NU could learn from Badgers, Hawkeyes

November 15, 2016 GMT

LINCOLN — While breaking down game video of Nebraska last week, Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen made a few observations that caught my attention.

He quickly noted the Huskers’ inconsistent pass rush. OK, no surprise there.

But he surprised me with this: “Their safeties are OK.”

(I think they’re better than OK, especially Nate Gerry).

And Millen mildly surprised me with this: “They don’t have great team speed (on defense).”

He lauded quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s all-around ability, but wasn’t overly impressed with the other skill-position players — yes, that includes receivers.

I listen closely to what Millen has to say. He played for four Super Bowl championship teams and served as an NFL executive for eight years (2001-08) — an admittedly rough ride with the Detroit Lions. He since has been a broadcaster at the highest levels. He understands the game at a high level.

In a sense, he stated what we already knew: Nebraska’s roster could use some upgrades. The Huskers have good, not great, talent on the two-deep. They’re a legitimate top-25 team, but not elite. Again, no surprise. We all saw what happened against Ohio State.

But here’s something that might surprise you: Wisconsin, the sixth-ranked team in the current Associated Press Top 25, hasn’t produced a recruiting class ranked higher than 33rd by Rivals.com during the last five years. The Badgers’ classes in that span have been ranked 60th, 54th, 33rd, 44th and 35th.

This is not to suggest Nebraska should lower its recruiting standards. I’ve long believed in the validity of star rankings as one measure among several.

However, Wisconsin’s relatively modest rankings in the recruiting realm drive home an important point: The Badgers have a proven blueprint for success, and they carefully recruit to that blueprint. They want hulking and talented offensive linemen, elite running backs, rangy outside linebackers to fit their 3-4 scheme, and tough-minded players all around.

They have a consistent profile in mind for prospects, who must fit well into the program’s systems and culture. Star rankings take a backseat to fit, and I’m guessing the fan base doesn’t get too wrapped up in recruiting hyperbole.

Same goes for Iowa. Nebraskans may snicker at their border rival, but Husker fans must acknowledge that the Hawkeyes last season came within a whisker of reaching the four-team College Football Playoff and Saturday pulled off a “wow” win against third-ranked Michigan.

Let’s keep this simple. Iowa’s recruiting rankings from 2012-16, starting with 2012: 44th, 51st, 56th, 59th and 42nd.

Nebraska’s rankings during the same period: 26th, 17th, 32nd, 28th and 26th.

In other words, the Huskers outrecruited the Hawkeyes by a wide margin, according to Rivals.com, but the teams split their last four meetings, which perhaps speaks to Iowa’s ability to recruit players who fit snugly into established systems.

There’s a lot to be said for staff stability. It allows coaches time to establish culture in a program.

Bottom line, Iowa’s blueprint is set in stone. The Hawkeyes want to play ball-control offense, sound defense and carefully avoid self-destruction.

Nebraska is in the midst of forming an identity under Mike Riley. The program’s culture is being established. It’s a critical period. If the building process involves lofty recruiting rankings, that obviously would be a welcome development. If it doesn’t, that can also be OK, as the Huskers’ divisional rivals can attest.

A bit more on Nebraska’s identity ...

Let’s talk offense. We saw the value of Armstrong’s versatility in Saturday night’s win against Minnesota. But the Huskers next season likely will be led by one of two pure passers — junior transfer Tanner Lee (little mobility) or redshirt freshman-to-be Patrick O’Brien (decent mobility).

However, Husker offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has made clear he’s open to having dual-threat quarterbacks in the system. In fact, he said, recruiting those type of players has basically become a necessity because of the abundance of spread-option offenses at the high school level.

I like that the Riley/Langsdorf system can accommodate both types of quarterback, as long as it doesn’t compromise the offense’s identity.

“We’ve evolved — we can go either way,” Langsdorf said. “We’re going to always tweak our system to the players we have.”