Commentary

Pelini faces uphill battle at Nebraska

Originally Published: June 9, 2008
By Craig Haubert | Scouts Inc.

Bo Pelini AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini has secured five verbal commitments for Nebraska so far, though none are ESPN 150 Watch List prospects.
Father's Day is around the corner so the post office is busy, but there is always time to get the mail delivered from recruiting fans. In this edition of the mailbag, we take a look at some questions about the evaluation process. We also look at the state of Nebraska recruiting and how it may do under its new leader. I also disclose some key information again.

As always thanks for the questions and keep them coming. Also happy Father's Day to all of you who raised, and are raising, recruiting fans.

Craig in Lincoln, Neb.: Craig, early indicators show that Bo Pelini and the NU staff are still offering top talent, but how likely are they to lure them to Lincoln? Bill Callahan was very good at evaluating talent and selling the recruits on Nebraska. Can Pelini's staff do the same? Thanks!

Craig: Nebraska is off to a slow start as far as commitments go, but it's still too early to hit the panic button. This is Bo Pelini's first shot at running the show, so it remains to be seen how he does as the one making the final decisions and being the closer. Based of his past ability and his level of enthusiasm and intensity you would imagine he will do just fine, but it is still early and only time will tell.

I don't think you should use Bill Callahan as the measuring stick for Pelini and his staff. Callahan made a big splash with his first class and was putting together a good 2008 class before he was let go. In between though, Nebraska did not have great classes and we felt the Huskers relied a little too heavily on junior college players. Obviously something was not right in the formula that was being used under Callahan; Nebraska struggled to compete with top competition. So Callahan did recruit well at times, but if I am a Nebraska fan, I would hope that Pelini can do better.

That being said, recruiting to Nebraska is not the slam dunk it used to be. Nebraska is a historically powerful program, but times are changing. Back in the day when television coverage was minimal, Nebraska was one of the handful of programs nationally known and seen. It was a winning program of which recruits nationwide had heard. Today coverage of college football is huge and the pool of programs getting exposure is deeper than ever. Nebraska has amazing fans, a huge stadium and good facilities, but the lure to Lincoln is not what it used to be.

The question is can Pelini make Nebraska a key destination again for recruits? It will be tough because unlike other programs, the talent pool in Nebraska's area is not as deep as some others. Pete Carroll was able to rebuild USC into a national power, but he had a much greater pool of talent around him. Nebraska cannot reach out to stack its program with local talent like schools in California, Texas and the South can. Like in the old days, Pelini and his staff will need to get into California and the Chicago area among others. Callahan tried this and had success at times, but with Pac-10 programs also competing for that talent in California and Notre Dame, Illinois and Ohio State competing for Chicago-area kids, it won't be easy.

The past is just that, and it is getting to the point where many of these kids do not know much of the Cornhuskers' past success, so that selling tool is not what it once was. You can recruit with the facilities at Nebraska, but the key is to win. Pelini needs to do what Callahan couldn't -- win some big games and get Nebraska back into the national picture.

Malik in parts unknown: What's the point of a Nike combine or Nike training camp when film is the best indicator of a player's abilities?

Craig: Malik, I agree with you to a point. We here at Scouts Inc., like you, believe seeing a prospect play the game is the best way to judge his ability. Usually that is through film study, but it can also be by watching a game in person. Watching a prospect run around in shorts and a T-shirt is not a very complete window into what the player's abilities will be like between the white lines. Seeing a prospect on the football field in pads and competing is undoubtedly the best way to get a feel for how that player will fare on the college level.

That being said, there is some merit to having a combine-type event like the Nike ones you had mentioned in your question. The testing can be useful to know truly how fast a kid runs or jumps. Depending on the situation, some of that information needs to be taken with a grain of salt depending on how the testing is done and who is operating it. Some of these combines attract large numbers and /or the people handling the watches and tracking the information are not always the best, so the numbers can be slightly off. This is not the NFL combine, during which numbers are smaller and everything is very precise; many times at high school combines information can be inaccurate. So because of that, we feel a player's ability should not be greatly weighed by combine numbers.

Combines can be very helpful in other areas besides testing. Often times, the kids will compete in one-on-one drills, and although they are not in pads, it can be useful to see the kids move and compete in more football-like situations. You can see how a prospect stacks up against other players in attendance and also see how he performs with eyes on him in an isolated situation. It is not an actual game, but it is football-related drills that can give you a glimpse of a player's ability.

Another nice aspect of a combine is that they give scouts and coaches the ability to eyeball a prospect. One of the great mysteries in evaluating a high school prospects is size. Often times, heights and weights given by prospects, parents or even coaches can be wrong -- sometimes really wrong. Those close to the player want you to believe he is at a more ideal size for his position. In extreme cases you can spot discrepancies on film, but when you are talking about an inch or two (which can matter) it can be much tougher to tell by just watching a prospect on film.

These combines allow a more accurate reading of height and weight. In addition, we get to physically look at these kids to see if they fit how they looked on film. Does a defensive lineman carry his weight well? Is a quarterback really 6-foot-2, or is he only 6-foot? These are questions that at times can be better answered in person than just solely on film.

Nothing beats game evaluation, period, but there is nothing wrong with more information. Combines can help fill in some holes and for that they can be a helpful tool in evaluating talent.

J.M. in Greenville, S.C.: When you rate a player do you take into account how well they may fit into a certain system? For example in Georgia Tech's last recruiting class, they had several players who don't fit as well in a pro-style offense who are perfect for the triple option. One example is Marcus Wright, who is probably too small to be an every-down back but put up incredible numbers in 5A Texas football and was called "the fastest player in Texas" by some. Seems like a perfect slotback to me, but he wasn't highly rated.

Craig: A good question I am glad you asked. While more players are committing early, usually a player is evaluated when he is uncommitted. Sometimes players are already committed at the time of their evaluation, but their decision does not play a factor in his overall grade and evaluation. Each player is written up and graded based on his overall football skills. How he plays his position and his strengths and weaknesses to that position and the game in general. The reason for this is that it can be too tough to try to tailor each evaluation to a kid's school.

Often times, you do not know where that prospect is going, so you can not project his skills to a certain program. Also, it is not unusual for a prospect to decommit. When that happens it could affect a player's evaluation if it was based on how he fit at school X, but now he is going to school Y.

While evaluations are not tailored to specific programs, you will often find our scouts will reference a prospect's best fit may be in an offense utilizing a pocket passer or a player would fit best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. So the fact that a player may best utilize his skills in a certain situation is not overlooked. Also, when we write about or discuss that player throughout the year, we will reference that he would be a perfect fit in a certain scheme or if he is already committed talk about how he fits -- or in some cases doesn't fit well -- at a certain school.

Where and how a player fits though does matter when it comes to class rankings. A player may not have a very high grade, but like the instance you reported, his style may fit a certain program and thus it is a good pickup. For example, we may feel there are better overall running backs in a certain class because they may posses better size and speed or be more well rounded. Now another running back ranked 45th for arguments sake commits to a school that can utilize his bruising, downhill, between-the-tackles running style. So while on his own he may be ranked a bit lower than some other backs, his style is right for school X and thus could help that program's overall class in the rankings.

In short, how a prospect fits at a certain school is not part of a player's grade and overall evaluation, but it is factor in the big picture when it comes to ranking classes.

Andrew in Hoboken, N.J.: When are you guys coming out with your ESPN 150 rankings?

Craig: A popular question so I am going to give out this information again. The ESPN 150, the ranking of the top 150 prospects in America, is slated to be released on Aug. 5. We are still working hard to complete evaluations, and when the ESPN 150 is assembled, we will have a very deep pool of rated prospects to compile the list from.

The battle for No. 1 will be fierce -- will it be quarterback Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif. / Mater Dei), the athletic, explosive Russell Shepard (Houston / Cypress Ridge), a defensive player like linebacker Manti Te'o (Honolulu, Hawaii / Punahou) or possibly someone else? It may seem a long way off, but it will be here sooner than you think!

Craig Haubert is recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc. Drop Craig a line in his mailbag.