December 23, 2002. That's the date that Bo Pelini was named the new defensive coordinator for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Following that just two days later, RE/LB, Wali Muhammad made clear his intentions to be a Husker in the future. Coincidence? Not hardly as even Muhammad himself admitted that someone with Pelini's credentials, coming right out of the NFL was just the proverbial icing on the cake.
That's where it all started.
From that point, it hasn't been a landslide so much as it has been an indication of just what this staff is capable. Though the Dailey pledge of 1/05/03 doesn't correlate directly with the offensive changes that took place officially on the 13th, so much was known prior to that, you can't rule it out and Dailey himself said that the new system may have not been the reason he committed initially, but it certainly cemented the decision in the end.
Let's take a look at the numbers, according to the Insiders to rank this class before and after the changes took place. Also, though I recognize the ability and potential of Nebraska athletes being just as much as anyone else, because most of the best in-state talent usually goes to NU anyway, we'll consider that not as big of a factor.
Ok, so aside from the in-state commits, prior to the official announcement of the first coaching hire for the new staff, Nebraska had 4 commits. Steve Craver (the brother of Keyou Craver), offensive lineman, Greg Austin, junior college offensive lineman, Darin Delone and LB, Corey McKeon. The average ranking (by stars) for these four is sitting at 2.75. Not bad. And yes, I am not one to give any major credence to star rankings, but this is just a point of reference to at least offer a sense of understanding the impact of the new coaches on recruiting.
Since the first coach was announced, NU has gotten 9 commits with an average ranking of 3.00. More commits, yet a higher overall ranking. I have omitted the commit and subsequent de-commit of Lance Broadus for obvious reasons.
The argument against this way of rating this is that all in-state kids when talking about Nebraska don't usually sit around thinking about it. Most of them commit just as soon as they can or are offered. This is Nebraska. That's just the way it is, so this rating because you don't take into account the Nebraska kids is skewed. Well, that's true, but that's also the very reason you don't take them into account, because if they do go to NU with such eagerness, you don't have to be Duffy Dougherty to get them to commit.
It's not the ability to recruit that keeps in-state kids going to NU, it's NU's long-standing tradition and loyalty from those within the state. It's that simple. Nebraska kids go to Nebraska, because, well, it's Nebraska. ‘Nuff said.
What do these numbers mean in the long run though? Can we speculate as to the affect this staff will have given a full year to analyze film, hit the road for evaluations, write letters, make calls and finally, make offers, in-house visits and really show why each should be an outstanding recruiter in their own right? To an extent, yes, we can.
Much of the success NU has had in recruiting since the coaching changes has been based on the personalities of those recruiting and the potential each has as a coach and ultimately how the team is perceived as a whole from those changes. Players are going on a little faith. They do anyway, but for each recruit, this is more faith than usual as NU is coming off a rather down year and though you could see the benefit of that in recruiting in regards to each thinking they are going to get some time, players go to Nebraska not just to play early, but to win. That is what NU is about.
While schools like Oregon can spout slightly better graduation rates than NU mostly across the board, what they can't spout off about is how they have managed those while being amongst the "elite" in college football for about forty years. Football factories are notorious for not putting out academic accomplishments (see Ohio State), but when it comes to the proportion of great football and great academics, very few can even grasp the level that NU has achieved. That's just fact.
The problem here is, after last year, some are wondering if NU doesn't have that argument anymore. The speculation is so much in that area, that for the first time in I don't know how long, the pre-season rankings might not have NU listed. For coaches to come into a situation so shaky and to have the success they have had, you can already anticipate "tremendous" success when they have a full year under their belt, despite how the year goes for the team.
Another look at this, more analytical in it's approach, is an evaluation of the immediate numbers. The average rank (in stars) of last year's complete class (counting non-qualifiers) was around a 2.25. This year's class that isn't even complete ranks right in the 2.9 area. When you consider that this year's class comprises more kids already than the completed class last season, that alone should offer some hefty optimism.
Another stat is one that might even be considered more important and that's where the kids are coming from. In recent years, Nebraska's influence in some of the bigger states like Texas, California and Florida has apparently gone lax to a degree. Let's see how last year matched up to this year.
While the Florida stat actually got worse, NU broke even in California and far surpassed last year in Texas, a state which Nebraska should consider one of it's main sources for out-of-state recruits. Florida has always been a tough place for NU to recruit. Even in the days when it got names like Tommie Frazier, Florida kids have never been jumping out of their skin to come to the midwest. It happens, but for NU, they count their blessings anytime they get anyone out of the Sunshine State.
Marvin Sanders though is considered to be pretty hot stuff recruiting in that area and he's had little to no time for anyone to see if that will happen, so hopes are high about next year's possibilities.
As for California, much was said about George Darlington simply losing his grip and interest in one of the richest states in the country for well-coached talent. It was that gap that Tim Albin and company was given just about two months to try and close. That's close to impossible when you are trying to convince any young man to come 1,500 miles to play in the middle of nowhere, where there is a couple of things to do and both have to do with the football program.
In Texas, Nebraska should recruit well. It's a conference state, they are close and they have some significant coaching ties to that area, especially with Turner Gill. Plus, there's enough talent in Texas to feed half the country, so for a tradition like NU to only get a couple out of there, it's pretty inexcusable. This staff actually got the three of those since most of the coaching changes were made.
There's also one other stat that I think is probably the most telling and it should have you not just a little hopeful for NU's recruiting future, but darn near stoked. It's where the players came from last year and who was recruiting them. By evaluating that, you find out just how much you lost and how much you have to gain.
Let's go down the list of players from last year's class, but associate them to the region they came from and who was assigned to recruit in that region.
Craig Bohl (none)
George Darlington (Far West) -
Jeff Jamrog (Illinois/Texas/Florida/Georgia) - Demorrio Williams, Fabian Washington, Jermaine Leslie
Milt Tenopir (Oklahoma) -
Ok, a little explanation of some of this mess. First of all, though certain players fell into certain regions, that didn't mean they were exclusively recruited by that one recruiter. Curt Dukes (we believe) was also recruited by Gill for obvious reasons. Also, as to the Nebraska kids, except for possibly David Horne and Herian, the recruiting process might have went like this. "Hey, I am such and such coach from Nebraska and........." Player: "Ok, I commit."
And, both Gill and Jamrog had presences in Texas, so without knowing who exactly recruited them or if anyone was the dominant recruiter, we simply apply them to both.
Look at the numbers though. Milt Tenopir didn't get anyone out of Oklahoma. Dan Young "might" have gotten one out of state as we aren't sure just who recruited Bagwell predominately, George Darlington isn't perceived to have gotten anyone out of the Far West region and Craig Bohl didn't recruit.
Also, out of the 16 commits that NU received last year, 5 saw the field, some as starters and it's safe to say that all of them were recruited in some aspect by assistants presently on this staff. In fact, out of the 16 commits from last year, you can definitely say that if you were just to look at region solely without including the in-state players, coaches responsible for 11 of those pledges are still on staff at NU.
Without wanting to take anything away from the coaching abilities of the coaches that were here, we'll simply look at the recruiting aspect and outside of Nelson Barnes, it would seem that Frank Solich did the equivalent of cutting the "dead weight" in terms of it's most ineffective recruiters.
With all this taken into account, there's one more factor that could be the most important of them all and it has nothing to do with numbers. It's the "way" NU recruits.
There is a fine line in recruiting between being a salesman and a con-man. One promotes the program, while one does so, but also throws in a few jabs at other programs as well. Nebraska has traditionally shied away from either of those, simply promoting the program for what it is, much having to do with the tenured coaches representing them.
Milt Tenopir doesn't have to sell what he's done. He's Milt Tenopir for God's sake. More outland trophies under his belt than anyone, a bazillion rushing titles and the father of the Nebraska "pipeline". Dan Young has also been a part of that tradition for 20 years. George Darlington has been coaching so long, some of these kid's fathers were too young to remember when he started. That kind of tenure looks good on paper, but kids nowadays want to be sold. They want to be convinced that such and such place is the best for them.
That is where youth comes in. Guys with the fire, intensity and drive to go out there and sell like perhaps a younger, Tenopir, Young or Darlington once did. Guys that wear their emotions a little on their sleeve as explaining about their school's tradition and hopes is a matter of emotion, rather than a rebuttal used a thousand times over. Coaches very much understanding of the way NU does things, but also very aware of the way things are done nowadays to recruit kids that have grown up in a culture where seeing it isn't good enough, because they have seen it all.
Basically, it's going from, "Hey, this is Nebraska..........take it over leave it" and now, it's "Hey, this is Nebraska, but let me tell you what else it is." It's about going the extra mile that some quite possibly weren't willing to go anymore. Making that extra call, taking that extra visit, writing that extra hand-written letter. In today's recruiting, it's a fight to the finish and you are fighting against more and more good teams every single year.
What Nebraska is now isn't above what they were in ability, but it's certainly above what they were in enthusiasm. Not just the belief in the product you have or your ability to put that product on the field, but the desire to take that product out there, put it on the shelf and even explain it to everyone that happens to come by and look.
Bo Pelini said once about recruiting kids to Nebraska, "it's an easy sell." That it may be, but if nobody actually goes out to sell it, it never matters in the end. You can take into account the numbers or you can simply listen to what the new regime has to say, but it would appear obvious to me that this new staff might bring back a simple philosophy in recruiting at NU.
Being Nebraska might be enough to get kids into your front door, but if you want them bad enough, you use it to get into theirs. After that, it's up to you.
All the numbers just give you something else to look at, but in the end, NU fans will look forward to recruiting this next season because of that simple philosophy and perhaps one more.
It's no more about "if you build it, they will come", now, it's about "Ok, we built it, now let's go get someone to play in the damn thing."
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619