Randy York's N-Sider
Friday afternoon’s UNL press release announcing the University of Nebraska's Board of Regents' unanimous approval for a new Research Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior did not and should not have included a single reference to Nebraska football. But make no mistake. That simple statement fairly reverberates as Nebraska’s newest and most unique influencer for football recruiting, at least in my lifetime.
Don’t just accept my opinion on the athletic benefits of what seems like a purely academic announcement. In our corner is Ross Els, Nebraska’s recruiting coordinator for football. Seven months before the curtain goes up on what will be called CB3, Els has grasped the impact it will have. The result of this historic breakthrough will be the first on-campus, shared academic/athletic research facility in the history of intercollegiate athletics.
We sat down with Els in his second-floor North Stadium office and asked him to help us paint the big picture of Nebraska’s 2013 football recruiting class, and he was more than willing to elaborate on why he thinks the entire East Stadium Expansion Project packs such a game-changing wallop in terms of recruiting.
Please feel free to join our conversation because it begins with an explanation of how that new center already applies to 23 recruits who have given Nebraska their verbal commitments to sign letters of intent on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
Q: The East Stadium Expansion Project was officially approved by the University of Nebraska Regents on Friday. How big a deal is that?
A: When you look at the whole East Stadium expansion, there are a lot of pluses. No. 1, when you walk out on that field, you’re surrounded. I mean, no more is there even a little bit of an opening where you can see sky. People are right on top of you, and even though the fans aren’t in the stands yet, our recruits are walking out there and saying: ‘Oh my goodness!’ It’s just like the press box behind them on the west side. The visiting teams will look across the field now, and the fans will be surrounding them with 15 rows of seats on top of the new skyboxes from one end of the field to the other.
Q: Will that create a more intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams?
A: Sure ... absolutely, plus the new stadium shows that we’re willing to continue to improve our facilities and spend the money to make us the best program we can possibly be. That includes the two new research areas that will be inside the East Stadium. That’s a huge commitment – one that’s finally brought academics and athletics together.
Q: How does that influence recruiting?
A: Anytime you start to deal with research in the medical area, it’s great because there are so many unknowns, especially with brain studies. I think a lot of kids and families are coming in here and saying ‘Wow, you guys really are state-of-the-art.’ It makes sense for us. We’re state-of-the-art in academics, in life skills, in nutrition and in strength training. Now we’re moving that direction in athletic research. That’s our next big thing, and it’s going to have a huge impact on recruiting. It’s important when recruits and families see us dedicating our efforts to their sons’ health and their safety with the latest in technology. It’s more proof that we are not a program that sits on our laurels. We’re always trying to get better and constantly striving for new ways to show our leadership. There’s no question that people really are excited about what that East Stadium will do for our recruiting. Huge deal, and recruiting is part of the vision from our Hall-of-Fame coach that made something like that a priority as athletic director.
Q: You have no 2013 recruiting visits scheduled for this or next weekend, but you are hosting a Junior Day for 2014 recruits on Saturday. How many players will be here and how much has the process accelerated?
A: Let me show you a chart on the TV screen. Here’s probably the biggest thing that’s changed recruiting. When you look at this chart (showing Big Ten Conference recruiting commitments over the last five years), you see the number of commitments by June 1 of their junior years. That number doubled last June for every year except 2009. This recruiting class is committing a heck of a lot sooner than they ever have before. Here’s another look. See how they started to commit early with these two big spikes right here – one last February another last April? That was for 2013 recruits.
Q: What moved the needle and pushed a faster recruiting cycle?
A: Competition, I guess. For some reason, something has really sped up for this class. Since kids are making decisions much sooner, we’ve had to adjust and develop relationships sooner so we could get them on campus. We’re hosting about 15 kids on Saturday – 10 from Nebraska and five more from out-of-state. We’ve changed the math and are making Junior Day more specialized than the 45 or so kids we’ve hosted at once in the past. We’ve invited just the top players in the area on this one. We’ll host another one in the spring, and then we’ll probably host another Big Red Weekend after that.
Q: Is everyone in the recruiting game accelerating like Nebraska is?
A: I would think so, just seeing the number of offered guys that are already out there. They’re getting their offers earlier than ever before. You can read or follow that on Twitter, etcetera. So many head coaches are getting out there early. They can’t visit with the 2014 kids that are juniors right now but they can stop by the school and see the coach. So we have to do the same thing, and we’re asking Bo (Pelini) when he’s doing his home visits on this year’s class to visit the same schools so he can get an idea of what will be coming down the pipeline in the future.
Q: Seems like Bo is here, there and everywhere. How hard do you push him?
A: He’s been on the road every day for this whole recruiting cycle all the way through December and all the way through January. He’s been a trooper. He’s really going hard.
Q: How often is he on the road
A: It’s about 50-50. Sometimes, he’s by himself, and sometimes he’s with others. It’s all based on whatever and wherever we can be the most efficient.
Q: In a nutshell, what’s the most pivotal point in recruiting?
A: Getting kids to visit. Whenever we can get them on campus, they’re sold. Everybody that comes here talks about the great visit they had in Lincoln. It’s the same thing about the home visits with Bo because he tells you: ‘This is what it’s really going to be like here. Sure, we want you to be a great football player and all that, but it’s more important about what kind of person you are and what kind of man you become.’ That’s what parents need to hear, and, fortunately, Bo not only says it, but backs it up. And that makes him a very successful closer in recruiting.
Q: What are Nebraska’s biggest recruiting advantages?
A: No. 1 is the tradition of the program itself. Even though the ‘90s was the last time we won a conference championship or a national championship, we still get a lot of respect from a football program standpoint all over the country. We’re one of only four teams to win at least nine games every year over the last five years. The other three teams that have done that are Alabama, Oregon and Boise State, so we’re in pretty good company.
Q: What ranks second?
A: I would say the overall philosophy that Bo has and what type of person he wants to recruit. Parents know we can get their kids to the next level because we have a strong track record for doing that.
Q: What’s the most surprising part of football recruiting?
A: Once we get recruits to Lincoln, both the parents and the kids are pleasantly surprised by the city. Our facilities are probably as good as anywhere. Other schools may have as good a weight room or as good an indoor facility as what we have, but when you combine everything that we have in all the different departments and the people that are going to help their son get to that level we’re talking about, that’s what I think impresses – and surprises – people the most.
Q: Coaches and staffers are always talking about the importance of centralized facilities. How does that affect recruiting?
A: It’s a big differentiator. Recruits can see how easy it is to walk out of a chemistry class and a few minutes later be in one of the best, if not the best, student-life complex in the country. They can study there and then walk a few yards down the hall and be eating at one of the best training tables in the country. It’s important when everything’s adjacent. You’re immediately connected to academics and life skills and all of the support systems that are going to keep you on task in the classroom and in the community at the same time you’re getting better every day as an athlete.
Q: Do you use the Heisman Trophy/GameDay Experience Room videos to recruit?
A: We do – off-season and in-season. They give everybody a big taste of what they’ll see when they actually make an official visit that fall.
Q: Nebraska leads the nation with a former Husker on at least one roster for 20 straight Super Bowls. Does something like that influence recruiting?
A: We think it does. That’s why we sent it to all of our recruits to make sure they understand another part of our tradition and our history that’s important to them. We’re convinced we have what it takes to succeed at the next level.
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