While the recruiting calendar says it’s the dead period, meaning coaches are prohibited from having face-to-face contact with recruits, it isn’t stopping Nebraska’s retooled coaching staff from making the rounds to see the high school coaches in the state.
Like they did last week at an annual high school coaches clinic in Omaha, Scott Frost and nearly his entire coaching staff were in attendance for the Lincoln Football Coaches Association clinic on Wednesday night. Mark Waller, the president of the LFCA, said it was the first time the bulk of the Husker coaching staff attended the event.
It was a great night all around.
“That sent a great message to the high school coaches that Scott and the staff really want to build those relationships with the high school coaches in the state,” said Waller, who’s been the president of the LFCA since 2015. “So it was really fun and it was a great turnout, we had standing-room only. It was really nice of coach Frost and the staff to come out and attend. They were there the whole night—we had some pizzas and beverages and just talked and built relationships. We really appreciate those guys coming out.”
Among those in attendance was Ryan Gottula, head coach of Lincoln Southeast, a program that’s sent its share of players to Nebraska. Gottula’s son, Gunnar Gottula, is a verbal pledge to the Huskers’ 2023 class and is a 6-foot-6, 250-pound three-star offensive lineman according to the 247Sports Composite.
Ryan Gottula enjoyed the night and was just happy everyone was able to get together again—without COVID restrictions.
“It was nice to be back in a normal setting,” he said. “I thought it was awesome, most of their staff was able to attend, not only the coaches but some members of the extended football staff as well. It was great to see them be there.”
Every member of the Husker staff was in attendance except for tight ends coach Sean Beckton, who was under the weather and didn’t make the trip. Others like Matt Davison, Nebraska’s Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Engagement, and a couple staffers from the recruiting office showed, too. As did new quality control coach DJ Vokolek, the father of current Nebraska tight end Travis Vokolek.
DJ Vokolek was one of two off-field hires made by Frost in February, the other being Vince Guinta, Nebraska’s new senior director of player personnel and recruiting. Guinta comes to Nebraska after spending the last two seasons as Baylor’s associate athletic director for personnel under Dave Aranda. This is Guinta’s second stint in Lincoln as he held multiple roles in the recruiting department from 2004-08 under Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini.
DJ Vokolek, who played his college ball at Nebraska-Kearney, was previously an associate head coach at Northern Iowa, which has recently produced two current Husker players in linebacker Chris Kolarevic and defensive back Omar Brown, the 2019 FCS Freshman of the Year.
“Coach Frost got up and gave a little talk, then introduced the new staff that he’s hired,” Waller said.
The clinic had one session each devoted to offense and defense. The high school coaches got a chance to see and hear first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple for the first time in person. The veteran coach of 40-plus years dove into his time at Pittsburgh and showed the room film cutups of passing concepts he likes to use.
“We really enjoyed coach Whipple’s talk. He kind of gave a background of his coaching career, he started out at a Division III school, moved to Division II and then Division I,” Waller said. “Then he gave some of the background on some of the quarterbacks he’s coached and worked with in the NFL, he talked about Ben Roethlisberger and some of those guys.”
Ryan Gottula enjoyed the presentation from Whipple as well. He had met the Huskers’ first-year play caller when Gunnar went to a Nebraska Junior Day event.
“I thought another nice thing was, they talked about if coaches had interest learning more, how open they were to having coaches be able to come down at a later time in the spring and either observe or spend some more time with them,” Ryan Gottula said. “I thought that was great, especially for younger coaches.”
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander also gave a presentation. Chinander’s 2021 defense was the best since he got to Nebraska in 2018.
“We really enjoyed coach Chinander’s talk. He talked about practice organization from a defensive standpoint, in terms of all their breakdowns, their team periods and stuff like that they do during the week,” Waller said. “Then he talked about game-planning. They (Whipple and Chinander) were both very informative and very good.”
Ryan Gottula was impressed with how detailed Chinander’s presentation was. The coordinator explained how he goes about preparing for opponents.
“The weekly practice organization part, and really breaking it down, day to day, and what they do as a staff to put together a game plan,” Ryan Gottula said, “and then kind of focus in on exactly what they wanted to do for that particular week. I thought it was really detailed and he did a nice job of presenting that.”
Though new offensive line coach Donovan Raiola didn’t present at the clinic, Ryan Gottula has been impressed with the Huskers’ new hire. Raiola made a stop at Southeast during the recruiting period in January, and the Gottulas met with him again at Nebraska’s Junior Day as well.
“He’s a fantastic guy,” Ryan Gottula said of Raiola. “It was interesting hearing his perspective from being at some other stops and other programs at the collegiate level, but also with the Bears in the NFL as well. There’s been great interactions.”
Lately there’s been a perception that Nebraska’s coaches need to do a better job of recruiting in-state talent, especially in the Omaha metro area. It’s never going to be as simple as offering a talented local kid and getting a signed letter of intent. Each recruit is different with unique wants, needs and priorities. Nebraska hasn’t been winning games, either, and Frost is heading into a make-or-break 2022 season. It’s also a whole new ballgame now that name, image and likeness opportunities are available.
According to the 247Sports Composite, there were two four-star prospects in the state in the 2021 class, but Nebraska didn’t sign either of them. Omaha Westside defensive back Avante Dickerson picked Oregon while Bellevue West receiver Keagan Johnson went to rival Iowa. The Huskers did snag Elkhorn South’s Teddy Prochazka, who, before his season-ending injury against Michigan, was impressing as a true freshman offensive tackle in the Big Ten. The 2021 class also produced tight ends James Carnie of Norris and AJ Rollins of Creighton Prep, Westside safety Koby Bretz and Kearney Catholic quarterback Heinrich Haarberg.
The top four recruits in the 2022 class also went elsewhere, including Omaha Burke’s Devon Jackson (Oregon), Omaha Central offensive lineman DeShawn Woods (originally a Missouri commit before signing with Wyoming) and Bellevue West tight ends Kaden Helms (Oklahoma) and Micah Riley-Ducker (Auburn). Nebraska did wind up convincing Millard South’s Gage Stenger, one of the state’s dynamic athletes, to flip from Kansas State to Big Red. Columbus’ linebacker Ernest Hausmann and Southeast linebacker Jake Appleget signed with Nebraska as well.
Getting out to see and talk with the state’s high school coaches will help in this area. It could play a factor in the 2023 class, which is shaping up to be a good one. Nebraska, which has assistants Mickey Joseph and Barrett Ruud recruiting the state, already has verbal commitments from a pair of in-state recruits in the aforementioned Gunnar Gottula and Pierce tight end/receiver Ben Brahmer. It also has offers out to four-star Lincoln East athlete Malachi Coleman and three-star prospects Maverick Noonan, an edge rusher from Elkhorn South, and Sam Sledge, a lineman from Creighton Prep.
The 6-5 Coleman has seen his recruitment pick up since the fall and has offers from the Huskers, Minnesota, Kansas and Kansas State. The 6-4, 225-pound Noonan and the 6-4, 270-pound Sledge are both sons of former Huskers and have multiple Power Five offers. There’s also Zane Flores, the Gretna quarterback who has recently been offered by two Big 12 programs, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
“It sends a message that they really do care about those relationships with all the high school coaches in Nebraska,” Waller said. “It’s been tough with COVID, they just haven’t been able to go out and get in the schools like they normally do, so they want to get out there. We have some good players I believe in this 2023 class, and hopefully we can land some of those kids.”
The fact that it was a packed house sends another clear message, too.
“That’s the largest turnout of high school coaches that we’ve had at our clinic now in eight years. That was great to see,” Waller said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of support for Scott and his coaching staff.”