In the nearly three weeks since Nebraska’s season came to an abrupt end against Iowa on Black Friday, Husker head coach Scott Frost and his staff have been on a dead recruiting sprint.
As the calendar turned to December, Nebraska had 15 players verbally committed to the class, though the two most recent verbal pledges — linebackers Jamoi Hodge and Junior Aho — didn’t even end up in the class that signed Wednesday. Then NU piled up thousands and thousands of miles traveled and dozens of visits over the first 11 days of the month but had nothing to show for it in terms of actual public commitments.
Incoming freshman Logan Smothers clearly embraces the notion of heated competition, because he jumps into a loaded Nebraska quarterback room.
All along, though, the staff thought the class was going to fill fast. Not only did they think it would, but they needed it to. In the recruiting world, operating on hope and confidence can pay off, but what feels like a watertight hull can spring a leak and sink a ship quickly, too.
“It just kind of felt this year that a lot of kids we really were invested in and wanted in our program were making late decisions,” Frost said Wednesday. “I heard all the talk early (in the cycle) on about how we were behind, and we were behind.
“We kind of knew that, but we were kind of betting on ourselves in recruiting and had a lot of really good targets out there and luckily we were able to land quite a few of them.”
Nebraska landed nine of them in eight days, to be precise.
The group included five four-star prospects, perhaps NU’s top overall target in junior college wide receiver Omar Manning, a new contender for the fastest player on the roster in receiver Marcus Fleming, both of the class’ inside linebackers, two of the three outside linebackers, three of the four wide receivers on board so far and six defensive players overall.
Any way you slice it, it was a critical stretch and the Huskers cashed in.
“I think the thing that excited me the most was flying around the country for the last two weeks. Getting in homes with these guys and seeing what type of kids they are, what kind of personalities they have," Frost said. "The thing about them is they love football. They love the game. They’re excited. They want to be at Nebraska.
"I would walk out of almost every house and say we’ve got the chance to win a lot of games with kids like this coming to the program.”
Even so, the past two weeks have been like sprinting and juggling at the same time.
It’s hard to imagine that, sitting with half a class worth of spots open and a week to National Signing Day, the Huskers would be concerned about managing their numbers. Such was the case, though, especially as NU pulled off a couple of hard-fought battles in recent days for players like outside linebacker Jimari Butler and inside linebacker Keyshawn Greene, two players from the Southeast that many schools were after down the stretch.
"You’re nervous for all these guys until it’s done,” Frost said. “You kind of feel like a shepherd. You’re trying to keep the flock together and keep anybody from coming in and stealing one.”
Sometimes the process isn’t pretty. Hodge and Aho didn’t end up in the class. NU was in on four-star outside linebacker Kaden Johnson until the final days or hours before signing day, but never got a commitment across the finish line. They lost a toss-up battle for four-star defensive back Myles Slusher to Arkansas after many thought they entered the day as the favorite.
“We were making decisions on (space) clear up to last night and even this morning,” Frost said. “Trying to decide how many NLIs to send out, where to send them, trying to decide which kids were in and which were out and how many spots we might want to hold over to the late signing period and beyond.
“We’re making those decisions right up to really this morning and there was a lot of balls in the air, but I’m really happy with our recruiting staff and our coaching staff with how they came through in the end.”
That would have been almost unthinkable two weeks ago, before junior college linebacker Eteva Mauga-Clements kicked off an eight-day binge that included not only nine scholarship players but transfer offensive lineman Nouredin Nouili from Colorado State and a pair of walk-ons in Lincoln Southeast’s Isaac Gifford and Johnson-Brock’s Ty Hahn, all of whom turned down scholarship opportunities to come to NU.
Now Nebraska has 22 scholarship signees, 19 confirmed walk-ons and a class that ranks No. 17 nationally according to Rivals and No. 20 according to 247Sports.com. The plan maybe didn’t go exactly to script, but it rarely does in recruiting. Overall, Frost said the Huskers landed about where he thought they would as they head into the holidays with three spots remaining in the class, including one for four-star receiver Zavier Betts (Bellevue West).
“We kind of made a decision that in a perfect world we would still have a spot or two left going forward just to see what is available,” he said. “We didn’t know if we were going to get to that number for sure or not but, it looks like we are going to. So, there are still some targets out there for us and we will see where those land.”