McKewon: Nebraska needs to find a way to capitalize on new NCAA scholarship freedom | Football

LINCOLN — Thanks to NCAA rules changes last week, Nebraska football is free to add as many new players as it wants in the next two recruiting cycles. And the Huskers’ revamped recruiting operation has set up the Big Red with a June full of top-shelf visits.

How many spots will NU have open for 2023?

While the NCAA removed its 25-man cap on the number of scholarship players who can sign during a cycle, it kept the 85-scholarship total in place.

Currently, Nebraska has 10 scholarship seniors, including offensive lineman Kevin Williams, who played two games in 2021 and could petition for an additional year. Even if all 14 juniors left for the NFL after the 2022 season — an unlikely development — that would still be 24 scholarships. And because NU plans to, well, win more games this season, additional players may stick around.

The classroom, if you will, has only so many desks. How does Nebraska manage it?

Does NU look to name, image and likeness to present opportunities that earn up to the cost of tuition, room and board and books? NU’s top collective, Athlete Branding and Marketing, embraced a walk-on initiative earlier this spring.

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“ABM will assist in solidifying Nebraska’s place as the best walk-on program in the country,” ABM President Gerrod Lambrecht said.

Does Nebraska take the commits and figure out its full complement of signings in December or February? It could, knowing players inevitably transfer after the season.

Do the Huskers, after adding at least 14 — perhaps up to 16 — transfers in this cycle, dial their portal usage to zero for 2023? Iowa added one transfer in 2022. So did Clemson. So did Stanford. Texas A&M added two. Georgia, according to the 247Sports transfer tracker, didn’t add any.

At some point, should Nebraska stabilize and start winning more games, it likely wants to find a recruiting diet that features more players through the “draft” and fewer through “free agency.” The double whammy of COVID-19 and the collapse of NU’s recent recruiting classes — 14 of 26 signees from the 2020 class already left — meant the Huskers had to find rapid answers in the portal, especially in the secondary and defensive line.

If Nebraska’s talent acquisition operation were still at 2021 levels, there may not have been a dilemma. That group of coaches had lost its mojo.

Special teams coordinator Bill Busch said last week that NU now has a high-octane motor full of revved-up recruiters and an organizer in Senior Director of Player Personnel Vince Guinta, who’s good at handling the heat.

“He’s a very calming personality with a lot of Type A personalities,” Busch said. “That’s just coaches, right? Me included. They organize everyone.”

The plan’s in place. How many commits can NU take?

What makes good recruiter?

Left on the cutting room floor of my Friday recruiting story was a question to Busch about what makes a good recruiter. Busch, after all, has been a strong recruiter at several spots.

“The No. 1 thing when you start this process is likability,” Busch said. “If you have that, then the young man answers your texts and answers your calls, you have a chance.”

He can tell a joke or a story, and he can build relationships that last — he attended the retirement press conference for former Husker and now former Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch.

He learned the most, he said, from NU coaches George Darlington, Ron Brown and Kevin Steele, who were a part of Tom Osborne’s staffs in the 1990s. Darlington, Busch said, worked wonders with West Coast players — including a few stars from California and Hawaii — while Brown was thorough in his process of finding players and tailoring his approach. Steele, Husker fans may recall, landed Tommie Frazier. Steele has worked at Florida State, Alabama, Clemson, Auburn, LSU and now Miami.

A fourth key mentor was Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez.

Busch worked for Alvarez in 1994 as a graduate assistant, and again at Wisconsin in 2013 and 2014 as part of Gary Andersen’s staff.

Baseball takes a hit

Hindsight being what it is, it was foolish (of me) to think that after last season’s run to a Big Ten title, Nebraska baseball could simply wrest long-term control of the league.

Maryland’s 2022 team, for one, is too good. Perhaps as good as the 2013 Indiana team that went to the College World Series.

But the 2022 faceplant was alarming, reminiscent of Tim Miles’ third season as Husker basketball coach, when a preseason Top 25 team produced a 13-18 record. That’s a 41.9% win rate.

Husker baseball in 2022 was 43.4%. Miles’ 2014-2015 offense ranked 310th in scoring offense. NU baseball’s offense ranked 190th in runs.

The football, men’s basketball and baseball teams combined for a 37.1% win rate. The volleyball, women’s basketball and softball teams combined for a 73.4% win rate.

Strength of schedule

Which of the three men’s teams struggled the most? Hard to say. But one of these Big Ten schedules was not like the others.

Seven Big Ten football teams won nine games. NU played all seven.

Nine Big Ten basketball teams advanced to March Madness. NU played 15 games against them.

Heading into the weekend, D1Baseball projects two Big Ten baseball teams make the NCAA tournament. NU was swept by Rutgers and didn’t play Maryland. Iowa, which took two of three from Nebraska, is on the bubble.

Divisions stay, for now

As the Pac-12 (starting in 2022) and Mountain West (in 2023) announced plans to junk their football divisions and pair the top two teams against each other, the Big Ten continued its deliberations. Because scrapping divisions may have TV contract implications, a decision may not be (and doesn’t have to be) imminent.

The Pac-12 and Big Ten may face each other in the Rose Bowl, but they’re dissimilar leagues at this point.

Southern California is the sole national property out west, with Oregon in that second tier. The Pac-12 has a handful of rivalry games. The Big Ten has three current top-tier names — Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — and too many rivalry games to count.

Big Ten money

According to USA Today, which does excellent work on the financials of college football, Big Ten teams received between $43 million and $49 million in conference TV money in fiscal year 2020-2021, which encompassed all of the COVID-19-shortened football season. USA Today also noted that Rutgers and Maryland, for the first time, got full shares of conference money.

A&M vs. Alabama

Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher and Athletic Director Ross Bjork seemed to execute a clever PR move by overreacting to Nick Saban’s comments about how A&M “bought” its top-ranked 2022 recruiting class with NIL deals.

But the full seven-minute clip of Saban’s comments provided plenty of context.

Yes, Saban embodied his usual holier-than-thou posture. No, he didn’t accuse the Aggies of rampant cheating. If anything, Saban (in kind of a sanctimonious way) suggested that, against the angels of his better nature, he was going to unleash the NIL collective hounds at Alabama. The implication being that Alabama won’t finish second to Texas A&M in the recruiting rankings again.

Nevertheless, Fisher scheduled a press conference, flipped out and put a tremendous amount of pressure on his team.

The Aggies appear in many way-too-early top-10 rankings. ESPN says No. 5. They’re overrated.

To sign the spectacular 30-man class — and it is that — A&M had to dial way down on any immediate transfer portal help. That’ll be great in 2024. In 2022, A&M is staring at 8-4 or 7-5 and Fisher will have to eat his heated words at Alabama.

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