Pelini used — does Nebraska haul in more of the talent needed to take aim at Ohio State?
Pelini didn’t exactly recruit poorly. From 2010 to 2014, Nebraska’ five-year average national rank of recruiting classes, according to Rivals, was 22.2. Ohio State’s was 9.0. Three Power Five conference teams with poorer five-year averages — Michigan State (32.8), TCU (37.8) and Georgia Tech (54.6) — all won New Year’s Six bowl games this year.
Trieu and Crabtree agree that Ohio State is not the template for Nebraska. The Buckeyes have hauled in, and will likely continue to sign, top 10 classes. The cradle of football — Ohio — is still teeming with ready-made, accessible talent, some of which hasn’t been softened by the spread offense craze in the south. The Buckeyes are a recruiting juggernaut with two national titles and two more national title game appearances since 2002. Only Alabama, LSU and USC have been that successful in that time frame.
“Can anyone catch Ohio State? That’s the question,” Trieu said. “It’s hard to predict anybody will. You have a perfect storm there.”
It’s better, both say, for the Huskers to zero in on blueprints that fit NU’s geographical profile.
Trieu selects Michigan State. The Spartans’ recruiting ratings over the past five years have actually been similar to Nebraska’s — and the teams have split four games — but MSU won a Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl. Coach Mark Dantonio has done it, Trieu said, by finding athletes that fit his system and developing those players over time.
Crabtree picked Missouri, which has had more success than predicted in the SEC East. The Tigers have won the division and advanced to the SEC championship game each of the past two years. Toward the latter stages of its tenure in the Big 12, Missouri went to two straight league championship games. The Tigers won none of those, but they have finished in the top five of the final AP poll in two of the past eight years, and in the top 20 in five of the past eight years. Over that same time frame, Nebraska finished in the top 20 just twice, in 2009 and 2010.
In the case of both Missouri and Michigan State, a successful run of quarterback recruiting has helped. Mizzou sent Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert to the NFL. Michigan State benefited from NFL quarterback Kirk Cousins, and Cousins’ eventual successor, Connor Cook, is also seen as a likely NFL prospect.
Get the quarterback right. Win locally. Be creative. Believe. And, yes, have a recruiting target that consistently proves to be right.
“You have to sign top 25 classes,” Crabtree said. “You don’t have to sign top 10 classes every single season to win at the highest level. But you have a lot of kids you can develop with that DNA. And to get kids with that DNA, you have to recruit top 25 classes.”
One of Riley’s final answers Wednesday appeared to track with that logic. He was asked about Ohio State, and whether he’s paid much attention to the caliber of players the Buckeyes signed. A whirlwind two months hadn’t given Riley much time to peek at the league’s top team.
But he will.
“After we settle down a little bit, we’ll look at the players that somebody else got,” Riley said. “We’ll compare. But all of it will be done so that we can get better and compete for the championship. That, right now, is the team we have to be. you’ve got to get the players that can beat those guys.”
Who are those players? Riley went straight to the highest-rated player in NU’s 2015 class. The guy he got without a lick of assistance from Pelini, guard Jalin Barnett of Lawton, Oklahoma.
Nebraska football has a map with paint splotches on it. But Riley put a face to his future aims.
“That’s the kind of guy we’re going to go after,” he said. “And in order to win championships, you have to get those kind of guys.”
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