Published Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 10:45 pm / Updated at 1:00 am
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McKewon: Huskers in devil of a battle for ASU recruiting targets

LINCOLN — Nebraska hasn't played Arizona State in football since a 48-10 Husker win in 2002. More than 11 years later, they'll engage in a recruiting duel.

Four players are scheduled to officially visit NU this weekend, and two of them — athletes Coltin Gerhart and Kalen Ballage — are Sun Devil commits. The two other visitors — California junior college stars Eric Lauderdale and Kweishi Brown — have ASU in their top group.

It's good work by NU coaxing the kids to Lincoln. Now it's time to close and continue considerable recruiting momentum gained in the last two weeks.

Gerhart, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder who played his senior season at Vista Murrieta (Calif.) High School, has zoomed onto the radar as a second quarterback prospect. If coach Bo Pelini can't flip Miami (Fla.) Jackson star Quinton Flowers away from South Florida, Gerhart could be the guy. Gerhart might be the guy, anyway.

The younger brother of former Stanford and current Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, Coltin played his senior year at Murrieta — alma mater of current Husker offensive guard Corey Whitaker — accumulating 3,158 total yards and 43 total touchdowns. The three-star prospect committed to ASU in the summer as a safety, but his skill-set — low-to-the-ground, good speed, better change of direction — fits Nebraska's template at quarterback.

Arizona State's offense features some spread option/zone read elements, too, but ASU has another quarterback recruit in Manny Wilkins. NU has one, too, in Zack Darlington, who sat out all but one game of his senior season because of a concussion. Darlington plans to enroll in January and compete in spring drills, but he'd still be only the third scholarship quarterback on the roster. Nebraska needs another.

Nebraska's been recruiting Ballage — a 6-foot-2, 223-pound, four-star running back from Falcon, Colo. — for a solid year. He surprisingly committed to Arizona State this week, but still plans to visit Lincoln. Ballage's brother, Keenan, was a running back at Hastings College. Kalen Ballage is roughly the size and build of current Husker wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, only at running back. Intriguing.

A 6-foot, 195-pound three-star prospect from Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., Brown said Nebraska defensive backs coach Terry Joseph started recruiting him halfway through the season, and has kept close contact since then. NU is in Brown's top three along with ASU and West Virginia.

“I know Nebraska produces really good DBs, and that's important to me,” said Brown, who said he had 62 tackles (51 solo), 16 pass breakups and four interceptions for Grossmont this year. “I know Nebraska has great facilities and I know it's a great football state. I'm looking forward to the environment.

Brown's new to me. Hadn't heard about him or seen one play of film on him, and I tend to research most Big Ten targets. But his Hudl film revealed a guy well-suited for Nebraska's defense. Aggressive. Good at punching the ball free. Locates the ball in the air. Not afraid to blast a guy and risk a flag. The Huskers need more of that on special teams.

Lauderdale, the four-star receiver whose name has been in this column several times, is a 6-2, 190-pound glider out of Saddleback (Calif.) Community College. His addition would make Nebraska's 2014 receiving corps one of the best in the nation, much less the Big Ten, but that looks like a tough pull.

If Nebraska can pluck two of the four, it'd continue what's been a fruitful fortnight for the Huskers since the end of the season.

Highland (Kan.) Community College defensive end and recent commit Joe Keels will be a helpful piece for the Huskers' defense, a strong, physical presence who can anchor an end spot in a 4-3 look or even, perhaps, the occasional 3-4. You could envision Keels and Avery Moss manning the end spots in the 3-4, 2014 commit Terrell Clinkscales, Vincent Valentine or Aaron Curry at nose, and Randy Gregory roaming as a pass rusher along with whatever linebacker/safety speed element you want to pair with Gregory. That's a dangerous third-down look.

Keels can also set the edge on running plays and move laterally to close off cutback plays. And he's hungry. Remember Benard Thomas in 2003 and 2004? Like that dude.

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Byerson Cockrell, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder out of East Mississippi Community College, won't get the headlines Clinkscales and Keels will, but he's just as important at corner, where Nebraska needs extra help. Cockrell, an elusive interview, told The World-Herald that Cal, TCU and Temple were ready to offer when he committed to the Huskers last week. He visited Lincoln for the Nov. 28 Iowa game; the farthest north Cockrell had ever been before that was on an official visit to Middle Tennessee State.

Cockrell played on the most dominant team in junior college, national champions who won their games by an average of 52.5 points. The Lions pitched five shutouts.

“Man, we stuck together,” Cockrell said of his team's success. “It was a family, a brotherhood. You couldn't have anybody fall out, and we didn't. Everybody was on board.”

Sounds like a Nebraska mindset already.

As for Montclair, N.J., defensive end Darius Slade, don't slap the “Randy Gregory” tag on him. Gregory's talent is still underestimated. But Slade might be the biggest surprise of the class. Beating Michigan State — Big Ten champs and defense du jour — and Penn State in New Jersey speaks to the power of Slade's official visit. Nebraska makes a strong on-campus impression, and the Huskers' staff has continued to improve elements of its message.

Slade's commit also points to Nebraska's continued need to fight for an expansion of official visit dates. Allowing one month each summer before a prospect's senior year for official visits — when kids are trying to juggle school and high school football practice — would be a good adjustment to the sped-up recruiting calendar. I could see southern schools not voting for it. But northern schools should embrace it. Nebraska — where the official visit is a major selling point — would benefit more than most schools from such a rule change.

Around the Big Ten

A quick update on Big Ten schools in Nebraska's new West Division. We'll hit the East Division soon. All commit numbers and names are as of Thursday afternoon:

Wisconsin: 25 commits.

The Badgers have an eclectic mix of players who fit the league profile and guys coach Gary Anderson — who used to coach at Utah State — must have been following for years. A two-star offensive lineman like Micah Kapoi — from Kapolei, Hawaii — fits that bill. Wisconsin's mixed eight commits from its own state with eight more from SEC country, including two from the same school in Jesup, Ga., a small town best known for being home to a federal penitentiary.

Iowa: 17 commits.

The Hawkeyes added two commits in November but have otherwise held steady and remain in search for a pro-style quarterback. Detroit-area signal caller Tyler Wiegers is Iowa's top target, according to 247 Sports. Wiegers had been committed to Rutgers. Good size — 6-4, 215 pounds — big arm, hangs in the pocket. Iowa's top commit is La Porte (Iowa) star Jay Scheel. He's a dual-threat quarterback, but he could play multiple positions in Iowa City.

Illinois: 14 commits.

The Illini haven't had a commit since October. That'll likely change this weekend when Illinois hosts nine players — including four from Los Angeles Pierce Community College. Two of them — twins Tyree and Tyrin Stone-Davis — have already pledged to Illinois. Another visitor — defensive tackle Glen Antoine — is a teammate of Keels at Highland.

Northwestern: 13 commits.

A hot summer start has gone cold. A 5-7 record — more of the same ol', same ol' in Evanston — will do that. The Wildcats did reel in four-star Bergen (N.J.) defensive end Garrett Dickerson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pounder who gained most of his accolades as a tight end.

Purdue: 13 commits.

The Boilermakers have three commits in the last week, including JeWhaun Bentley, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound defensive end who can get around the edge. Purdue beat Iowa, West Virginia and Rutgers for Bentley. A good pull from powerhouse DeMatha High School in Maryland.

Minnesota: 10 commits.

The best season since the Glen Mason era hasn't produced much recruiting fruit yet. The Gophers do have running back Jeff Jones — arguably the best running back recruit in the Big Ten — still in the fold. Much of the talent that helped produce an 8-4 season is gone after this year or next. It's worth noting that Jerry Kill didn't recruit much of that talent.

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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