LINCOLN — It felt like old, tough times on the Nebraska recruiting trail Wednesday, when junior college prospects Beau Sandland (tight end) and Quincy Russell (defensive tackle) picked against the Huskers. It felt like the Frank Solich years, when a tight battle for some needed blue-chip prospect usually seemed to slip through Solich's fingers.
Recruiting was a quainter, more clandestine thing then, yes, but Signing Day shuns of Jason Thomas, Carlyle Holiday and Adrian Mayes didn't go down any smoother. Remember Larry Foote once upon a time? He had the Huskers in his top duo, too. Went with Michigan.
Wednesday, Sandland picked Miami (Fla.), citing to Miami's Rivals site the Hurricanes' pedigree for turning out NFL tight ends. Russell picked Oklahoma, which is perhaps in greater need of defensive tackles than the Huskers. And Thursday, Northeast Mississippi defensive tackle Lavon Hooks, that noted connoisseur of peanut butter, stayed true to his SEC roots, picking Ole Miss.
Tight end and defensive tackle are thin positions heading into 2013. Nebraska spent nearly the whole calendar year recruiting Sandland, and a good chunk of time hunting down junior college defensive tackles to scout and pursue. There's no sense in pretending their choices don't sting. Just like there was no pretending Andrus Peat's choice of Stanford in 2012 and Owa Odighizuwa's choice of UCLA in 2010 don't sting.
It ratchets up the intrigue — and the pressure — for the stretch run.
Coach Bo Pelini on Thursday said an interesting thing: NU intends to bring in a full class, perhaps more than 25 players, depending on mid-year transfers. The Huskers have 23 scholarship seniors. The Big Ten allows teams to oversign by three. If Nebraska wants to go 26, it can, or even higher if a handful of long-term non-contributors see the writing on the wall.
Since NU loaded up with 28 players in their 2008 class — just months after Pelini arrived on campus — it had to delay recruiting gratification, so to speak, until now. Pelini has had two years to assess the Big Ten's strengths and weaknesses — and what kinds of players he'd need in response to the switch in leagues — so this should be his most robust, productive class.
“I really like our class right now,” he said. “But it's got a ways to go. We're going to sign a full class.”
Does that have to include junior-college prospects at defensive tackle? Pelini said it wasn't “imperative.”
“We're not going to bring in somebody to bring him in,” Pelini said.
At tight end, he seems to like a young trio of redshirt freshmen — Sam Cotton and walk-ons Trey Foster and Jared Blum — while suggesting there might be a Plan B on the recruiting trail. College of the Desert (Calif.) tight end Brandon Vandenburg visits in January, and if he likes the prospect of immediate, prolonged playing time, Nebraska would be a good fit.
But offensive coordinator Tim Beck can adjust his offense for one year around an inexperienced, untested tight end position — especially with all of the weapons Nebraska has. It's not so easy to adjust around a defensive line that will once again ask 260-pound senior Cameron Meredith to battle with giants.
Pelini said he liked the young prospects on the line, too. If so, not many are playing, and Vincent Valentine redshirted. The Huskers didn't host five junior-college defensive tackles for home games this fall because there was a high degree of comfort with the guys in house.
That leaves the Huskers with options:
>> Going back to Hutchinson (Kan.) defensive tackle Toby Johnson, who tore up his knee this fall and will have to rehab right to be ready for 2013. Johnson, an Atlanta native, has an official visit to Mississippi State coming up and appears to be a Georgia lean.
>> Recruiting on the Plan B juco list, which could include a guy like Antelope Valley (Calif.) Community College defensive lineman Edwin Delva.
>> Landing Maliek Collins, the Kansas City (Mo.) Center late bloomer who's better known as a top high school wrestler. He visits in January.
>> Hitting a ninth-inning home run with current Washington soft commit Elijah Qualls, an undersized tackle from Petaluma, Calif., who's so athletic he played running back in high school.
>> Expecting a lot of production from Valentine and defensive tackle Aaron Curry, who played as a true freshman during the nonconference season, but not in Big Ten play.
>> Putting a fire under the underclassmen who have either been hurt or relatively underachieved.
>> Using the “Keith Williams plan” for Thad Randle. Williams, an NU offensive lineman, played through ridiculous amounts of pain weekly in part because there weren't suitable backups to give him rest. Randle's knee pretty consistently flares up, which limits his number of sheer reps.
All of those options require, remember, Chase Rome to have a strong junior season. Which he could; Rome has the talent. But his development is crucial to the rest of it going well.
With Hooks, Russell and also Kyle Peko — who chose Oregon State — off the boards for Nebraska, I'm guessing defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, and Pelini, have their work cut out for them on the trail and in spring camp. There's one game left this season — but the line is the story to watch for 2013.
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