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Garrett Nelson almost found a way to get himself kicked out of Broncos Stadium the first time he ever visited the place.

The Scottsbluff native and Nebraska football verbal commit made the trek to Denver recently to watch future teammates quarterback Luke McCaffrey (Valor Christian) and offensive lineman Michael Lynn (Cherry Creek) square off in the Colorado Class 5A state championship game on Dec. 1.

Nelson had just come off a championship game loss of his own, a 48-27 decision against Omaha Skutt 11 days earlier, and thought, what the heck, what better opportunity to see a couple of future Huskers compete?

So here he is, in a suite with McCaffrey’s mom, Lisa, and others. Suites at NFL stadiums are great, of course, with food and drink and warmth and big screens and all the rest. But it wasn’t going to work for the 6-foot-3, 235-pound outside linebacker with the bleach blond mullet.

“I was like, ‘This isn’t how you watch a football game,’” he said. “I was going to hop out of the window right into the stands and everybody was yelling at me, ‘If you do that, you’re going to get kicked out.’”

He found a more conventional route out into a rather chilly afternoon in the mountains. Then he made friends.

“I actually joined the Valor student section,” Nelson said proudly. “I just walked in there and was like, ‘All right, I’m Garrett.’ And everyone was like, ‘Hey, Garrett!’ And we all just watched the game. It was just being in the stands and in the weather and experiencing all the noises of the game. That’s just how you watch football.”

Nelson might have been the new guy among McCaffrey’s schoolmates, but he’s the old guard when it comes NU's 2019 class. He gave his pledge in June 2017, more than five months before Scott Frost ever set foot in Lincoln as the head coach. As such, he’s had a front-row seat — and a big role — as the class has grown from just him to what projects as a top-20 group nationally when National Signing Day arrives Wednesday. 

He’s certainly impressed McCaffrey.

“Just to see him make it out to one of my high school games is something special,” the quarterback said. “That’s something you never see in high school recruiting and sports. It’s a tribute to the bond that we’ve built as a class so far and what we want to build for the future.”

Five for Five

When Nelson first committed, he likely didn’t know who Luke McCaffrey or Michael Lynn were. He didn’t know Georgia’s Myles Farmer or Arizona’s Javin Wright or Kentucky’s Wandale Robinson, either.

But even closer to home, it was far from certain what would happen with his fellow state of Nebraska standouts.

York’s Garrett Snodgrass jumped on board in November 2017, then Norfolk Catholic’s Ethan Piper committed in March. Three class members, three in-state guys.

Several others joined, but none from Nebraska until Omaha Burke’s Nick Henrich picked the Huskers over Wisconsin, Iowa, Notre Dame and many others in late July. The Huskers completed the in-state sweep in September with tight end Chris Hickman, their 17th verbal pledge at the time. 

That group of five is the largest in-state scholarship class in a decade for the Huskers. Odds are good that NU’s 2019 class will feature more scholarship players from its own state than any other. Georgia is next with four — and a few Peach State targets are still in play — then the Colorado pair. The class, as of Saturday, features a combined zero from nearly 200 offers in California, Florida and Texas.

Bedrock

The Nebraska five are from different parts of the state. They have different personalities. Some of them grew up Husker diehards, some didn’t.

Whereas Nelson and Snodgrass never wavered after Mike Riley was fired, Henrich said the day he committed, “No disrespect to the old Nebraska staff, but I really don’t think I would have gone there if they were still there.” His parents are from Iowa and he could have gone anywhere. Hickman was born in Texas, didn’t grow up a Husker fan and had several faraway offers to his own name.

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But here they are now, all five of them coming to Lincoln, bedrock for what is essentially Scott Frost’s first full recruiting class.

"The in-state guys are kind of (unofficial) leaders,” Lynn said this week. “They talk to all of us about what it's like and how much it means to them, because it's more than just the community. It's the culture up there. That's something we don't really get down here in Colorado. That red 'N' runs through their blood."

Among the big-name additions like Robinson and the National Signing Day potential of landing a player like four-star defensive end Ty Robinson (Gilbert, Arizona), it would be easy to take for granted that NU hit on all five in-state scholarship offers.

One year ago, though, this was no sure bet, even if now it seems like the most natural friendship.

“It’s hard to explain. We all have really similar goals and values,” Henrich said. “The more time we spend around each other, especially after our official visit, we’re all like the same people. We’re all so close, it’s amazing. It’s like we’ve known each other for 10 years.”

Said Snodgrass, “We’re all team-oriented guys. We don’t worry about ourselves and we’re all concerned with how each other’s doing and stuff. We’re all excited to make each other better and to get to Lincoln.”

Ample credit goes to Frost and in-state recruiting lead Barrett Ruud, who essentially spent last January camped at Burke to make sure Henrich and Hickman knew how much NU wanted them.

Credit, too, is due to the quintet themselves. Everybody in the class communicates via a big group message, and that could have become, you know, a little uncomfortable when the Huskers started the season 0-6.

Henrich sensed that his role, like Nelson and Snodgrass and Piper and Hickman, was to provide steadiness.

“Really just being the rock-solid guys, like, ‘Hey, nothing’s going to sway our opinions,'" Henrich said. "When things weren’t going to well, we all just came together even more. We’re like, ‘We’re sticking through whatever happens. We believe in these coaches and this program and we know we’ll get it done.’”

‘We’re Nebraskans’

Nelson has a crowd around him again. It’s a sunny December morning in Omaha and dozens of the best high school football players in the state have gathered to take photos for postseason awards.

Nelson’s chatting with players from Omaha and Lincoln and Kearney and just about everywhere else when Henrich and Hickman announce their arrival by running down a small, snowy hill and jumping on their future teammate.

They attended high school 450 miles apart and their decisions to attend NU spanned nearly 15 months, but it resembled something like a family reunion.

They were united only briefly that day, but the next phase is coming fast. On Wednesday, they’ll sign their national letters of intent and on Jan. 7, the trio will all start classes and winter conditioning as Huskers. Snodgrass and Piper will follow them to campus in May.

“We’re Nebraskans,” Piper said with a shrug, looking toward his future teammates. “The best people on the planet. It’s just crazy. We came from different backgrounds and different parts of the state, but we do fit pretty well together.”

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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