Is Nebraska still able to count on recruiting high school football players that are within 500 miles of Lincoln? It was the focus of a expanded report by the Omaha World-Herald's Dirk Chatelain. It's a report that's heavy on data...but is there anything to learn in it? What knowledge can we glean from this? That's where Chatelain's report starts to come up light.
Back in the "glory days" of the 1990's, Tom Osborne made the state of Nebraska his primary target and the region his secondary target. Of the 22 players in his final recruiting class, 15 came from within 500 miles of Lincoln. From 1984 to 1997, Osborne recruited 56% of his scholarship players from within 500 miles.
Fast forward to the Bo Pelini era, and the number drops to 31%. What does that mean, other than Nebraska is having to go farther and farther from Lincoln to land recruits. Is this a Pelini problem, or a regional problem? Like everything else, it's a little of both...and that's where Chatelain's article falls apart.
Anecdotal stories of Pelini misses on regional players aren't terribly significant by themselves. Tom Osborne missed on players in his own state. Larry Station left Omaha to become an all-American at Iowa. Scott Frost left Wood River for Stanford. Players choose colleges for any number of personal reasons.
And let's not forget that college football within the 500 mile radius of Lincoln is much better now than it was during Tom Osborne's day. Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State have all been ranked in the top five at some point during the last six seasons; that never happened during Tom Osborne's time in Lincoln. Wisconsin has become a top-tier program in the Big Ten in recent years. Northwestern is no longer the joke they were either. Even Iowa State is going to bowl games on a regular basis. Looking around the region, Colorado is the only football program that's regressed in recent years.
Chatelain does touch on the biggest reasons why Nebraska isn't recruiting as many players regionally: there are simply fewer players in the area being targeted by BCS conference teams. Ten years ago, BCS schools recruited 200 players from the region. Over the last five years, that number is down to 150. During the Osborne era, Nebraska filled it's roster with in-state players, typically with several native Nebraskans. The last two years, only three Nebraska high school players signed to play for a BCS school, and one of those was Christian LaCouture, a transfer from Texas.
As more and more people move to the Sun Belt, so are the families of football players. Chatelain points out that Georgia high schools now produce 115 scholarship players each season, compared to 90 five to ten years ago. But that trend isn't just demographics, it also has to do with the rise of 7-on-7 off-season passing leagues in warm weather states. More players playing more football makes for more developed players with more exposure.
Where I take issue with Chatelain's column is my perception that the reduced number of players coming from the region is a Pelini-created problem. Chatelain provides a map to graph out the problem with the caption "Is Nebraska's effectiveness recruiting the Great Plains declining?"
That only tells part of the story, as does the article. If Nebraska isn't recruiting these players anymore, where are they going? Are they going to other BCS conference schools? Or are they going to lower-tier division 1-A schools? Certainly, Frank Solich has signed a bunch of Nebraskans over the years to play for the Ohio Bobcats. But are those the players that Nebraska really is missing now?
I suggest not. Nearly twenty years ago, I once got into an heated discussion with a co-worker about Nebraska-born quarterbacks. He insisted that Nebraska could never compete for a national championship with a in-state quarterback. The game had changed too much, and Nebraska players couldn't match the speed of players from Texas or Florida. Well, he was dead wrong then. Scott Frost brought Nebraska it's third national championship in four years in 1997, and Eric Crouch got the Huskers all the way to the title game in 2001.
But is he right now? Maybe not as wrong as he was, but he still might not be right. Sam McKewon, Chatelain's counterpart, digs a lot closer to home to check out some of the talent that Nebraska might be looking at over the next year. He thinks there is more talent locally next season than there has been in several. KOZN-AM (1620 AM, Omaha) radio personality Damon Benning concurs. Maybe this is really more of a circular thing than anything else.
And that's my biggest concern with Chatelain's article. There's a lot of data in there, with charts, graphs, and maps. But what is the knowledge that we're supposed to come away with? I'm not sure, so I asked the question two different times on Sunday. I didn't get many more answers. And that tells me more about the quality of Chatelain's column than all the backslapping the World-Herald has been trying to give him on Twitter. Frankly, there's more to this story than the World-Herald reported yesterday. In the next part of our examination of recruiting the 500 Mile zone, we'll look closer at the region's production of football players in comparison to the nation.
So what do you think? Is Nebraska failing to recruit local players that they should be recruiting? Or have this region's high school football programs been eclipsed by rest of the nation?
And more importantly, what should Nebraska and our high schools do in response?