LINCOLN — As Nebraska’s unofficial visit list dance card fills up for the April 15 spring game — kids pay their own way on those visits and plans change, so it’s too early to preview the cast of prospects coming — it’s a good time to rewind a few weeks back to a brief conversation I had with coach Mike Riley.
“Nebraska — we’re truly America’s Team,” Riley said. “We’ve got guys from everywhere. The Cowboys think they’re America’s Team? We are.”
Riley took to Twitter to reiterate the theme: “Coast to Coast, North to South. In the middle of everywhere! Be a part of something special. Be a part of America’s Team!”
It’s an effective branding statement. Riley is right. Nebraska football — at its very best — is a melting pot of guys from Omaha, Lincoln and small Nebraska towns, mixed with regional stars, mixed with national recruits, often from big cities.
If one Nebraska coaching staff looked at recruiting nationally as a kind of burden — it took too much time, too many plane rides and too much guesswork — Riley, true to his form, has flipped that idea on its head. He wants to use the geographic diversity of Nebraska’s team as a plus. How Riley handled Husker players kneeling for the national anthem last season only gave him more credibility.
The World-Herald’s recent story about the diverse hometowns and backgrounds of Husker linebackers is a perfect example of the “America’s Team” mindset. With linebackers from Atlanta, New Orleans, Florida, Baltimore, New Jersey and Nebraska, among other places, coaches learn how to work with players who grew up with different experiences. It might stretch those coaches — it probably does — but that’s a good thing; in the long run, it makes for a team with multiple strengths.
NU still needs to find the best prospects in-state and late-bloomers, who can be under the radar, and get those guys in the program. That’s still a backbone of Husker football. That backbone includes developing deeper relationships in Omaha. Holding one spring practice in Omaha per year — at Burke Stadium, or Buell Stadium, or Seemann Stadium — might not be a bad idea.
But the “America’s Team” mindset also reflects a willingness to let go of some of the old insecurities — about Nebraska being ignored by regional or national media, about Lincoln not being a hip enough place for some recruits — and plow ahead despite obstacles. Somewhere after Tom Osborne’s retirement, a chunk of the fan base, of Nebraska football, got stuck in a kind of passive-aggressive mindset. You know the one.
It’s harder here in the declining Midwest.
If only Nebraska could win the big games again.
If it isn’t done a certain “way,” it probably can’t be done.
If fans keep showing up in droves — and they do — why not settle in at the plateau?
Maybe it was the years of grinding against Texas and Oklahoma in the salad days of the Big 12. Maybe it’s that lingering sorrow over Nebraska not being 1990s good anymore.
Time to turn that page. NU’s coaching staff, the most energetic as I’ve seen it, doesn’t carry a lot of that old Husker baggage. Riley grinded away at Oregon State with far fewer advantages with far worse facilities. His consistent willingness to find different ways to present Nebraska football, which should lead to a huge spring game visitor’s list, shouldn’t leave fans wary. It ought to jazz them.
We’ll see how far NU carries the “America’s Team” mantra. That’s always tricky when you haven’t won a national title in 20 years. But it’s worth a shot.
NU’s top QB target off board
Colson Yankoff was probably Nebraska’s top 2018 quarterback prospect on the board, so it was a hit when he abruptly committed to Washington on Wednesday night. The Huskies offered a scholarship this week. Yankoff accepted even though Washington currently has a commit from five-star Jacob Sirmon.
Three things here:
» If Washington is willing to accept a commitment from Yankoff with Sirmon already on board — and Sirmon has been committed for more than two years — it ought to tell you just how good Washington thinks Yankoff is, and how sharp Nebraska quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf was to identify Yankoff back in December. Nevertheless, Washington gets the kid — for now.
» Nebraska should and very well may ratchet up its pursuit of Sirmon pronto. NU extended Sirmon a scholarship offer in October 2015 before the Seattle-area star committed to Washington two months later. He was then considered by many to be off the market, though recently the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Sirmon started following Langsdorf and NU graduate manager Chase Haslett on Twitter. Oregon, UCLA and Washington State will all be in the mix, too, for sure. But NU can throw its hat into the ring. Sirmon has a gun for an arm, works a pocket well and identifies receivers quickly.
» One glimpse at Washington quarterback Jake Browning’s passing numbers from 2016 underlines why any quarterback — including Yankoff — would be interested in the Huskies. Browning threw for 3,430 yards and, more notably, 43 touchdowns. Eleven percent of Browning’s passes were caught in the end zone. You can see why receivers would love that, too. In total, UW tossed 47 touchdowns. Nebraska threw 18.
Selling intangibles only goes so far. Langsdorf and wideouts coach Keith Williams have done quite well selling those intangibles. But, from a recruiting standpoint, the Huskers need a year from Tanner Lee or Patrick O’Brien that tells passers and pass catchers: NU is in the touchdown-throwing business. Time to stop losing recruits like Dez Fitzpatrick and Joseph Lewis because the teams that got them — Louisville and USC — can tout guys like Lamar Jackson and Sam Darnold. That’s where Lee and O’Brien come in.
After averaging 25 touchdown passes per season from 2012 through 2015, NU took a big dip last season, throwing 18 TD passes. Interceptions totaled nine in 2016. Between 2012 and 2015, Husker quarterbacks averaged 14.75 interceptions per season. That averages out to a 1.69:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In 2016, the ratio was 2:1. For the Big Ten era, Nebraska has a 1.72:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That’s not great — Iowa was 2:1, while Wisconsin was 1.75:1. The 1.62:1 ratio during Riley’s last four years at Oregon State is worse.
For the sake of comparison, Ohio State leads the Big Ten since 2011 with a 3.26:1 ratio. Washington’s ratio last season: 5.22:1. Those numbers speak to recruits.
Lee and O’Brien can do some talking.
» NU may have its smallest class of the Riley era — or the Pelini era, for that matter — so, no matter how big the unofficial list is for the spring game, remember: NU can’t take all of those guys. But the Huskers can develop a recruiting board with good depth, especially at cornerback, wideout and defensive line, that gives them options throughout the cycle.
» I’ll be watching those defensive end and outside linebacker offers and visits. Watch for the frames of those guys to be long and, in some cases at outside linebacker, leaner. Nebraska’s weight program can add muscle to a frame like Guy Thomas. The Huskers need speed and athleticism.
» It wouldn’t surprise me if Nebraska didn’t get any verbal commits before the spring game, unless a guy like Brendan Radley-Hiles — the top-100 player who transferred from Calabasas (California) to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, this offseason — wanted to be in the class. With a small class, NU can be a little choosy. Radley-Hiles, though, is right at the top of the Huskers’ list.