Published Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 10:12 pm / Updated at 11:27 pm
FOOTBALL
McKewon: When recruiting, wishing upon stars still the ultimate inexact science

LINCOLN — As a guide, a useful tool, recruiting sites perform an important service. They're a kind of Consumer Reports for coaches and fans alike.

But this is the annual column where I tell you about their limits. Limits those services can't necessarily help — but they don't always broadcast, either.

Imagine there were 300 cars to test instead of 30. And the testers of those cars wanted to test them, say, 10 times, but didn't have the financial wherewithal to visit every car manufacturer to do so. So they were left to guess, to some extent, at the quality of the cars that were tested fewer times by assigning some value to their absence. Which of these two evaluations would you trust more?

Ľ I drove this car only once, for 30 minutes, and learned what I could.

Ľ I drove this car six times for several days, and I know everything about it.

You'd trust the latter. But the reality of scouting is: Many players are a person in a highlight film. Or they attended one camp instead of four.

Monte Harrison, for example, won MVP at a Rivals camp. But he didn't appear at Nike's “The Opening” or any all-star games. If he had, would he really be a low four star, or a potential five star? Didn't Husker guard signee Tanner Farmer ascend to Rivals' No. 82 prospect in the country based on his additional work in those camps? If a rating is too much tied to initial junior evaluation or consistent exposure, doesn't the process skew too much against a kid like Husker safety Nate Gerry or 2014 linebacker signee Jaevon Walton?

I tip my hat to Rivals for partnering with Under Armour — and ESPN for working with Nike — to present evaluation camps for high school prospects. The St. Louis Rivals/Under Armour camp last year was a particular hit; Harrison and Farmer both emerged from it. But the closest camp this year for any kid in the Midwest is Chicago or Dallas. The Nike/Under Armour camp locales are in many of the same spots. Both will have events in Columbus, Ohio, for example. Even if Ohio State can't be there, what a huge advantage for the Buckeyes.

Let's be clear: Nike and Under Armour are not precisely hurting for cash. I think there's some money to put on a camp in Kansas City. Don't you?

So just be smart about rankings. I make my own, independent list. It's just one opinion — one pair of eyes — against what the recruiting sites do for a living. But as you delve deeper into this key part of football program management, you'll find your own opinions forming.

Here are 10 of mine:

1. Monte Harrison would be a bigger “keep” than Bubba Starling would have been.

And that's no knock on Starling. But he was going to have to relearn the quarterback position and retool his throwing motion at Nebraska. Harrison has to learn NU's offense, but I'd put his athleticism in the Randy Gregory category. Send him on a fly route and see what happens. As colleague Jon Nyatawa pointed out to me, don't underestimate baseball coach Darin Erstad's role here.

2. Walton is the steal of the class if Nebraska embraces his versatility.

I'm not sure Walton will be the middle linebacker Michael Rose appears ready to be. But Walton can rush the passer, he can occasionally freelance as a strongside linebacker, and I'd like to see some offensive tackle block him if he comes off the edge as a defensive end.

3. Trai Mosley is the best cornerback recruit in years.

The best since Charles Jackson in 2011, and perhaps since Alfonzo Dennard in 2008. He's competitive and athletic like Josh Mitchell but a shade taller and longer. And he'll play earlier than Mitchell did because of the opportunity available.

4. Nebraska seems to be building toward more of a 3-4 look.

Or, at the very least, a “spinner” package where a defensive end is constantly in flux between having his hand down or standing up to cover or rush. Defensive end recruits Sedrick King and DeAndre Wills seem comfortable in that role — King was almost as much of a linebacker as an end — while Nebraska has defensive ends big enough to play the classic 3-4 end.

5. The Huskers must remain dogged in recruiting quarterback.

Zack Darlington is working out with the team and will partake in spring camp, so overwhelming fears about concussions ending his career before it starts are premature. But NU needed a second quarterback in this class anyway to resolve numbers, and I'm unconvinced that A.J. Bush isn't a much better fit at wide receiver. He reminds me of former Omaha Central star Daryle Hawkins — who switched from quarterback to wide receiver at Oregon — or former Iowa quarterback-turned-receiver Marvin McNutt.

6. Nebraska needs to pick spots for Freedom Akinmoladun and Mick Stoltenberg for now, then re-evaluate after a year.

Both are gifted athletes with great frames. Both could play tight end, offensive tackle or defensive end. Long term, I suspect both would be better on defense — remember, great teams should nudge versatile athletes toward the side of the ball that defines the program — but both could start on offense, too. In our recruiting round table, Mike'l Severe made a good point about great teams — college or NFL — using tight ends more than ever. He likes Akinmoladun at tight end. We'll see.

7. Byerson Cockrell can't be a bust — and he won't be.

Nebraska needs this juco prospect to contribute immediately in the secondary, and since Bo Pelini tends to know what he wants back there, I think Cockrell will get it done at corner or nickel. While Mo Seisay never turned the corner in two years at Nebraska, Cockrell is taller, longer and more physical. If Cockrell and Joe Keels have good years, it may be time for Nebraska to expand its junior college recruiting plan. NU is too good at identifying jucos not to consider it.

8. The running back bar at Nebraska is incredibly high, so Mikale Wilbon and Larenzo Stewart have their work cut out for them.

Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah are tough acts to follow. High-character. Highly skilled as runners and receivers. Team leaders. NFL talents. And the young guys behind Abdullah — Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby — are both better, in my view, than Wilbon and Stewart. I'd like to be proven wrong, because it means the Huskers have a heck of a player on their hands. But, for now, it's hard for me to see both of them staying at Nebraska for five years. The competition's too fierce and the 2015 guy — Kendall Bussey — might have the most raw talent of all.

9. It was fun to see our story on guard Tanner Farmer hit the national websites Thursday.

The part of the story that caught their eye was the very end, when Pelini challenged Farmer to take him down. Obviously, Farmer could have pinned Pelini in 15 seconds. The point, not lost on readers or Farmer, was Pelini's sense of fun with recruits he knows well.

Pelini's in-home skills are underrated. Based on numerous conversations — even with players who didn't pick Nebraska — Pelini has a strong pitch, does well with parents and has an “Are you with me?” style that makes kids ask themselves, “Should I be with him?” It's not for every player, but there are top-end prospects — including prospects who don't currently give Nebraska a second thought — who'd warm to it.

The key is finding those players, and perhaps more important, letting more young kids in the region see that persona. It should scald Pelini that two regional offensive linemen NU courted in 2012 — Cedar Falls, Iowa, tackle Ross Pierschbacher and Olathe, Kan., guard Braden Smith — signed with Alabama and Auburn, respectively. Nebraska has to get those guys. Perhaps in 2015, it will.

A thought? Get out of Lincoln. Nebraska athletics in general is too Lincoln-centric. (And having primarily lived in Lincoln since 1996, this isn't some big O bias talking here.) Hold a one-day camp at Buell Stadium in Millard and see if it attracts some different prospects. Better, partner Nebraska with some lower-division school near Kansas City or St. Louis. The school hosts and runs the camp — and employs Husker assistants to run it. My friends, NCAA rules — and the Big Ten, which follows NCAA guidelines — allow it. Oklahoma State did it last year in Texas.

However many resources Nebraska throws at recruiting, no change would be more helpful than the NCAA allowing summer official visits. If top prospects in the South didn't have to drive 12 to 15 hours to see the schools — if you could jam 30 players into one summer weekend — the Huskers' chances of landing top Southern and California prospects goes up.

10. Time to get back into Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Yes, even with James Franklin there. Nebraska's record against Penn State since 2011? 3-0. With two in Happy Valley.

* * *

Video: Big Red Today recruiting roundtable:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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