LINCOLN — Kenny Wilhite has been Nebraska’s director of high school relations for less than a week, but it’s clear how much enthusiasm he has for a job he wanted since coach Mike Riley created it last spring.
One of Wilhite’s roles is to research and cultivate in-state talent for scholarship and walk-on roles. To do that, he has to have a firm grasp on potential prospects for the 2017 recruiting class.
“We’re compiling that list right now, and it needs to be as long as I-80 stretches across Nebraska,” Wilhite said Thursday.
The former Husker player and FCS position coach used phrases like “full speed ahead” and “head on” to describe his approach to the job, which also involves serving as a liaison to NFL scouts who come to evaluate current Husker players. Wilhite’s biggest responsibility, though, will be developing and continuing connections to attract local high school prospects.
“The foundation of this program is built on local talent,” Wilhite said. “Myself and other guys in the office have to identify that talent and then build relationships.”
Nebraska did an “OK job” of doing that last year, said Wilhite, who served as NU’s assistant director of player personnel while Chris Brasfield had the high school relations role. Brasfield last week took another recruiting job within the athletic department that focuses on all Husker sports. Wilhite said he talked to Riley about the high school relations role late last week and got the job early this week.
“It’s a joint effort,” said Wilhite, who can’t go on the road and recruit like assistant coaches do but will be a key point of contact on campus or with high school coaches. “It’s all of us working together to build relationships and get the local talent to stay home.”
The Huskers missed out on a couple of in-state tight end scholarship prospects — Lincoln Christian’s Jared Bubak went to Arizona State and Omaha South’s Noah Fant went to Iowa — and top walk-ons are harder to get because of the cost of college and the influx of top FCS programs offering scholarship money to many of the state’s best players.
Wilhite, who coached at Southeast Missouri State for six years, understands the pitch FCS programs make. He understands, too, that Nebraska can’t carry 175 players on the roster like it once did.
But Wilhite firmly believes in the power of the walk-on program. He saw it first-hand as a Husker who’d just joined NU’s program in 1990. Though Wilhite moved to defensive back, he began his career at wingback, and on the depth chart he found himself behind two walk-ons: Dan Pleasant and Brad Devall.
“I thought I was a really good athlete, but I was always behind those two on the depth chart,” Wilhite said. “I’d go home and ask myself: ‘What are they doing that I’m not doing?’ So I took it upon myself to watch those guys and learn from those guys. They worked their butts off in the weight room and the classroom, and on the football field, if Coach (Ron) Brown wanted them to take a step with their right foot, they stepped with their right foot. If they were supposed to cut a defensive back’s outside leg, they cut a defensive back’s outside leg.
“I watched them and learned what it meant to be a Nebraska football player.”
A native of St. Louis, Wilhite moved to defensive back and nabbed All-Big Eight honors in 1991 after intercepting six passes. He had another strong year in 1992, then played four seasons in the Canadian Football League. Wilhite coached at various stops, including the six years at Southeast Missouri State, where former Nebraska defensive ends coach Tony Samuel was head coach.
He returned to Nebraska in spring of 2014 as a regional recruiting assistant. That first year, under former coach Bo Pelini’s staff, Wilhite recalled the Iowa game and seeing Giltner star Drew Ott playing for the Hawkeyes.
“I was just saying to myself, ‘How is this kid playing for the University of Iowa and not playing for the University of Nebraska?’ ” Wilhite recalled.
The key to preventing those situations, Wilhite said, is forming bonds.
“It goes back to building relationships, not only with the kids, but the mom, dad, coach and principal at those schools,” Wilhite said.
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