Nebraska recruiting primer: Talent is coming; keeping it is the key
It has been a rocky season for the Nebraska football program and 3rd-year head coach Scott Frost.
The Huskers are starting young players at key positions on both offense and defense, so of course there will be lumps. With the Early Signing Period approaching, Frost’s 2021 recruiting class needs to have some hits — and hopefully more sustainability than last year’s.
There can’t be as many departures as there were in the 2020 class, where 5 of its members — all from the state of Florida — are no longer with the Huskers, including Ronald Delancy III (3-star corner), Marcus Fleming (4-star receiver), Jaiden Francois (4-star safety), Henry Gray (4-star safety) and Keyshawn Greene (4-star linebacker).
Frost is on record as saying the program needs to recruit the right players, not just the right athletes. It’s tough to pass judgment in this pandemic-impacted season, however. Frost touched on the topic recently:
“I think it’s affected our young players a little bit,” he said. “Getting on campus and seeing students everywhere, and being able to go out in Lincoln, and being able to see Memorial Stadium full — that’s certainly a benefit for us when we bring kids to Lincoln, and we haven’t been able to do that.”
As it sits, Nebraska has the 6th-best recruiting class in the B1G, with 3 4-stars and 16 3-stars, plus a transfer linebacker from Northern Iowa. The 2020, 2019 and 2018 classes all finished 4th. Frost has never had a problem getting talent to Lincoln. The Huskers’ issues have been developing the talent once it’s in Lincoln.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2021 class (all rankings via 247Sports):
By the numbers
- B1G rank: 6th
- National rank: 22nd
- 5-stars: 0
- 4-stars: 3
- 3-stars: 16
Top player: Thomas Fidone, tight end, 4-star
There’s no question about it — signing Fidone was a massive recruiting win for Frost and Nebraska.
Everyone wanted Fidone — that includes big hitters like Alabama, Florida and Georgia — and he picked the Huskers over Iowa, a program that has the better track record of using tight ends and putting them in the NFL.
Fidone has everything you want in a receiving tight end and fits quite well with what Frost wants to do on offense. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder was the 2nd-rated tight end in the nation and the 88th player overall. Before this season, Huskers tight ends hadn’t been utilized as much as fans — and the coaching staff — want. With Fidone in the fold, that needs to change.
This was also a big recruiting win because of where Fidone comes from. He’s from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and played at Lewis Central, a school that has had Division I talent recently, like TCU starting quarterback Max Duggan. It’s a great win in the 500-mile radius, which coaches like to talk about.
Class strength: Receiver
Nebraska’s strength of its 2021 class is the receivers. That’s a good thing, because that’s one of the areas on the field that needs the most help.
Along with Fidone, the Huskers are set to sign 3-star receiver Latrell Neville (Missouri City, Texas), tight end James Carnie (Firth, Neb.), receiver Shawn Hardy (Kingsland, Ga.) and tight end AJ Rollins (Omaha, Neb.).
The great thing that this class of pass catchers brings is length — they all have it, and it’s needed. Rollins is 6-6, while Fidone and Carnie are both 6-5. Neville and Hardy are both 6-3. The Huskers receivers are in dire need of big bodies. Omar Manning was supposed to help out in that area this season, but he hasn’t been able to see the field much.
Class weakness: Defensive back
The Huskers lost 2 safeties from the 2020 class to transfer in Gray and Francois. Depending on whether senior safeties Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams choose to use their extra year of eligibility, the safety position could be pretty thin (and currently sort of is).
This 2021 class has just 2 listed as defensive backs, and both are 3-stars in Koby Bretz of Omaha and Malik Williams of Buford, Ga. There are also 2 listed as athletes who might turn into safeties in 3-stars Kamonte Grimes and Marques Buford, but we won’t know that until they’re on campus.
Maybe you’d like to see another true safety join this group, but let’s not forget that the Huskers still have young talent at the position in redshirt freshmen Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates.
Behind those guys, though? There’s not much there. The coaches are high on a local product from Lincoln Southeast, walk-on Isaac Gifford, who’s the younger brother of the Dallas Cowboys’ Luke Gifford.
Rating the QB class
Kearney Catholic product Heinrich Haarberg is the lone quarterback recruit in this class.
The 3-star from central Nebraska is rated the 17th-best dual-threat quarterback in the nation and the 4th-best recruit overall in the state. He’s 6-5, 185 and had offers from Boston College, N.C. State, Vanderbilt and Wyoming, among others.
Being that he’s an in-state guy, Haarberg could turn into a fan favorite that Husker Nation wants to see on the field. But getting early playing time may be hard to come by with Adrian Martinez, Luke McCaffrey and Logan Smothers all in the quarterback room. No one should expect Haarberg to compete for playing time until after a couple years pass.
Fans have seen what Martinez and McCaffrey can do. They haven’t seen what the freshman Smothers can do. Smothers, a former 4-star from Muscle Shoals, Ala., is an intriguing player and one who should push both Martinez and McCaffrey next season.
Did the Huskers keep the talent in Nebraska?
Nebraska had 2 notable recruits look elsewhere in Avante Dickerson and Keagan Johnson.
Dickerson is the state’s top-rated recruit, a 4-star corner, and is currently committed to Minnesota. Johnson, an Iowa commit and the son of former Huskers wingback Clester Johnson, is rated as the 3rd-best recruit overall as a 4-star receiver for Bellevue West, a powerhouse program in Omaha.
If those commitments stick, some in Husker Nation will say they won’t lose any sleep over them. But on the outside, it’s a bad look that both went to West Division rivals.
Of the state’s top 10 recruits, 5 are committed to Nebraska. Omaha Westside’s dual-threat quarterback Cole Payton is committed to FCS power North Dakota State University.
Grabbing Fidone, the 2nd-best tight end recruit in the nation, was absolutely great for Frost and his staff. The receiver room at Nebraska needs help, and the commitments the Huskers currently have should bring some.
The quarterback situation at Nebraska has been interesting as of late. Haarberg could be a real fan favorite. But it’s always hard to judge with small-school kids and whether their games translate to the Division I level. Does Haarberg’s? Frost thinks so.
Some Huskers fans care that they’re losing Dickerson and Johnson to teams they generally don’t like in Minnesota and Iowa, and other fans don’t. But not getting those 2 commitments, especially the one who’s a Husker legacy, stings.