When Scott Frost was hired as the head coach of Nebraska football in December 2017, he vowed to emphasize keeping top in-state talent within the state’s borders.
“When I was growing up, every kid in the state of Nebraska dreamed about running out here on this stadium, on this field wearing a red 'N' on their helmet,” Frost said during his introductory press conference. “There [are] too many kids from this state right now playing at other schools, and we are going to do everything we can to make sure that those kids are here.”
As Frost enters his third season on the Memorial Stadium sidelines, it’s worth measuring the progress made in in-state recruiting. Of the 70 Nebraskans listed on the 2019 Husker football roster, 11 were upperclassmen, 13 were sophomores and the remaining 46 were either true or redshirt freshmen.
The majority of those 46 freshmen were walk-ons. However, the Huskers landed five in-state scholarship prospects during Frost’s first full recruiting class with the team — the most of any recruiting class this decade.
In the class of 2018, only one Nebraskan elected to stay home on scholarship and don the scarlet and cream: Beatrice tight end Cameron Jurgens, who has since moved to center.
Todd Ekart, who became the Beatrice head coach after Jurgens had already enrolled at Nebraska, couldn’t speak about Jurgens’ recruiting process specifically. However, he said that the major difference in the recruiting process for each player is just which teams recruit them.
For players like Jurgens, there may be more national teams, like an LSU or Oregon. For others, the schools sending coaches may be more regional, such as Iowa or Kansas.
Bellevue West head coach Michael Huffman said, generally, the school sees FCS programs like Northern Iowa or North Dakota State more than it does FBS programs like Nebraska or Iowa simply because the school doesn’t always have a lot of prospects that would generate attention from FBS programs nationally.
However, Bellevue West has had a few of those players in the past few years, including two who committed to Nebraska — running back Jaylin Bradley in the class of 2017 and wide receiver Zavier Betts in 2020.
According to Huffman, Bradley’s recruiting process was a little slow because, despite having a strong high school career, some schools were concerned about academic issues.
“I am extremely honest with people about our players because if I lie to them now, they’re not going to come back in 2022 or whenever that next great player is,” he said. “I was very upfront with people about Jaylin, but he ended up doing a great job.”
Bradley had offers from most of the Missouri Valley Conference in the FCS, but his only FBS offer was from Nebraska, Huffman said. Once the Huskers offered, Bradley needed only a couple of days to commit.
Betts, on the other hand, got several offers as a sophomore, including most of the Big Ten West.
“I think those other schools realized when Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska offer a kid in this area [a scholarship], it’s really pretty tough to get them out of there,” Huffman said.
The recruiting process often begins by attending camps and receiving information from schools, typically during an athlete’s freshman or sophomore year of high school, according to Ekart. The process then picks up during the prospect’s junior year, and by their senior year, most will have an idea of where they’re going.
While Ekart said he doesn’t think the recruiting process changes based on an athlete’s position, the types of schools recruiting the athlete will vary based on each school’s position needs.
“We had Daniel Davie here [at Beatrice] when I was here the first time,” Ekart said. “He was a good cornerback and ended up going to Nebraska. He went to Kansas to a camp and was offered a scholarship on the spot. Eventually, they pulled that scholarship because they had filled up their need for defensive backs.”
Early on in the recruiting process, the high school coaches help manage contact between the player and the coaches recruiting him because of various NCAA rules limiting contact with underclassmen, Huffman said. Starting Sept. 1 of the prospect's junior year, those restrictions go away, and recruiters can contact prospects directly.
“After that, it’s all up to the kid,” he said. “One thing I ask our kids is that if you make the decision to commit, you’ve got to shut it down. I can’t stand these flip-floppers because I think it’s a bad character trait.”
Coaches who are interested in a player will email or call him and then send out the player’s information sheet, Ekart said. This sheet, which is filled out before a player’s junior year, includes his testing information, stats, academic information, ACT scores and parent contact information.The coaches also send the sheet out to schools in an attempt to get the player on the recruiting radar, according to Ekart.
Though Frost and his staff have only completed two full recruiting cycles at Nebraska, Huffman said he’s noticed an increase in scholarship offers to in-state players than under previous coaching staff. He said there’s still a market out there for walk-ons, but it can be tough for prospects to pass up a scholarship at an FCS school to walk-on somewhere else.
An advantage the current coaching staff has, according to Ekart, is that most of the coaches either came from or played at Nebraska and already know what it is like being recruited in the state. This can make it easier to rebuild the walk-on program, which became less of a priority under former head coach Bill Callahan, he said.
“A lot of those smaller schools around, some of those D-II schools and 1-AA schools, got really good with Nebraska players because there was no place for them to go here in the state,” he said. “I think with Coach Frost and the rest of those guys, they’re going to do a tremendous job to keep those kids in the state.”
That’s not to say previous coaching staff ignored in-state recruiting. Senior defensive lineman Ben Stille committed to the Huskers out of Ashland-Greenwood in the class of 2016.
Stille’s recruitment began slowly, Ashland-Greenwood coach Ryan Thompson said. Once he got a few offers, though, several more followed suit.
“It took one [scholarship offer], and then all of a sudden, other people started to get on board, so his went from very slow to all these options in a heartbeat,” Thompson said. “I think Nebraska and Coach Riley’s staff got on board shortly after, and that was definitely where he wanted to go.”
Because Frost and his staff understand the state and that high school coaches are trying to help the state get better, they made a decision to visit several coaches within the state to get a feel for the pulse of recruiting in Nebraska, according to Thompson. That’s the key difference between this staff and previous ones, he said.
“The other coaching staff did the same, but maybe not as a first choice,” he said. “Maybe it was just that they felt like they needed to. I think Scott [Frost] and his staff really feel like it’s going to be the lifeblood of their program, getting out and recruiting the state of Nebraska.”
Both Ekart and Huffman said it’s important for coaches to build strong relationships with both players they’re recruiting and in-state high school coaches. A key way to build these relationships is by sending position coaches and not just the head coach.
“They want to make sure all the coaches and schools know that they’re there and looking for kids,” Ekart said. “I think it shows they’re not just overlooking it, taking it for granted that if you’ve got a kid they’re coming to Nebraska no matter what. They want the relationship with the coaches and the kids, so I think that’s huge.”