LINCOLN — So the small-town West Coast guy who’s come halfway across the country to coach Nebraska puts himself in a Midwestern classroom full of high school kids who don’t know who he is or why he’s there — and will likely never meet him again.
Mike Riley is there by choice, in perhaps the biggest recruiting battle he’ll have in his 2016 class — for a big, strong offensive tackle named Matt Farniok, who’s waited until just a few weeks before signing day for his final decision. This battle was important, not only for Farniok’s potential — though raw, he has all the tools to be a prototypical left tackle — but where the 6-foot-6 300-pounder lives: South Dakota.
This was a fight inside the 500-mile radius — heck, the 237-mile radius — that Riley and his staff committed to winning when they set their recruiting vision last year. Of course, every NU coach since Tom Osborne has had this vision. Some coaches were more successful than others. Riley wants to excel in the radius, to own it, and sign half of each class from this 500-mile radius.
“I think that radius is a real thing,” Riley said at Wednesday’s press conference.
Given all the hours two Nebraska coaching staffs — in four years — had spent recruiting Farniok, the Huskers had to claim him. Two weeks ago, Riley went to Farniok’s school — Sioux Falls Washington — for the outset of his dramatic final visit. Riley wanted the last “at-bat” — the last coach home visit among colleges — for his big pitch. He got it.
First, he went to the school. Farniok’s football coach, Chad Stadem, is an American history teacher. As Stadem was flagged from his classroom because Riley had arrived with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, he left his students to do their assignment.
Riley asked Stadem what he taught. Stadem told him. Riley, in a former life, had envisioned being a high school football coach and history teacher.
“That’s what I was always going to do, be a high school history teacher,” Riley said with a laugh. “The coach said, ‘Hang on, my class is going to end here in a minute.’ So we were waiting there and just talking for a minute, and I just wandered in.”
Recruiting takes you strange places. But Riley felt at home there.
How’d he do in Nebraska’s recruiting home — the 500-mile radius?
The Huskers had some hits and whiffs.
If you define the radius as Colorado to Chicago on an east-west range, Oklahoma to Minnesota on a north-south axis, with Missouri, parts of Wisconsin, and the few recruitable prospects in the Dakotas thrown in, NU offered 41 players according to Rivals’ database. Riley got his entire offensive line class — Farniok, John Raridon, Bryan Brokop and Boe Wilson — from inside the radius, as well as tight end Jack Stoll.
“We did a good job there,” said Nebraska director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson. “We got the guys we valued the most in the region.”
Nebraska got two in-state guys from Class C-1 — Ashland-Greenwood’s Ben Stille and Norfolk Catholic’s David Engelhaupt. Riley landed three skill players — JD Spielman, JoJo Domann and Tre Bryant.
Ten players of a 21-player class. Just about half.
It could have been more. Some prospects in the radius were naturally not as high-priority as others. Still, others were big targets, and NU missed. NU offered many four-star defensive linemen — and landed none of them. It lost tight end Chase Allen of Nixa, Missouri, to Iowa State. It spent months recruiting Olathe (Kansas) North athlete Isaiah Simmons only to lose him late to Clemson — which also plucked the best pass rusher in the radius, Xavier Kelly of Wichita, Kansas.
“Those were, for me, some of the bigger disappointments, because I’d really like to own this part of it,” Riley said of misses inside the 500-mile radius. Though Riley didn’t mention Simmons by name, that one stung. Simmons had been near the top of Nebraska’s wish list for some time.
It’s getting harder to get top recruits from the region. Even as Nebraska has to win in the radius as much as possible, Southern programs — Clemson, Ole Miss, even Alabama — are creeping in to join Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. The South has already risen in terms of recruiting rankings. Now the South is literally rising into the radius to try to pick off the best prospects.
“Why are they doing it? Because they can,” said Rivals National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell. He cited as examples Clemson and Oklahoma, which got a coveted defensive lineman from Lawrence, Kansas.
“It’s hard to compete with Clemson,” Farrell said. “It’s hard to compete with Oklahoma. Those are playoff teams. When playoff teams come into the Midwest and steal kids away, there’s not much you can do. You give it your best shot, but you’re going to lose some of those guys. And the Midwest is as competitive as it’s ever been recruiting-wise. And I mean ever. Brian Kelly, Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer — three big dogs. (Michigan State’s) Mark Dantonio coming off the playoff. Iowa coming off its best season in years. It’s competitive.”
The Internet has altered the landscape, said Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports director of recruiting.
“Social media completely changed how quickly you can know a prospect, how quickly you can get to know a prospect and how quickly you can get your message in front of prospects,” Wiltfong said. “And these prospects are able to get to know each other better, and in turn that helps schools recruit kids out of their region.”
Gunderson concedes that Nebraska benefits from this trend. The Huskers recruit nationally and landed prospects from California, New Jersey, Florida and Louisiana, among others. NU is as active on social media as any college football program and it scours highlight films. Gunderson said it would be “hypocritical” for Nebraska to skewer programs for recruiting nationally when the Huskers are at the front of that line.
Of course, Nebraska has to be that active, since there aren’t as many prospects in the region.
Nebraska’s plan to combat late offers: building earlier relationships. Finding players earlier in the evaluation process. Making the first offers, getting kids to camp, accelerating and fast-tracking the process. Riley, with gentle urgency Wednesday, insisted on this.
“We’ve got to know those names as soon as possible, because the relationships are there waiting to be built,” he said. “We’ve got 20 working days until spring practice starts. We need to make the most of those 20 days.”
Gunderson, one day before, echoed his coach.
“That’s our focus this offseason: developing relationships,” Gunderson said. “And not just developing relationships to try and get a commit, but developing relationships to build something.”
Case in point: Nebraska has already set up its five “unofficial visit weekends” before next season. A junior day in March. The spring game. Three Big Red Weekends in June.
Now, the goal is to zero in on getting as many inside the radius to those events and specifically to the camp. The eyeball test is best. It’s part of why NU was comfortable eventually offering Engelhaupt. The coaches had seen the 6-foot-3 230-pounder at a camp.
“I think there’s really talented kids here,” Gunderson said. “We just really need to do a good job of finding the kids who are going to become those four- and five-star guys. You’ve just got to trust your evaluation and not be afraid to be the first one in on a kid if you like him.”
That includes in-state prospects. Nebraska offered four and landed Stille and Engelhaupt. Two other tight ends NU wanted, Lincoln Christian’s Jared Bubak and Omaha South’s Noah Fant, chose Arizona State and Iowa, respectively. Riley didn’t mention those two by name, but he “didn’t like” that the Huskers had lost out on players they wanted within their borders.
Farrell pointed to a different issue.
“(The state of) Nebraska just doesn’t have the top-end talent, it doesn’t seem,” Farrell said. “I think it’s cyclical, but it’s just not a state you can rely upon for guys.”
Gunderson said there are top prospects nearby, but they don’t necessarily reveal themselves right away.
“You may not know about a kid until March of his junior year — or the summer of his junior year — and he could be a really good player,” Gunderson said. “There’s a little bit longer waiting period to find all the guys in this area.”
There is a small advantage in that situation: If Nebraska can identify, offer and woo those players earlier than others, those kids are more likely to warm to the Huskers and shut out late suitors.
“Evaluation is much more important than going up against the heavyweights and beating out 40 schools,” Farrell said. “Find that kid that six schools want that 40 schools regret they didn’t get. That’s hard to do, but Michigan State gives everybody hope. They’re not loaded with four- and five-star guys and they’re recruiting the Midwest.”
Michigan State was among the teams pursuing Farniok. So was Iowa. Along with Nebraska, those three Big Ten teams were Farniok’s finalists. Stadem said those three schools appealed most to Farniok’s family because of their approach to recruiting him. Consistent. Honest. Friendly. Cavanaugh, NU’s offensive line coach, was particularly crucial in the process, Stadem said.
“When they know you’re sincere, that’s what matters,” Stadem said. “Matt had a good relationship with a lot of recruiters, but Cav — Cav was just being himself. And it worked.”
Riley gets many of the same compliments from prospects and high school coaches, and perhaps that sincerity showed in that moment in the history classroom. Riley didn’t know yet that Farniok would commit to Nebraska. He was a guy with an itch to talk to some history students.
“I did not get a lot of respect from that class,” Riley joked to laughter at his press conference. “It was the end of the day and they were ready to go. So I was trying to do my best.”
Riley insists he wasn’t trying to teach them. He just asked what they were studying.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” he said.
That’s not quite how Stadem saw it.
“He just talked to them like a teacher would,” he said. “That’s impressive.”
It’s a history lesson Riley won’t forget. He talked glowingly about the recruiting process surrounding Farniok. He called it competitive and even a little “old-fashioned,” a relationship built over time. In an age of instant gratification and social media, Riley still thinks substance matters.
Stadem agrees. It’s the Midwest. It’s football. It’s how it’s done.
“When you’re a Midwestern guy,” he said, “going through the process, you can tell who the salesmen were — and who were legit.”
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