Nebraska Football: Nice Guy Mike Riley Can Still Recruit With The Sharks

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

OK, we get it. Mike Riley’s a nice guy. In case you hadn’t heard, you can read about it here, here, here, and here. Big Ten Media Days last week were full of breathless wonder at how nice Riley is, inevitably comparing him to the occasionally cranky previous head coach.

That’s fine in the summer, but some fans are worried that Riley’s pleasant demeanor will hold Nebraska back. A nice guy like Riley, fans worry, won’t be able to stand up and compete toe-to-toe with the upper echelon coaches in college football.

In other words, as Leo Durocher said (although he really didn’t), nice guys finish last.

It’s an easy – and lazy – trap to fall in. Football is a violent game, and needs a brutal and ruthless man at the helm. Nice guys are fine to trim the hedges, but a strong, alpha male is a necessity to win at the highest level.

A guy like Nick Saban, for example. Saban’s temper is stuff of legend, enough for GQ to call him “The Scariest Man In College Football.” How can a pushover like Riley, the thought process goes, compete with a ruthless winner like Saban?

On the field, we won’t know yet. But we already know he’s scored a victory in recruiting with Jordan Stevenson. A four-star running back according to 247 Sports, Stevenson was set to attend Wisconsin before being blocked from entering the school. A frenzy of late recruiting was triggered, and Stevenson’s decision came down to Nebraska and Alabama (according to Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald).

To win like the big guys, you have to recruit like the big guys. And Nebraska, in Riley’s first year in charge – before he’s taken the field for a single game, was able to outduel Saban’s Crimson Tide for a prize offensive talent ready to take the field in 2015.

And that’s not a one-off. There’s no more hyper-aggressive alpha male than Jim Harbaugh, the new head man at Michigan. Harbaugh was insufferable enough to get himself shown the door by the San Francisco 49ers less than two years after a Super Bowl appearance. He was aggressive enough to get legendarily-chill Pete Carroll into a “what’s your deal” argument at midfield. And he has been talented enough to be incredibly successful wherever he goes.

Surely a man that oozes that kind of power and confidence will be more than a match for a sweet potato like Riley, right?

Well, maybe not. When Harbaugh got the job in Ann Arbor, one of the first things he did was to go after Nebraska recruits. Remember, Harbaugh and Riley coached together in the Pac-12, at Stanford and Oregon State respectively, so Harbaugh was familiar with Riley.

Tight end recruit Matt Snyder and defensive end Daishon Neal were both wooed by Harbaugh to decommit from Nebraska. But both declined Harbaugh’s advances, electing to stay with Riley in Lincoln. Indeed, Neal aired some dirty laundry about Michigan’s recruitment (according to Mitch Sherman of ESPN), making the Wolverines look bad in the process.

Sure, we don’t know what Nebraska on the field under Riley will look like. But, as been argued by Dave Bartoo’s CFB Matrix and SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, amongst others, recruiting matters. As axiomatic as it may seem, teams that get better recruits (according to the recruiting rankings) are more likely to be successful on the field.

So we’ll find out shortly how Riley will stand up on the field against the sharks of college football. But in the short time he’s been in charge of Nebraska, we’ve already seen him get recruiting wins over some of the biggest names in the sport.

Don’t let the nice guy image fool you, in other words.

Nebraska Football: Early Grades for the 2016 Recruiting Class

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know that even though the 2015 season is still months away, important work for the 2016 recruiting class is being done. New head coach Mike Riley and his staff are beating the bushes (and social media) looking for the next crop of talented players to don the scarlet and cream.

Currently, according to 247 Sports, Nebraska’s 2016 recruiting class is no. 33 nationally and no. 7 in the Big Ten. But with a total of just six commitments, there’s plenty of room for the class to grow. But based on what we know now, here’s a snapshot of how Nebraska is looking for next year’s class.

All measurables and prospect rankings are from 247 Sports.

Offense

Nebraska currently has five commitments on offense.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
John Rairdon OG 6’4” 260 Four-star .9651
Bryan Brokop OT 6’5” 273 Three-star .8888
Jared Bubak TE 6’4” 235 Three-star .8538
Terry Wilson QB (DUAL) 6’2.5” 187 Three-star .8407
Patrick O’Brien QB (PRO) 6’4” 225 Three-star .8456

There are two big takeaways from this list, even at this preliminary stage. The first is the commitment of Rairdon, who would be Riley’s highest ranked recruit at Nebraska under 247 Sports’ criteria. Landing the four-star’s talent on the offensive line would be a big coup for Riley, and a huge boost for Nebraska’s offense in the years to come.

The second fascinating takeaway is the commitment of dual-threat quarterback Wilson. For his own talents as a three-star prospect, Wilson is a good get for Nebraska. But more interestingly, Wilson’s commitment means that Nebraska is still actively recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks. That was an open question with Riley given his pocket-passing pro-style offense from Oregon State.

Then, on Thursday, Nebraska secured a commitment from the three-star pro-style quarterback prospect O’Brien. Having both quarterbacks in the 2016 class, in addition to the five scholarship quarterbacks currently on the roster who would have eligibility in 2016,

Notable amongst the offers out for Nebraska is four-star running back Devwah Whaley (who, according to the Omaha World-Herald, has NU in his top ten of possible schools) and junior college offensive line prospect Malcolm Pridgeon, who according to the Omaha World-Herald stands at six-foot-eight (!) and 303 pounds.

Grade: A

Defense

At present, Nebraska only has one defensive commitment.

Name Position Height Weight Star Composite
William Johnson OLB 6’3” 220 Three-star .8617

The position is important, as Nebraska currently has only five scholarship linebackers outside of the players signed in the 2015 class. New defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s quarters defensive scheme relies on three linebackers on the field most of the time, so Nebraska will have a great need for depth at linebacker going forward. Adding a junior-college transfer like Johnson should help Nebraska with ready-to-play talent next year.

Defensive tackle will also be an area of particular need for Nebraska in 2016, with Kevin Williams graduating and juniors Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins potentially leaving early for the NFL if they have a big 2015 campaign (Collins is included in the “others considered” of the early 2016 first-round draft projection of ESPN’s Mel Kiper).

Of course, there’s plenty of time for Nebraska to grow its defensive haul for 2016. Linebacker/defensive end prospect Quayshon Alexander is widely expected to pick Nebraska, although Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald reports that Alexander is “slowing down” his recruiting process.

Grade: C

Overall

It’s a little scary to see Nebraska rated no. 7 in the B1G and no. 33 overall for the 2016 class. Ending up there would be a frightening sign of things to come.

But there’s plenty to be encouraged about, between the decisiveness at quarterback and the early handling of a position of desperate need on defense. It’s way too early to panic about results, and there’s enough good things happening to offer some comfort this early in the process.

Grade: A-

Nebraska Football: Ranking the Cornhuskers’ Top Recruiting Targets for 2016

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photo and story by Patrick Runge

Nebraska football fans know it’s never too early to look towards recruiting for 2016. New head coach Mike Riley took the job in late 2014, and so has not yet had a full recruiting season to show off his skills. 2016 will be the first time Nebraska fans will truly get an idea of how skilled Riley and his staff are at luring top talent to Lincoln.

At this stage, trying to determine who a school’s top targets are is a bit of a guessing game. But here are three targets that we know Nebraska has interest in, and would make sense given the needs on the roster.

All measurable and rankings from 247 Sports.

No. 3: Dwayne Haskins

Position: Pro-style quarterback

Measureables: 6’3”, 185 pounds

Ranking: Four-star (.9632 composite)

As a smart and particularly handsome analyst observed, there’s now no question that Riley’s offense will at least be moving towards a pro-style system. In addition to the statements from the coaches and players, one clue about the direction of Nebraska’s offense can come from its recruiting targets.

Of the three top targets for Nebraska as listed by 247 Sports, only one remains uncommitted. That is Haskins, a pro-style quarterback from Maryland. With the five quarterbacks currently on Nebraska’s roster all at some level being dual-threat signal-callers, Haskins would represent a departure in skill set and provide a very different option for Riley if he were to arrive in Lincoln next year.

No. 2: Brendan Ferns

Position: Inside Linebacker

Measureables: 6’3”, 223 pounds

Ranking: Four-star (.9594 composite)

Nebraska’s biggest position of need in 2016 remains at linebacker. Even with signing five linebackers in 2015, Nebraska will only have ten scholarship players at the position in 2016. Combine that with new defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s preference to play three linebackers, and the need for more depth at the position becomes clear.

Of course, Ferns would be more than just depth. The inside linebacker from Ohio brings size and speed, and would be one of the prize signings of Nebraska’s 2016 class. Currently 33 schools have expressed interest in Ferns, with Ohio State apparently in the lead (according to 247 Sports). But Nebraska is in play for Ferns, and his addition to the class would be incredibly important.

No. 1: Devin White

Position: Athlete (running back or inside linebacker)

Measureable: 6’0”, 235 pounds

Ranking: Four-star (.9343 composite)

Like Ferns, White would be an ideal addition to Nebraska’s lineup. White’s primary attraction for Nebraska certainly would be at linebacker, where NU’s need is well-documented. And the athlete from Louisiana would definitely be an attractive target for the position, given his four-star ranking. But the fact that White has the potential to play at running back also adds a degree of flexibility, making him even more attractive of a target.

White currently has interest from 11 schools, with LSU being currently in the lead (according to 247 Sports). But Nebraska has had a history of getting athletes out of the Bayou State, and White would be an impressive addition to that history.