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Nebraska Football Recruiting

Hot Reads: Where Have the Huskers Recruited the Best on Defense?

February 4, 2020
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The four defensive backs with the highest rating in Nebraska's 2010 class were Corey Cooper, Harvey Jackson, Ciante Evans and Josh Mitchell. This was important.

Bo Pelini's first three recruiting classes in Lincoln had stocked the Huskers’ secondary with Larry Asante, Prince Amukamara, Eric Hagg, Alfonzo Dennard and Dejon Gomes. That collection of talent combined to form a long, versatile and lethal group that, when paired with a blockbuster defensive line, produced one of the two or three best defenses in school history.

The 2010 signees would have a year to learn the ropes, but then would have some pretty big shoes to fill. They didn't do too bad. Cooper was a two-year starter, captain and honorable mention All-Big Ten pick. Mitchell had similar results. Evans played as a true freshman, starting 32 games during his career and earning first-team all-conference honors. Jackson didn't have quite the same success, though he played in 35 games for the Huskers before transferring to BYU.

Nebraska, as a whole, wasn't able to deliver on the promise of that 2009 seasons, but it wasn't because a singular group of defensive backs couldn't be replaced. A look at the Huskers' recruiting over the past decade shows that recruiting defensive backs has been what Nebraska does best.

On Monday, I took a look at which offensive position group the Huskers have recruited the best based on those groups' average rating from 247Sports for the past 10 classes (2010–19). Today it's the defense, where I just revealed the winner.

But here's the complete set of data, in order by average rating along with where that group ranked among all positions in the Big Ten and where it ranks by position.

POSITION AVG. RATING AVG. STARS B1G RANK B1G POS. RANK
DB .8686 3.22 29th 4th
LB .8681 3.30 30th 4th
DL .8537 3.00 47th 5th

Some thoughts . . .

>>I wasn't surprised that Nebraska did its best with defensive backs. I would've been more surprised  if it had been one of the other position groups, and that's a bit strange for this conference. Maybe it's a vestigial tail, of sorts, of life in the Big 12, maybe just a reflection of how the Huskers have to recruit nationally, but it is unique.

The only other Big Ten team to have DBs as its highest-rated group over the past decade was Michigan State. (Sends me back to some of those wild Husker-Spartan battles of the Pelini years.)

>>Knowing that Nebraska has had some success recruiting defensive backs opens up some interesting strategy and scheme discussions, I think, but that's outside the scope of this post. We'll get to it eventually, but for now just know that the big debate in recent years in the NFL has been whether pass rush or coverage matters more to a defense's overall success. It seems like the defensive backs are winning that debate.

>>While defensive backs took the title for Nebraska, linebackers weren't far behind. This is a little bit like quarterback on the offensive side in that linebackers tend to have higher ratings. Maybe that's because they're so involved in every play, run or pass, and thus more noticeable when watching high school film. I don't know. That's just a theory.

But, there was just a sliver between Nebraska's average rating for defensive backs and linebackers and only one spot in the all-position rankings in the Big Ten. Scott Frost and staff have contributed to that in just two recruiting classes. Nebraska's current staff has upgraded its recruiting at that spot, which puts the Huskers more in line with the rest of the league. Half of the Big Ten recruits linebackers better than any other defensive position.

>>So, we know two Big Ten teams have recruited defensive backs the best and seven have linebackers atop the list. That leaves five teams that have landed the most talent, on average, on the defensive line.

And it's a strange group. Iowa is one of those teams and one you'd probably expect. If you pay close attention to the Big Ten, it may not be that big of a shock to see Northwestern and Illinois in that group. Purdue and Rutgers? I would've guessed linebacker, the default answer, by default for those two.

This is Nebraska's lowest-rated defensive group, and I expected it to be. Not because the Husker d-lines over that stretch stand out as particularly below average, it's just that defensive line recruiting is hard. It's competitive and particularly so when, like Nebraska, you're often looking at trying to lure in-demand players from many states away. That's tough to do. It's why I've been convinced for a while now that defensive line is almost always going to be a developmental position at Nebraska. Landing a Suh-like player from one of the coasts is unique. More common through Husker history? Giving local players the time to grow into all-conference and NFL-caliber players.

>>Mentioned this yesterday, but there seems to be a tiny amount of offensive bias in these ratings. Over the past 10 classes, the average offensive player in the Big Ten has received a rating of .8582, the average defensive player .8500. That's not a huge difference, of course, but it helps explain why no Big Ten team had a defensive group top its combined recruiting list.

I suspect this is just a matter of offense being a little more cut-and-dried and thus easier to evaluate. A quarterback is a quarterback most of the time. Offensive linemen are almost always offensive linemen in college, too.

Defense is murkier. High school defensive ends become outside linebackers, outside linebackers become safeties, safeties become linebackers and so on. I've never gone about rating prospects to any serious degree, but it seems like you'd be working with additional information when looking at offensive players. Namely, skill. It's easier to evaluate not just athleticism but football ability when you know what the guy will likely be doing at the next level.

Beyond tackling, that's tougher to do for defensive prospects.

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