LINCOLN — Ninety-six hours before the 2014 signing day, Nebraska's football team officially begins the 2015 recruiting cycle.
The prospect beast must be fed, the process never ends, and it creates a busy, tension-packed weekend for Husker coaches. They're sprinting to the wire for the current class — it's as mad of a dash as NU made in 2008 and 2013 — while hosting their first junior day Saturday for 2015 prospects.
The list of attendees — mostly from within the 500-mile radius — could comprise the core of the next class. That “core” isn't necessarily the top prospects a team will sign. But they're the all-in guys, the local kids who, like 2014 commit Luke Gifford, bust their tails to help the Huskers recruit more guys to the class.
Omaha North lineman Michael Decker would be a key piece of the core. The only in-state prospect currently with a Nebraska offer, the 6-foot-4, 280-pounder is smart, personable, and most important for the Huskers, a strong guard prospect.
“Nebraska likes his toughness, his feet, his ability to get to level two, his pass pro,” said North coach Larry Martin, who said Decker turned down an invitation to Wisconsin's junior day to attend to Nebraska's. “This is a big weekend for him.”
Martin said Decker's eyes “lit up” when Martin told him about the offer. Nebraska rarely offers kids — in-state or out-of-state prospects — before junior day. Decker joins 2014 commit D.J. Foster — offered as a sophomore — in that category. Foster, also a guard, is stronger, but Decker's a little quicker and he cleans up backside pursuit better. You like guys who finish their assignments, yes, but zone blocking in college requires an awareness and multi-tasking skill that Decker seems to have.
Decker will be joined by North running back Calvin Strong. The state's first player to rush for more than 3,000 yards in a season has made multiple trips to Lincoln; this junior day is yet another.
Strong doesn't have a Husker offer. As I wrote after North's state title win over Omaha Westside, the running back bar at Nebraska is high — Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah high — and Strong has to clear that bar on and off the field.
The 5-9, 175-pound Strong — a high three-star prospect — makes his case on the field. Martin said Nebraska likes his change of direction, toughness and pad level. Strong's an odd guy to tackle; he's short, thick and elusive. And he's fumbled twice in two years, and lost neither of them. Somewhere in the next several months, it'd help Strong if he ran a better 40-yard dash time than he did at Nebraska's camp last year.
Martin said Strong takes the ACT this spring. The NCAA has a sliding scale requirement that combines grade-point average and test score. If Strong academically qualifies, his offer list could bloom fast. Martin said Iowa's “very interested.” My take: Iowa's power running offense fits what North does well, and Strong's good in that attack. But he'd be a solid spread back, too.
A third in-state prospect, Syracuse lineman Matt Clark, is hitting junior day, too. The 6-5, 290-pounder has started since his freshman season at Syracuse and finished last year with 94 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks.
“He was our strongside end, and a lot of teams frankly ran the other way,” Syracuse coach Rick Nordhues said. “He's got great lower body strength. Great feet. I think he could be a great Division I player.”
Wisconsin has called after Clark, Nordhues said, and NU assistant coach Barney Cotton has been to the school twice. Clark didn't attend Nebraska's football camp last June because he spent the week with a cousin at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp.
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“That's just the kind of kid Matt is,” Nordhues said. “He has great priorities.”
Other select players scheduled to attend junior day:
Ľ Eric Lee, 5-10, 175, cornerback, Highlands Ranch (Colo.) Valor Christian: Nebraska's been after the four-star prospect ever since he camped at NU last summer. Lee's coming with four-star Colorado Springs safety Avery Anderson, who's already committed to Arizona State. Anderson was too good a prospect for Air Force — located in Colorado Springs — but former Falcon defensive coordinator and new Husker secondary coach Charlton Warren surely knew his skill set.
Ľ Carlos and Khalil Davis, 6-3, 260, defensive tackles, Blue Springs (Mo.) High School: Twins! They visited NU for the Wyoming game and are a package deal. It'll be a fight between NU, Missouri, Kansas State and Kansas, at the very least.
Ľ Kendall Bussey, 5-9, 195, running back, New Orleans Isidore Newman: Already committed to Tulane, Bussey's visiting Nebraska this weekend after an offer extended personally by coach Bo Pelini.
Ľ Christian Gaylord, 6-6, 275, offensive tackle, Baldwin City (Kan.) High School: Tough pull here, but Gaylord has good feet and a bevy of offers from spread teams. Visited for the Wyoming game. Gaylord's better, in my mind, than his three-star rating.
Ľ Grant Schmidt, 6-7, 290, offensive tackle, Sioux Falls (S.D.) Roosevelt: Nebraska's been all over Schmidt for a year. He hit up the summer Big Red Weekend and attended a game. He's back for junior day. Time for NU to close on him before Michigan and Ohio State start throwing their helmets in the ring.
It's worth noting that Nebraska cobbled together this junior day list pretty quickly, and there's no question that having several private planes for assistant coaches to use this week was a big help in the process. When Nebraska has to extract itself from behind the eight-ball, the efficiency of private travel helps. Jon Nyatawa and I will be looking more closely at this during the next month.
Rounding out 2014 class
Meanwhile, the Huskers host four official visitors for the 2014 class. One, Norcross (Ga.) quarterback A.J. Bush, appears to be a near lock to commit. Nebraska is his best offer and he'll get a real shot at quarterback.
So here's the deal on Bush, a two-star prospect whose upside — at quarterback or somewhere else — is probably a lot higher. If you watch his highlight films at Norcross and Milton (Ga.) High School, you'll see a kid who gets away with some Randall Cunningham-style inefficiency — deep passes into coverage when underneath receivers are open, flight-of-the-butterfly runs — that college defenses don't allow. He throws sidearm at times.
There's a lot to work on — but there's more to work with. Bush is a long-striding, fast-for-his-size athlete. It's surprising so few teams saw it. He doesn't brain freeze in the pocket. He runs audibles and check-with-me plays effectively. Bush wouldn't fit all — or perhaps most — offenses. But he could be an interesting project for offensive coordinator Tim Beck. Good find.
Three more visitors play on defense. The biggest name, Jacksonville (Fla.) Sandalwood's Blake McClain, is a 6-3, 260-pound defensive end who just dropped Florida State. McClain's teammate, cornerback Chris Jones, is committed to NU, and another, wide receiver DeSean Blair, might be on signing day. McClain spent so much time committed to FSU before he parted ways — there's word that the Seminoles may have wanted him to grayshirt — that Nebraska may not be his final visit. Remember: Signing day is just the first day summer enrollees can sign with college football programs. It's not the last.
According to 247 Sports, McClain will not sign Wednesday, but push back his commit date so he can choose from among Nebraska, South Carolina and Georgia Tech.
Defensive end Lloyd Tubman, a Penn State commit, and safety Markell Boston, an East Carolina commit, are the other two visitors. Boston, a 6-1, 190-pounder from Newnan (Ga.) East Coweta High School, is another Warren find. Despite being a high-two/low-three star prospect, he visited Alabama last week and met with coach Nick Saban. If Alabama has room — and it might, because Alabama always seems to have the room — Boston likely pulls the trigger for the Crimson Tide. Nebraska has a weekend to persuade him otherwise, or develop itself as a suitable fallback.
Watch Auburn as well. If Auburn offers, that forces 'Bama's hand. If it's a 'Bama-or-Nebraska choice, Saban at least knows Boston would end up somewhere other than the SEC.