On Wednesday, Nebraska signed a class of 20 prospects who will join the Cornhusker roster for the 2017 season. The eight defensive and 12 offensive players were rated no. 21 nationally by ESPN, no. 23 by 247 Sports, and no. 20 by Rivals. Bill Connelly of SB Nation does an aggregate recruiting ranking, which puts Nebraska at no. 22 nationally this year, no. 22 over a two-year timespan, and no. 26 over a five-year timespan.
So, a decent class, but not the top-15 heights that some were hoping for. But what does this mean for where Nebraska is now as a program, and where it’s going?
Fishing in the Right Streams
Yeah, holding your breath on National Signing Day to wait for high school kids to put on a hat is a little nerve-wracking. And given that Nebraska only signed 20 players instead of the expected 22 or 23 means that spots were likely being held for Signing Day decision-makers like C.J. Verdell, Joseph Lewis, and Deommodore Lenoir, who went elsewhere.
Oh, yeah. And there was Jamire “Three Commitments” Calvin, too.
And while that’s frustrating and disappointing, it’s something you’d better get used to as a Husker fan if you want to sit at the Big Kids’ Table in college football. For Nebraska to get over its four-loss plateau, it’s going to need the talents of players who wait until National Signing Day to put on a hat.
The fact that Nebraska is in the mix right to the end with so many of these players is a great sign. Landing one more of those guys would likely have put Nebraska safely into the top 20. This year’s class has decommits from Ohio State and Florida, showing once again that head coach Mike Riley can go toe-to-toe with national juggernauts and win recruiting battles.
So, yes, Nebraska’s 2017 can definitely be chalked up as a good-but-not-good-enough performance. But this is also coming off a second season of Nebraska’s on-field performances being somewhat less than inspiring. If the addition of a quarterback friendlier to Riley’s offensive system and the addition of new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco bear fruit on the field in 2017, then 2018’s class may have even more promise to offer.
An Incomplete List
Nebraska signed 20 players to Letters of Intent, bringing its total of scholarship players to 83 (the roster breakdown done by the Omaha World-Herald is here, although at the time of writing it did not have the entire 2017 class listed). In his discussion with the media about the 2017 class, Riley said that he liked the flexibility of having a couple extra scholarships available to use.
OK, sure, having those extra scholarships can be useful if there is a late-available kid or for a JUCO target. But let’s be real. Those spots would have been filled if guys like Lewis or Lenoir would have picked Nebraska.
That leaves Nebraska’s roster a little thin, particularly at wide receiver. And with all the talent departing next year, recruiting defensive backs is going to be a huge priority for 2018.
Winning the West
Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999. If there’s anything that’s an indictment on how far Nebraska has fallen from mid-nineties glory, that lonely “1999” on the West Stadium sign for conference championships should serve as a reminder in ten-foot-tall lettering.
But to win a conference title, you need to win your division. Perhaps in year seven (!) in the Big Ten, Husker Fan will finally be ready to embrace its divisional rivals as the primary focus for Nebraska’s success.
So how is the rest of the B1G West doing in recruiting (according to Bill Connelly’s five-year recruiting rankings from SB Nation)?
||2017 Nat’l Rank
||Two-year Nat’l Rank
||Five-year Nat’l Rank
What do all these numbers mean? Well, the first thing that jumps out is that no one from the West is ready to compete nationally. We’ll talk more later about why recruiting ratings matter, but here’s a fascinating bit of statistical analysis from Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports.
Power 5 teams (of which there are 65) that consistently recruit Top 20 classes have a 60 percent chance of becoming a Top 20 program and a 35 percent chance of regularly inhabiting the Top 10.
By contrast, Power 5 teams that finish outside the Top 20 in recruiting have a lower than 18 percent chance of fielding Top 20 teams and just a 6.7 percent chance of reaching the Top 10.
The only team that’s even close to consistent top 20 recruiting performance from the B1G West is Nebraska, but as you can see from the five-year ranking, even that has been buoyed by recent performance.
This, by the way, is precisely the point where those college football fans who disdain recruiting rankings (such as Keyshawn Johnson, by the way, as told to Erin Sorensen of Hail Varsity) will point out that Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent national powers over the last ten years, and that Iowa is only one season removed from an undefeated regular season and being one play from the College Football Playoff.
Wisconsin is a fair point. The Badgers have been in the final AP Top 25 every year since 2013, topping out at no. 9 this year. And in 2012, Wisconsin won the B1G (although I don’t remember what happened in the conference title game) and played in the Rose Bowl.
But that means Wisconsin is dramatically overperforming its overall talent. It does so by recruiting to a system and narrowly focusing on players that are good fits for that system (which might sound like some other guy Nebraska fans have heard of). It’s a valid strategy, as Wisconsin has clearly proven. But it also means you have to significantly outcoach opposing teams and consistently either unearth diamonds in the rough or develop average players into top-flight college performers.
That’s tough to sustain. Just as Michigan State, which follows a similar model to Wisconsin and endured a 4-8 season one year after a College Football Playoff appearance.
Well, how about Iowa? No one is going to take last year’s 12-0 performance away from the Hawkeyes. But it was also in large part the product of the stars aligning and the schedule softening. Outside of that magical 2012 run (which, unfortunately, ended with a bit of a thud), Iowa hasn’t lost fewer than five games since 2009. That would suggest 2012 was an outlier, and Iowa’s performance is about what a team that recruits in the forties nationally should expect.
Yes, Nebraska’s time in the B1G has not been as productive in the trophy cabinet as Husker Fan would have liked or expected. But, the bottom line is that Nebraska should have a clear talent advantage over the rest of its divisional rivals. Even more encouraging, Nebraska is one of only four teams in the B1G West (along with Iowa, Illinois, and Purdue) that is improving on its five-year average, suggesting positive momentum in recruiting. Now, it just needs to start translating that recruiting advantage to wins on the field and trips to Indianapolis in December.
Super Six (and a Sleeper)
It wouldn’t be a National Signing Day piece without an obligatory review of the signing class. So here is the official Double Extra Point Super Six for Nebraska’s 2017 class:
No. 6: Kurt Rafdal / Austin Allen (TE)
OK, OK, I know I’m cheating by listing both of them. But these are two impressive-looking tight end prospects coming to Lincoln. Rafdal is six-foot-seven and 230 pounds, while Allen in six-foot-eight and 210 pounds. Both are offensive weapons, and with the potential for a quarterback to truly spread the field, they should be able to create mismatches and allow the tight end to (finally) become a vital cog in Nebraska’s offensive engine.
No. 5: Brendan Jaimes (OT)
As with just about any offensive lineman, Jaimes will probably need a redshirt season to get himself physically able to handle life in the B1G. But he has the frame (six-foot-five, 250 pounds) and the skill set to be Nebraska’s left tackle from 2019 going forward.
No. 4: Guy Thomas (DE/OLB)
There’s a reason Nebraska fans were holding their collective breath on Signing Day to see if Thomas was still “N.” There’s nothing more valuable on defense than a natural pass rusher, something Nebraska has been without since Randy Gregory. Thomas probably isn’t a Gregory-level player, but he’s the closest thing in this class to a player that can heat up opposing quarterbacks. He’ll likely slide to an outside linebacker in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, which should make him more dangerous as a pass rusher.
No. 3: Tyjon Lindsey (WR)
There’s a reason Urban Meyer wanted this kid to play in the Shoe. Lindsey is a game-changing playmaker with speed and moves and hands to score on offense and on special teams. Given his size (five-foot-nine, 161 pounds), he would be expected to at least start out in the slot. But given his talent, don’t be surprised if he ends up being able to play as an outside receiver. With Nebraska transitioning to a more quarterback-accurate offense, a player like Lindsey has the chance to make an immediate impact.
No. 2: Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (WR)
It’s unfortunate that Johnson’s talent is going to be lost in the shuffle a little, given his famous father and the expectations that brings. I expect Johnson to be an impressive contributor on the field, a bit in the Jordan Westerkamp mode in terms of the type of receiver he is.
But Johnson’s impact on Nebraska, both this year and going forward, is the buzz his commitment and continued recruiting has given NU. The “Calibraska” movement doesn’t happen without Johnson’s energetic commitment, and Nebraska’s recruiting momentum likely doesn’t take hold without that Calibraska movement.
So regardless of what his on-field contributions will be – and, again, I think Johnson is going to surprise with how well he plays – in a sense he’s already done his job for Nebraska.
No. 1: Damion Daniels (DT)
Daniels might not be the best player in the 2017 class. But he might be the most important. With Nebraska migrating to a 3-4 defense under Diaco, it is going to need a big run-stuffer to play the nose tackle, one that eventually will have the size to play “two-gap” on both sides of the center.
Daniels is six-foot-three and 315 pounds as a high school senior. He’s got the frame to be that true nose tackle in the future – with an outside shot of the future being 2017 if he has a good spring.
Sleeper: Ben Miles (FB)
Yeah, it was cool to see the Mad Hatter don a Nebraska lid on ESPN. But Les Miles’ boy can play. He’s an effective lead blocker, and a good enough athlete to be deployed as an H-back or even out of the slot as a receiver. He’ll play on special teams, and has a shot to be a four-year contributor.
Remember Andy Janovich’s senior campaign in 2015, and all the what-might-have-beens (such as those raised by a smart and particularly handsome analyst) if he would have been given a more featured role in Nebraska’s offense? Well, with Miles we might get to answer some of those questions.