They Said It: Illinois-Nebraska
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Huskers Medal on Signing Day, Search for ‘Gold’ Starts Anew

February 02, 2017

There are no real losers on signing day. Sure, kids flip and classes shrink, but barring a total catastrophe the dominant feeling remains one of hope. Nobody loses in recruiting in real time, only in retrospect.

With that in mind, how should we assess the Huskers’ 2017 class? Let’s go with the most objective data we have — recruiting rankings. They are not perfect predictive measures — they’re not really designed to be — but they’re pretty good, and those all show that Mike Riley’s third class at Nebraska was another step forward.

Per ESPN, the Huskers’ class ranked 21st nationally, fifth in the Big Ten and first in the division with some slight moving and shaking still to do. While that is pretty familiar territory for the Huskers, that ranking is the best of Riley’s tenure at Nebraska and the Huskers’ best at ESPN since 2013.

“This is a really good class that, whatever you look at, is in the high-teens, early 20s,” Riley said. “I want to do better next year so we’re on our way to start to do that right away.”

Another way to try to understand the uncertain world of recruiting and rankings — the better way in my mind — is to look at the number of top-line prospects, the 4- and 5-stars, relative to class size. That “blue-chip percentage” gives you some guidelines as to what’s actually winning right now and, using Scout’s player rankings so we can go back a ways, the average Power 5 conference champion since 2008 had a 4-year blue-chip percentage of just over 35 percent.

Nebraska’s 2017 class, per Scout, had a blue-chip percentage of 45 percent, the Huskers’ best since 2011. Our rankings have a couple of players a little lower, so the blue-chip percentage is just 30 percent. Three of those “blue chips” are receivers and there’s one each at quarterback, linebacker and cornerback. Even if you use the lower percentage, it represents a step closer to championship-level recruiting. Now the Huskers just need to take another slight step forward and do it for three or four years in a row.

That’s a competitive roster. That’s also the grueling and daily challenge of recruiting. It never ends. There’s always more to do, but if Nebraska maintains its current trajectory it could get there given enough time.

So how do the Huskers climb higher in the rankings? ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill made an interesting point during the network’s day-long coverage. Luginbill said, paraphrasing here, that highly-rated receivers are a dime a dozen. You can get them anywhere. What sets the best recruiting classes apart is defensive linemen.

You won’t find many coaches or analysts who dispute that, including Riley. He cited the scarcity of defensive linemen as part of reason Nebraska will line up in a 3-4 next season. He, too, cited it as a key spot in recruiting while throwing in a few others.

“Linemen and cornerbacks are gold,” Riley said. “Next year you’ll find a long list of defensive backs on signing day.”

Yes, Nebraska’s going to be in that particular fight again next year. The Huskers were without a defensive back commit in the class until Elijah Blades, formerly a Florida commit and in my opinion perhaps the best player in the class, picked Nebraska on Wednesday afternoon. Three of the Huskers’ four starters in the secondary last season are seniors in 2017, so, yeah, there will be work to do and it’s always competitive on the recruiting trail for defensive backs.

Blades’ late commitment also saved the Huskers from going 0-for-the-afternoon with high-profile California kids. One-time Oregon State commit, then Nebraska commit Jamire Calvin, a wide receiver, ultimately settled on Washington State. Wide receiver Joseph Lewis (USC), athlete Greg Johnson (USC) and defensive back Deommodore Lenoir (Oregon) all had the Huskers in their final three and all opted to stay in the Pac-12. In perhaps the biggest surprise, defensive back Michael Onyemaobi, another Californian, opted for TCU.

But the Huskers in 2017 were in the conversation for better players longer than they were in 2016. The next step, of course, is obvious — be the conversation ender a few more times.

This class, however, offers plenty to like on its own. Wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey might be my favorite on the offensive side of the ball, which won’t be an uncommon opinion headed into next season.

“We are really excited to have him,” Lindsey said. “I like the guy. You’ll like his demeanor. He’s confident, not cocky. He’s really good, he’s dynamic, he loves football.

“For what we have done in our past offensively, he checks off a lot of boxes now. They guy can do a lot of stuff.”

The defensive-line class seems to have a high probability to be underrated when it’s all said and done, such is defensive line coach John Parrella’s eye for talent. The Huskers’ quarterback, Tristan Gebbia, put up insane stats in high school. So insane that I’m starting to think he’ll be more of a factor in Nebraska’s spring quarterback derby than most think at this point. The offensive line, all 6-foot-5 or better, is big on brawn. The tight ends — Austin Allen (6-8) and Kurt Rafdal (6-7) — are towering. The running back is a local legend who wanted a Nebraska offer and who Husker fans wanted at Nebraska.

This is how signing day goes. There’s a brief window there where it can just be about the guys a team got rather than the guys it didn’t.

But it is brief. Riley showed up Wednesday afternoon to talk about his 2017 class but still brought up the next recruiting cycle multiple times. So it goes in recruiting — always more to do, always improvements to be made.

And on that note, the 2018 class is off to a strong start. It’s only a three-person class at this point but it’s blue-chip percentage is 66.7 percent.

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