Raise your hand if you thought, two months ago, Nebraska coach Scott Frost was turning in a top-25 national recruiting class right out of the chute.
A majority of hands are up, right? Husker fans have such enthusiasm and confidence in Frost — our traffic numbers say so, as does the feedback we’re getting via social media, email and voicemail — that many fans were more certain than a more cautious media of Frost’s immediate success.
That top-25 class is likely to happen after a strong January.
As of Tuesday morning, here’s where Nebraska stands:
» 247Sports composite: 24th nationally, fifth in the Big Ten, first in the Big Ten West.
» Rivals: 24th, sixth, first.
» ESPN: 32nd, seventh, second (ESPN has Minnesota ranked 24th).
Compare that with the Rivals rankings of Nebraska’s 2004, 2008 and 2015 recruiting classes, the first for Bill Callahan, Bo Pelini and Mike Riley, respectively:
» 2004: 27th (20 commits).
» 2008: 30th (28 commits).
» 2015: 31st (21 commits).
Frost and Co. are ahead of all three right now, though it’s not certain to stay that way. Four schools with new coaches — Florida, Florida State, Texas A&M and UCLA — will pick up many commitments before or on signing day that may vault them above NU. There’s a chance Mississippi State does, too, but I doubt it, which means, so long as NU retains all of its current commits, it will be a consensus top-30 class.
If there were fans or local media with doubts about Frost’s recruiting acumen, I wasn’t among them. He recruited well at Oregon. He produced two strong classes at Central Florida and was on his way to a third when the Nebraska job popped open.
Frost’s direct “front door” communication style plays well with prospects, who, when asked what Frost told them, will sometimes relay his message word for word. In other words, they can remember it. Frost doesn’t dress it up.
But this class, as it shapes up, currently surpasses most expectations. Why?
» First, Nebraska was aggressive among junior college prospects, signing five. That’s not just aggressive compared with Mike Riley — who didn’t sign one in three classes. That’s aggressive compared with Bo Pelini. (It is not Bill Callahan aggressive. Callahan signed 12 (!) in the 2005 class. Ah, the Big 12 days.)
The subtle message is louder, I suspect, in North Stadium: Frost wants Nebraska full time in the “winning football games” business.
Riley recruited junior colleges vigorously and competitively before he arrived at NU. He stopped doing so at Nebraska. Former defensive coordinator Mark Banker told me he felt he and other assistants were dissuaded from recruiting jucos out of concern over their academic qualifications.
My own read: It was a combination of burnout over some of the late Pelini years, Riley being a good sport and former Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst preferring some branding mission larger than W’s and L’s. (Steve Pederson liked branding, too, but he didn’t hinder Callahan’s recruiting efforts.)
It doesn’t matter now. The “barriers” to juco recruiting were dropped for Frost.
» Second, if there’s an immediate payoff to bringing your entire coaching staff and recruiting support staff with you, it’s the ability to recruit on the same page right from the jump. Clarity and chemistry used to be staples on coaching staffs. Now, when coaches hop from job to job with their recruiting résumé in hand, clarity and chemistry are luxuries to the point of being great advantages. The new NU assistants didn’t have to guess at Frost’s wishes or those of defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. They know.
Frost and Co. know this roster perhaps better than you’d think, since their associate athletic director of football, Matt Davison, has seen every Husker game for more than a decade. That’s a valuable pair of eyes.
» Third, Nebraska’s needs — skill talent at running back, receiver and defensive back — lined up perfectly with Frost’s old recruiting stomping grounds, Florida. Now, if Nebraska had needed three offensive tackles and two nose tackles, the best prospects in Florida — and even most of the next tier of prospects — may have already been taken, since the best linemen are often “taken” earlier than at other positions.
But skill guys? You can find almost endless skill guys in Florida. And Texas, where NU is also looking for commits. And junior colleges.
Take new commit Miles Jones from Fort Lauderdale. Shifty, versatile, smart, played for a top-shelf high school program and ... committed to Vanderbilt. That’s not a knock on Jones. That’s just a reality of recruiting in the South.
Here’s another: The No. 236 prospect (according to the 247Sports composite) in Florida for 2018 is a three-star cornerback signed to Missouri who had offers from Oregon, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
And I don’t get the impression the recruitment of any of those five prospects has been particularly taxing the way the recruitment of Jamire Calvin became. Or even the twists and turns in Tyjon Lindsey’s recruitment.
» Fourth, Frost and his staff work hard on the trail. This is evident. When Nebraska wants to close a guy, it closes. Frost and Co. visited Casey Rogers at his Connecticut boarding school one day after his official visit ended. Not every coaching staff would do that, but the follow-up likely staved off some late suitors like Iowa.
Frost and his staff take late-night, red-eye flights to make an impression. Again: Not every staff does that. Not every assistant at NU has done that.
Hard work doesn’t guarantee recruiting success — see the exhaustive work put in on guys like Foster Sarell and Owa Odighizuwa who didn’t come here — and recruiting success doesn’t guarantee on-field success, as seen by the persistent mediocrity of Texas football.
» Fifth, there’s a good vibe around Frost, the biggest coaching winner of the 2017 football season. No, UCF didn’t win the national title, but the team that did, Alabama, has done it so many times that Frost, not Nick Saban, is the “coach of the moment.” It probably helped with some skill players on offense.
So what’s left to get?
» One more offensive lineman. Nebraska wants four-star Jarrett Bell of Norco, California, and Frost went to Bell’s house Monday night to seal the deal. Bell didn’t commit. According to Husker Online, he’s considering a visit to Notre Dame or Tennessee, where new coach Jeremy Pruitt must recall that Bell was originally committed to Alabama, Pruitt’s former school.
If Bell isn’t the guy, Nebraska will have options for that spot, such as under-the-radar prospect Doug Johnson of Fort White, Florida, or four-star Tyrone Sampson of Detroit. Offensive line coach Greg Austin has a boatload of scholarship offensive linemen on campus who were highly touted recruits. Developing them is important.
» A pass rusher. Nebraska appears to be targeting three: Javontae Jean-Baptiste of Oradell, New Jersey, Caleb Tannor of Lithonia, Georgia, and Habakkuk Baldonado of Clearwater Academy International in Florida. The first two have already visited. Baldonado is set to visit Feb. 2, just before signing day.
If Jean-Baptiste — who just visited Ohio State — picks Nebraska, Baldonado could cancel his visit. Tannor visited Florida last weekend and has already visited Auburn after being a long-term commit to Georgia.
If NU plucks Tannor out of the Atlanta area, it’d be a stunner and quite an achievement. Top-50 prospects in Georgia — according to the composite, Tannor is No. 36 — rarely leave the ACC or the SEC.
Now, recruits 51-100 are a different story, and many Big Ten programs do a chunk of their secondary recruiting in Georgia, including and especially Minnesota. Nebraska got a multiyear starter, Aaron Williams (No. 66 in Georgia in the 2015 class) and Mohamed Barry (No. 116 in Georgia in the 2015 class) like that, as well.
At any rate, Tannor would be a big pull. It’s rare for any Big Ten teams not named Michigan or Ohio State to do well there.
As for Jean-Baptiste, his frame fits what Nebraska wants out of a 3-4 outside linebacker better than it does a 4-3 OLB at Ohio State (or a 4-3 defensive end, for that matter), and NU will have relatively early playing time available.
Still, OSU is OSU. The Buckeyes play at either Rutgers or Penn State each season, and they have qualified for two of the four College Football Playoffs. Saying no to the Buckeyes involves either a personal relationship — like the one Tyjon Lindsey had with current Huskers on the team and receivers coach Keith Williams — or it involves a willingness to do something different. And most prospects choose to follow the pack.
One could argue that Jean-Baptiste, the best of the remaining pass-rushing targets, is the second- or third-most important target in the class.
» Matthew Tago. Nebraska wants the 6-foot-4, 225-pound athlete from Quartz Hill, California, and Frost’s Monday visit to Tago’s high school underlines that. You wouldn’t take the time — flying in the middle of the night — to see Tago if he didn’t have a committable offer.
Tago is seen by Nebraska as a quarterback prospect, and while he’s raw there — think AJ Bush raw — the raw stuff on tape is pretty fun to watch. Tago throws a good ball and he’s a natural, fluid athlete for his size. If you’re presuming Tago would be a fifth wheel in the quarterback room — clearly behind Patrick O’Brien, Tristan Gebbia, Adrian Martinez and Noah Vedral — he might be the best pure athlete of the bunch.
Nebraska’s quarterback room could be thinner by the time Tago arrives, too. Will O’Brien and Gebbia stay to see what happens in the fall if the offense doesn’t fit their skill set?
» One more running back/weapon/athlete. That would be either Dallas running back Maurice Washington or Houston all-purpose back Ta’Zhawn Henry, who visits NU on Feb. 2 after visiting Oregon State last weekend and Texas Tech Jan. 26.
If Nebraska wants the 5-foot-7, 170-pound Henry, I think he lands in Lincoln, where a coach isn’t on the hot seat (Kliff Kingsbury, at 30-33 after five years, kind of is at Tech) and the offense is more dynamic than whatever pro-style/spread hybrid Oregon State is planning.
Washington’s recruiting process has heated up after a spectacular Under Armour All-America Game performance. He visited Arizona State Jan. 19 and is scheduled for Ohio State Jan. 26. Washington’s running style is similar to that of juco signee Greg Bell. Shifty, strong, makes guys miss at the line of scrimmage, physical, upright.
» A defensive back. Presumably that’s Cam’ron Jones of Mansfield, Texas, who’s supposed to announce his recruiting decision Saturday night. He’s just come off his official visit to Ole Miss, which after NCAA penalties for recruiting violations is staring at several hard years of scholarship reductions in the merciless SEC West.
After NU received a commitment from cornerback Braxton Clark of Orlando, Florida, that leaves Taiyon Palmer of Lawrenceville, Georgia, as a top cornerback option. Palmer has offers from Clemson and Alabama in recent weeks — tough to turn down — so Nebraska had to move on Clark.
(Snazzy move, incidentally, Frost bringing his whole staff to Clark’s house for the Sunday night visit. When you need a yes — and Clark, for the Huskers, needed to be one — do what’s necessary to clinch the yes.)
That said, 247Sports reported Monday that athlete Kendrick Torain of Tampa, Florida, has NU as his No. 1 school and will visit Feb. 2. Torain could play wideout or defensive back, but he probably projects to defensive back at Nebraska. Also, there’s defensive back Cam Taylor of Montgomery, Alabama, who’s scheduled to visit NU this weekend and Missouri just before signing day.
Should the Huskers get Jones, Torain/Taylor and C.J. Smith — who’s been committed for a month and seems like he’s sticking — that means NU finishes with four defensive backs in the class, which was kind of the goal of the previous staff.
If Nebraska landed Tago and one player from each category, it would be 23 signees/commits. At two defensive backs, it’s 24. Add another receiver — and NU appears to be entertaining the notion of adding one more — it’s 25.
Where are the numbers coming from for that? We’ll see. If Frost and Co. are available to media before signing day — no guarantees on that — it’ll be a question to ask.
I’ve written before — and would again — that any coach could be cautious on making that initial recruiting class too big, the way Pelini did with a lot of dead weight that didn’t come off the scholarship rolls for years. But if Nebraska has a lot of attrition after spring — and it wouldn’t be surprising if it did — NU could sign back-to-back 25-member classes.
That kind of infusion of talent would help Frost turn over the roster fast.
More recruiting breakdowns. All as of Tuesday, Jan. 23, at noon:
ESPN: No. 56 Adrian Martinez
Rivals: No. 98 Martinez
247Sports Composite: No. 122 Martinez, No. 193 Cameron Jurgens
ESPN: No. 56 Martinez, No. 223 CJ Smith, No. 240 Cameron Jurgens
Rivals: No. 98 Martinez
Junior college top-100
247Sports composite: No. 22 Jaron Woodyard, No. 25 Greg Bell, No. 28 Will Honas, No. 32 Deontai Williams
ESPN: No. 11 Woodyard, No. 20 Bell, No. 29 Deontai Williams, No. 31 Honas
Rivals: No. 22 Bell, No. 27 Honas, No. 34 Woodyard, No. 37 Williams
Big Ten rankings
No. 2 Ohio State
No. 4 Penn State
No. 14 Michigan
No. 21 Maryland
No. 24 Nebraska
No. 26 Michigan State
No. 33 Minnesota
No. 37 Iowa
No. 39 Wisconsin
No. 43 Indiana
No. 44 Purdue
No. 47 Rutgers
No. 49 Illinois
No. 57 Northwestern
Big Ten East average: 22.42
Big Ten West average: 40.42
No. 2 Ohio State
No. 4 Penn State
No. 14 Michigan
No. 19 Michigan State
No. 20 Maryland
No. 25 Nebraska
No. 31 Minnesota
No. 35 Iowa
No. 37 Wisconsin
No. 39 Indiana
No. 42 Purdue
No. 47 Rutgers
No. 48 Illinois
No. 59 Northwestern
Big Ten East average: 20.7
Big Ten West average: 39.57
247 Sports Composite:
NU: 1 (Martinez)
» Juco recruiting really helped the Huskers’ ratings. This is arguably NU’s best juco haul on paper since 2005, when Nebraska signed, among other players, Zac Taylor, Zack Bowman and Steve Octavien.
» I always look at top-100 commits. I tend to look at those players as “high school All Americans” because you’re basically getting a first, second and third team out of that 100, plus some athletes left over.
Ohio State always dominates that list in the Big Ten. It’s no real coincidence OSU then dominates the league year in, year out. The challenge Nebraska has — that any team in the league has, including Wisconsin, whose only loss last season was to OSU — is to keep true to its system and simultaneously recruit well enough to beat the Buckeyes.
» After the top 100, I’m not so much into the top 250/top 300 — although I included it here — because there’s so little margin between, say, No. 300 and No. 350. I usually look at the top 500 or so and then I’ll look at the teams that have a bunch of guys ranked below the top 1,000. (I exclude kickers.)
Nebraska's 2018 class, for example, currently has three guys ranked below No. 1,000, according to the composite: Justin McGriff, Katerian Legrone and Braxton Clark.
Now look at the 2014 class, when NU had eight such players ranked below 1,000 (excluding kicker Drew Brown): Chris Jones, Jaevon Walton, Jariah Tolbert, Glenn Irons, Sedrick King, DeAndre Wills, AJ Bush, Larenzo Stewart
Out of that eight, only Jones has been a full-time, consistent starter.
In 2015, it looked like this (excluding Jordan Ober): Adrienne Talan, Mohamed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, Alex Davis, Antonio Reed
In 2016 (excluding Caleb Lightbourn): Dicaprio Bootle, David Englehaupt
In 2017: Broc Bando, Chris Walker, Ben Miles, Jaylin Bradley
It’s just a trend to watch. At Iowa, for example:
2014: 10 (including cornerback Josh Jackson, who was great, and excluding a special teamer)
2017: 9 (excluding a kicker)
When one talks about Iowa having a ceiling, this is part of the conversation. The Hawkeyes have won 63 percent of their Big Ten games in the last five seasons despite solid, consistent coaching and good development. At some point, it’s the sheer talent put on the field.
» Fans will occasionally ask me about line recruiting. Here’s that answer: There are plenty of linemen on campus now on both sides. Until NU figures out what it has there, it’d be hard for the Huskers to sign 8-10 more linemen. If there’s major line attrition after spring football, you’ll know what Frost & Co. thought of Nebraska’s linemen. If not, you’ll know the talent was already here and needs development, not more players on scholarship.