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Wilhite feels at home with Huskers
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Wilhite feels at home with Huskers

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This was a couple of years back. Kenny Wilhite was flipping through a photo album, viewing pictures and old articles from his days as a Husker.

As he did so, Wilhite recalled how much he liked living in Lincoln and how it would be the ideal place to raise a family.

The former Nebraska defensive back was already coaching, in the midst of a six-year stint at Southeast Missouri State. But when a door was opened by former Husker staffer Jeff Jamrog to work with Nebraska recruiting, the reaction was basically, When can I start?

St. Louis is the original home of Wilhite, who this week was named Nebraska football's director of high school relations. But Lincoln feels like it now. Call it the pull of the Big Red family.

"Being here these last two years, I've turned down coaching opportunities, to stay here, because I owe this place," Wilhite said Thursday. "This place took a chance on an inner-city kid from St. Louis and offered me a scholarship and chance to get an education. This is home for me. This is where I want to be as long as I'm wanted here."

Wilhite adds something to that thought, something no doubt a beautiful melody to Husker fans who understand the importance of his new job to Nebraska football:

"I'm hitting this thing head-on. I'm hitting the ground running, because I want to get it back to where it was."

Wilhite just gained the new job title Monday. About that, he's quick to say this "is a joint effort" that is not just about him.

While both modest and accurate, Wilhite's new title means he has a leading role in identifying in-state talent. Also serving as a liaison to pro scouts, his mission to put the Huskers on the right trail to potential walk-on and scholarship recipients in the state will draw the most attention from fans and media.

Having played under Tom Osborne back when the program sometimes had up to 175 kids because of walk-ons, Wilhite is very much appreciative of what in-state kids bring to Husker football.

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"There's talent in the state of Nebraska," he said. "You just have to comb through it. You have to be very, very, very diligent in what you're looking for. Not every high school player is going to come college-ready.

"You may have to take a chance on a kid that may be a step slower, may not weigh as much as you want him to weigh. You've got to be willing to do that and get a kid on campus and develop him, get him in the weight room. There's a weight room for a reason."

Wilhite took the new position after Chris Brasfield was elevated to be associate athletic director for student-athlete recruitment and experience.

It's not a major leap for Wilhite. He's been working with Husker recruiting since 2014, impressing Mike Riley so much during the coaching transition that he was kept on staff, then named the associate director of player personnel last March.

His new role in many ways seems to fit him to a T. Not only does Wilhite, an All-Big Eight defensive back in 1991, know from up-close experience about the impact of the rich Husker walk-on tradition. His experience coaching at the FCS level gives him a strong understanding of challenges NU faces as in-state talent considers scholarship offers from those schools in the Dakotas and nearby.

As a former FCS coach himself, Wilhite remembers trying to "steal some of those kids that were offered walk-on spots by Division I schools." He also knows, as a parent, he'd consider it no small thing if the opportunity arose for a free education from an FCS school. "That's a big decision."

It's also true the Huskers can't take as many kids on the roster as they used to when he played. Last year there were about 120 players in the program. "So it's a little tougher. You've got to be a little more picky with the walk-on guys you bring … but you want to bring as much local talent as possible."

The pursuit of finding that local talent for the 2017 and 2018 classes is already underway. NU's staff took just two days off after Signing Day. Back at it this week.

Wilhite and crew aren't honing in on a specific part of the state. Talent can come from anywhere. Just like with four-star recruits, relationships must be built early.

It's a challenge Wilhite embraces. He's thankful he's been trusted to take part in it.

"Hard work has paid off. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working," he said. "It’s not about me. It’s never about Kenny Wilhite. This is about the University of Nebraska, this football program, the coaching staff, the players here now, and the players in the past that I played with and who came before me. That's what this is about."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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