A smile creased Scott Frost’s face on Wednesday during the Nebraska head coach’s National Signing Day news conference at Memorial Stadium.
A reporter from the large contingent was asking about running backs coach and junior college recruiting coordinator Ryan Held.
Husker fans had just watched a two-month recruiting torrent by the entire staff — an effort that saw 18 players added to a group that finished ranked in the top 24 by both major recruiting services — and Held seemed to be a daily central figure in the whirlwind.
Texas one day and California the next. Multiple states in a day. Off the cuff decisions to go see a player he’d never heard of. A smile and a point in so many photos with so many recruits it’s no wonder seemingly every verbal commitment came with acknowledgement from the player, at least in some capacity, of Held’s work.
This, of course, is nothing new to Frost. Held had a budding reputation as a recruiter the past two years at Central Florida — his first two at the Football Bowl Subdivision level since he was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1998-99.
Frost knew where the question was going and shot a look toward Held, who was milling in the back of the room.
“I think his best asset is that there’s a lot of loose marbles floating around in his head,” Frost said.
Yes, these guys have spent a lot of time together over the past six months. Frost, of course, then glowed about his 43-year old assistant.
“There’s nobody that I’ve been around that’s more diligent or passionate around getting the right players on your team,” Frost added. “Anything I ask, he’s going to do it and do it in the best interest of the football team. It’s important to have guys like that on your staff. A lot of the kids we’re signing today, Ryan Held was a big part of getting them.”
But for Held, this is just an opening salvo. Not only is he early in his Division I coaching career, but he’s also now back at the school he grew up loving, that he played for after walking on, where he was a part of three national championships.
“Just to be here is unbelievable,” he said after Frost was done talking about the class. “Just to be able to go to work every day and turn the key to my office is awesome. I’m forever in debt with Coach Frost. He believed in me, hired me at UCF and obviously bringing me up here. There’s not going to be a day I’m not going to go to work for that guy and this program and our fans and everybody and all of our coaches to get this program where it needs to be.”
Held, a Kansas City, Missouri, native, came to the Huskers as a walk-on in 1994 after an all-state season as a receiver at Blue Valley North High in Kansas. He played sparingly in his career — as a reserve quarterback in one game in 1995, four games as a receiver as a sophomore and some special teams — but was part of three titles. The last, with Frost in the 1997 season, came as an undergraduate assistant coach after Held decided to finish his playing career.
So there’s a foundation for the motivation. He’s back at his alma mater, much like several others on Frost’s staff.
Each took a different route from the time he left Lincoln to the time he returned. Held’s took him to the Division II and junior college ranks, to a lot of really small dots on the map.
Peru State for a year in 2001 before Oklahoma Panhandle State and Southwestern Oklahoma State through 2008. Then he went back to the high school level before getting to Butler Community College as an offensive coordinator in 2011, Highland Community College for 2012-13 and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M for two more years before Frost hired him to UCF.
It sounds like one of his harebrained recruiting cycles. It’s actually a grueling stretch of years of long bus rides, low pay and lack of high-end amenities that chews up and spits out a lot of young coaches.
It fortified Held, who wears a black bracelet that says, “The struggle made me. JUCO product.”
“I’ll always wear this because I feel for those guys,” he said. “Because I’ve seen kids that don’t get to eat. They eat ramen noodles. I’ve seen 10 kids in an apartment in California, having to get on a bus for an hour just to go to school. I have probably a soft heart for those guys and obviously having coached them.
“A lot of those kids just go through a lot.”
He knows that not every junior college kid can cut it in the Big Ten. He knows the pitfalls. He said himself that the five juco transfers NU took this cycle will likely be higher than normal, pegging his vision at one to three per year depending on need.
Held has the longest tenure at that level, but several Husker coaches have juco experience, and Held thinks that will enable a high batting average.
“We have to do a great job of finding the kids that fit our culture and represent our university the way it needs to be,” Held said. “Just like high school kids. But if we do it right and doing our background checks on guys that we can get the right kids in here.”
Now that NU has the first crop of running back recruits on board and a group of four scholarship players returning, Held has his first crack at coaching for his alma mater.
He clearly likes the potential of Arizona Western transfer Greg Bell and incoming freshman Maurice Washington. Add the experience of Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon, the potential healthy return of Tre Bryant and the skill set of Jaylin Bradley, and it’s a position group that has potential.
It’s a room that needs to produce at this school, as Held well knows, even though he sat in the receivers room during his playing days.
This is a brand-name job. Another driving factor.
“I feel very honored … to be able to coach the running backs at Nebraska,” he said. “I mean, that’s a special deal when you’ve got Coach (Frank) Solich that was here for many years and all the great players that have been here. I take this very seriously.
“We’ve got to be able to get it back to where it’s Running Back U year in and year out.”