Photo by Aaron Babcock
Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: The Talent Trap

November 1, 2017
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Nebraska lost the highest rated player in its recruiting class on Halloween night. Not only was Brendan Radley-Hiles‍ a singular talent, he was a singular personality. People loved him. And he seemed to love to Nebraska back, but in a way that felt almost impossibly genuine in a part of the game where almost nothing seems real. But it wasn't impossible. Radley-Hiles proved the point.

His decommitment didn’t come as a surprise to most fans. Given how the Huskers’ 2017 season has gone to this point, most of the hardcore recruiting followers aren’t taking anything for granted with this class at this point. For much of the summer it was ranked in the top 10 nationally. That was back when Nebraska could sell what it was building in Lincoln, it could sell the year-one to year-two improvement, the new defense, the new quarterback, the right fit.

It’s harder to make that pitch now, and it’s almost expected that recruiting will slide as well. But even if it’s expected, defections in recruiting have the potential to be more damaging to Mike Riley’s tenure than his 19-15 record so far. That’s because with the lack of tangible results on the field, football fans, no matter where they’re at or which team they follow, naturally turn to the secondary game their teams can win — recruiting.

Talent can be a lifeline or it can be a tripwire. If a coach doesn’t win enough with the talent he has, he’s done. If a new coach wins a bunch early, his results will be discounted a little bit. “He won with [Previous Coach X]’s players,” people will always say.

But for new coaches who maybe haven’t had immediate results at their new jobs, recruiting gains can be what keeps them afloat. "Let him get his players in here," fans say then. That’s Nebraska right now. It seems as though plenty of people have already seen enough of this current era to make their minds up on the future of the program, but for those that haven’t recruiting almost has to be the reason for patience with this current staff. That or a bedrock belief that “three years isn’t enough time” for anyone. What other evidence is there?

That’s what makes any defections in the Huskers’ current class perhaps more damaging than any losses that have come to this point or any that might come over the remaining four games. It was the only thing that was going right for the Huskers, and if that’s gone what do you got? More than the games themselves, the one thing Riley and company couldn’t lose at this point in their tenure was the recruiting class full of guys Nebraska doesn’t always get. 

If you want to argue it shouldn’t be this way, I’m with you. But it is this way. Recruiting was the game Nebraska hadn’t lost yet. Radley-Hiles is just one player, of course, but he was the face of this class, the guy who had already sold some of his peers on the chance to build something in Lincoln.

Not long after he committed at Nebraska’s spring game, Radley-Hiles explained his pitch to fellow recruits considering the Huskers. He said he told them, “This place is special and if you want to change college football, come here.”

A lot has changed at Nebraska in the seven months since. It has been apparent for weeks that, with the way 2017 had gone, Riley was falling into the talent trap. He didn’t have enough to win now, but more was on the way.

The problem is there’s only one way out of that particular trap, and that path got a whole lot rockier last night.

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