LINCOLN — Even though Rivals.com named John Garrison one of the top 25 college football recruiters for the 2014 class, Nebraska's offensive line coach doesn't try to sweeten up his pitch to prospects.
His boss, Husker head coach Bo Pelini, doesn't want it. And Garrison, a former NU lineman, doesn't think he needs it.
“If you want to look at it as I'm a salesman, I say I'm selling a really premium product,” Garrison said. “It's about relationships, the character of our people — and hopefully my character and our character as a staff. We have guys who care about kids.”
Those lines are mantras for many college coaches. But they were especially effective for Garrison, one of just four Big Ten coaches on the annual list. He had a big haul for the 2014 cycle, landing four-star offensive linemen Tanner Farmer and Nick Gates, and helping land wide receiver Monte Harrison in the Kansas City area and defensive tackle Peyton Newell in Hiawatha, Kan.
Garrison's already on the board for 2015, too, with Baldwin City (Kan.) tackle Christian Gaylord. Garrison's recruiting territory primarily consists of the 500-mile radius — which he shares with run game coordinator Barney Cotton — and Kansas, Missouri and Illinois, specifically.
Of his 2014 recruits, Gates was the toughest pull. Alabama, Texas A&M, Oregon and UCLA were among the schools that offered the Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School product who was NU's top right tackle target, and the 6-foot-5 270-pounder was mulling a late visit to the Bruins before canceling it and picking the Huskers two weeks before signing day. It was “a battle to the end,” Garrison said, and Nebraska benefited from having done more work than other schools at the beginning of the recruiting process.
Gates' commitment, Garrison said, was an example of NU's recruiting system working efficiently, a system overseen by Pelini and recruiting coordinator Ross Els.
Cotton is responsible for the region that includes Las Vegas, and it's his contact with Gorman coach Tony Sanchez — who worked briefly with Cotton at New Mexico State — that opened the door to Gates. When a player is identified in a region, the position coach is called in. NU coaches tag-team recruiting efforts from there.
In this case, Cotton was able to coax Gates — and Sanchez — to Nebraska's summer camp. Gates saw the campus. He saw the Huskers' culture. Garrison said he thought that stuck in Gates' mind throughout the year.
“The most important thing to Nick was people,” Garrison said. “That's the kind of kids we want here. High character. They want what's truly important. Can they look past wearing a cool uniform? And Nick was able to see that. We were an early visit for him, so, at the end of the day, he was able to look back and see the amount of time we'd invested in him and really see 'I went to camp, I worked with these guys, I know what I'm going to be doing.' That was big.”
Camp participation has played a key role in the commitments of several high-profile national prospects in recent years — Johnny Stanton, Zack Darlington, Alonzo Moore, Farmer, Trai Mosley and 2015 commit Eric Lee among them. But it's hard, Garrison said, to easily draw those prospects for Husker camps when similar camps at equally well-known schools may be closer.
So Garrison has a natural affinity for the 500-mile radius. He compared recruiting inside the radius to shooting a 15-footer versus shooting a 30-footer outside of it.
“The hard part is the travel,” Garrison said. Private planes, he said, helped “tenfold” when he had access to them. “The further you're going out, the longer you're in the air, the less you're recruiting. Weighing out whether the interest from a kid in California is genuine or not, Arizona or Florida, those are the things that get difficult. You're spending a lot of time, traveling a lot of miles. Where, if you're inside 500 miles, you can drive to places.”
Garrison is from Blue Springs, Mo. — where 2015 twin defensive tackle prospects Khalil and Carlos Davis play — and the coach said he especially knows the Kansas City area. Since the 2012 class, Nebraska has signed five players from the general Kansas City metro, including 2014 signees Harrison and Grandview (Mo.) tight end Freedom Akinmoladun. The region might produce 12 to 15 FBS prospects per year, Garrison said, but Nebraska may offer only a fraction of that number based on need and which tier of FBS the player best fits.
Garrison said he can spend two days in Kansas City and figure out “what a kid's all about.” From there, he pitches Nebraska and the comfortable three-hour distance between Kansas City and Lincoln. Far enough to truly be away from home. Close enough to be back for dinner on an offseason weekend.
“Kansas City's been pretty consistent,” Garrison said.
Now he'd like to make more headway in St. Louis and Chicago, where the Huskers landed running back Mikale Wilbon for the 2014 cycle. NU got wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp in the 2012 class, and offensive tackle Matt Finnin — who signed in the 2013 class — is from the Chicago area. Still, Nebraska hasn't been able to crack open the vault. Of Rivals' top 20 prospects from Illinois, 15 were from the Chicago area. NU signed one: Wilbon. Eight schools signed the other 14.
“Chicago, you can get a direct flight to pretty much anywhere in the country,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals. “That helps. There's not one team in Chicago. Notre Dame used to have a big hold on the area. Not anymore. Everybody can recruit Chicago. Certainly Nebraska can.”
Said Garrison: “The first year I was in Chicago, it was the 'show me' mentality, the 'let's see who Nebraska really is.' The Big Ten now realizes the Nebraska brand. Playing games there, it'll be a better area for us as we go further along.”
When the Huskers do identify a prospect and gain mutual interest, Garrison said, their success rate is good. He described Pelini, too, as a compelling in-home recruiter.
“I've never heard him talk about winning and losing,” Garrison said. “It's about the process. The process will develop and lead you to what you want: wins and graduations. He's really good. He's a closer. He's a guy who comes in, sells it and makes it final. We identify guys and build relationships, but he does a great job at the end.”
Pelini can also give final verdicts on in-home meals. Garrison said Gates' family served a feast right up Pelini's alley.
“I don't know Italian food, but Bo said it was legit Italian,” Garrison said. “It was good to me. I don't know a meal that's bad.”