To have sustained success in college football, you’ve got to recruit like a champion. Whether you’ve got a nationally-ranked class or you’re pulling up the rear in your own conference, every class has hits and misses that ultimately define it.
Who have been the biggest surprises – good and bad – in your favorite school’s recent classes? We continue our recruiting series with Nebraska, and we’ll keep looking at one a team a day. (Sunday is Michigan State.)
Related: Ohio State Class of ’14 Hits & Misses:
Related: Michigan Class of ’14 Hits & Misses
Related: Wisconsin Class of ’14 Hits & Misses
Nebraska’s 2014 recruiting class was Bo Pelini’s last in Lincoln. It ranked sixth in the Big Ten that year with two 4-star recruits and 22 3-star recruits, and checked it at only No. 36 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Those modest numbers bely the actual amount of talent that’s come out of that class though, especially along the offensive line, defensive line, secondary positions and placekicker.
There were no enormous misses that year either, which is always nice, and there have been very few defections with the coaching change to Mike Riley. This group of 2014 recruits will have a huge impact on the season ahead for the Huskers, who try to bounce back from a 6-7 season where many games went down to the wire.
Here are three recruits who have stood out so far, and three others who haven’t lived up to their modest 3-star hype just yet, but may be ready to:
Who has stood out
Nick Gates and Jerald Foster, offensive line: Gates and fellow offensive lineman Tanner Farmer were Nebraska’s only four-star recruits in 2014, according to 247Sports . Gates has lived up to the billing and much is expected of Farmer this year. Classmate Jerald Foster – who was a 4-star on a few recruiting services – starts at guard on the left side with Gates and they are a tough duo on the blind side.
Gates started 10 games at right tackle last year, earning Big Ten all-freshman team honors despite missing three games with a high ankle sprain. He is smoothly making the transition to the left side this year and the Las Vegas native is considered one of the best young linemen in the Big Ten. Farmer has a good chance to man the right guard position this year, a sure sign that the recruiting of linemen in 2014 was a big success.
Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones, cornerbacks: The Huskers struck gold with this pair of cornerbacks as well. They are penciled in as starters this year after getting plenty of playing time in 2015 and both could contend for conference honors.
Nebraska’s pass defense was awful last year, but these two learned a lot on the fly in their first exposure to big-time college football. A second year in Nebraska’s new defense will help with familiarity and blown assignments should be a thing of the past. Both guys have plenty of speed and have added weight and strength during the offseason. Those pass defense stats are sure to get better this year.
Drew Brown, placekicker: Brown, whose brother Kris was an All-America kicker at Nebraska, has been a starter since he set foot on campus and has had two solid years so far. He set a school freshman scoring record in 2014 with 101 points, making 14-of-21 field goals and all 59 point-after tries. Last year, he was a second-team all Big Ten selection and tied an NCAA record for field goals in a half with five against Southern Miss.
Brown’s 21 field goals last year were the second-most in a season in school history. Brown has scored 208 points in his first two seasons and has a shot at the school scoring record if he sticks around for two more years. Alex Henery, the Huskers’ kicker from 2007 through 2010, finished his career with a school-best 397 points.
Who didn’t live up to the hype (yet)
Peyton Newell, converted to defensive tackle: Newell came to Nebraska as a fairly-heralded 3-star recruit, picking the Huskers over 30 other schools. But he’s still yet to see the field, first redshirting and then switching positions a year ago from defensive end to defensive tackle.
Unlike others on these lists from other schools, Newell is nowhere near being labeled a bust just yet. After gaining 40 pounds and bulking up in the weight room – he’s up to 295 pounds now – he had a good spring and is expected to be a big contributor on the interior in 2016. Nebraska was good against the run last year, allowing only 109.8 yards per game, second in the Big Ten – Wisconsin was first – and ninth in the country. Newell should help keep those numbers low this year.
Zach Darlington, converted to wide receiver: Much like Newell, Darlington’s time in Lincoln has been unproductive on the field so far, but that may change in 2016 for him as well. Darlington was a Bo Pelini recruit out of Apopka, Fla., and he was projected to be the Cornhuskers’ quarterback of the future when he was recruited. But a bad concussion ended his senior year early.
Pelini honored his scholarship anyway even when there was doubt as to whether Darlington should continue playing football. He chose to give it a go, but redshirted as a freshman and was buried on Mike Riley’s depth chart last year. This spring he moved to wide receiver and dazzled coaches with his speed and pass-catching ability. That’s an area where he might help in 2016.
Mikale Wilbon, running back: Wilbon was the highest ranked offensive recruit in Nebraska’s 2014 class, but he hasn’t made a big imprint on Lincoln just yet. He played in only four games a year ago after redshirting and so far has posted just 35 yards rushing and 28 yards receiving.
The Chicago native may be ready to step up in 2016. The Nebraska backfield is crowded but he might be ready to be a big contributor. Coaches like his shiftiness as a runner and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, especially on third downs.