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The Earlier They Commit, the Less Likely They Leave: A Look at Nebraska Football and Attrition

February 03, 2021

For a second consecutive cycle, Nebraska is going to spend the February signing day mostly on the sidelines.

That’s OK. It may even be for the best.

Nebraska did land 4-star linebacker Wynden Ho’ohuli on Jan. 2, and he officially joins the class today, but that had more to do with his preferred commitment date. He wasn’t a late add, but a player the staff had recruited throughout.

The Huskers would’ve liked to land Avante Dickerson, of course. Nebraska reportedly made up a lot of ground with the 4-star Omaha Westside defensive back after he didn’t sign with Minnesota in December, but with a green light from Oregon to sign, Dickerson chose the Ducks on what used to be one of the biggest days on the college football calendar.

In an early-signing era, most of these decisions are handled in December. Nebraska, like most teams now, has basically had its classes locked up then. January becomes a time to check out what’s still available, maybe take a swing at a player who wavered enough in a prior commitment not to sign early (similar to the Dickerson scenario).

That all makes sense, though an ever-growing transfer portal may be becoming the preferred route for schools with scholarships to spend in January. Nebraska added two players––wide receiver Samari Touré and running back Markese Stepp––that way last month, and it will have two in reserve for any players that might fit going forward. That’s valuable, of course, but there’s probably a secondary benefit here—the Huskers’ rate of keeping players goes down the closer to signing day that player commits.

Because Nebraska’s attrition rate continues to be a challenge, I tend to view most recruiting-related things through that lens. From our ongoing 2021 attrition tracker:

This information is somewhat tough to track on a broad scale without touching every piece of data, but an analysis by Hail Varsity at the end of the 2015 season found that the average attrition rate in the division was 25% over the previous four recruiting classes in the Big Ten West (2011–14). The five Power 5 conference champions in 2016––Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Stanford––had a total attrition rate of 21% over the previous four classes. None of those schools was over 35%.

Nebraska’s total attrition rate since 2000 for scholarship signees is 39.9% (that doesn’t include players who left early for the NFL Draft). Over the last 10 classes (2011–20), a group that includes every player signed to play in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s attrition rate is exactly 40%. The number is pretty constant year to year—for every 10 players the Huskers sign in a class, four won’t finish their careers at Nebraska.

Why? I think there are some pretty evident reasons, and some that are less so. I’m trying to work through those theories for a magazine feature coming up in March, but for today—Traditional Signing Day, or whatever we call it now—I wanted to look quickly at length of time committed as it relates to attrition.

The chart below breaking those numbers down looked a lot like I expected it to look. The highest attrition rate over the past 10 classes was among those recruits who committed the latest and it gradually decreased from there with one exception.

The sharp decrease you see there for players committing in the 91–150 days out range—which would be late summer to in-season for the traditional February date—is probably due to sample size. Even though we’re working with 10 recruiting classes here and more than 200 signees overall, when you break these out into individual groups some of them get pretty small. Factoring that in, you can still get a good idea of the general trend here.

The sample size is largest for what I’ll call late adds, those that committed within 30 days of whenever they signed (February or December for those in the 2018 class or later), which is half the window of time measured at other intervals. Since 2011, 37% of the players to sign with Nebraska were in that group. It includes some big on-field wins like Ameer Abdullah, Maliek Collins and Chris Jones, none of whom were ranked among the top 400 players by 247Sports. That group also includes late “recruiting wins” like Tyjon Lindsey (50th overall), Wan’Dale Robinson (87th) and Keyshawn Greene (132nd) all of whom came to Lincoln then chose to play elsewhere.

You’ll get a mixed bag of hits and misses no matter which group you look at, so the value here isn’t so much that but the bigger picture. If the chance of any Husker signee finishing his career at Nebraska is 60%, based on the past decade, it’s down to nearly a coin flip if that signee committed in the month before signing day. Get a player in the boat nine months or more in advance, and you’d set the odds at better than 75% of keeping the player.

The latter is easier said than done. Every coach in the country would love to lock kids in nine months out. It’s not all that practical, though allowing official visits in the spring should help Nebraska.

Y’know, when we’re able to do that again, which highlights a potentially big challenge facing the Huskers as they turn the page to 2022 recruiting. The current dead period runs through April and it’s not a given that things open up after that.

Getting players on campus is key part of the Huskers’ sales pitch, but that hasn’t been able to happen for 11 months now. Nebraska is one of four Big Ten schools right now—alongside Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern—without a 2022 commit. Ohio State has 10. Maryland, coming off a top-25 2021 class, has five.

We’re 315 days out from early signing next December and now at least we have an idea what that means at Nebraska.

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