New Husker coaching staff pulls off turnaround in recruiting class by using honesty, program’s prestige

Nebraska running backs coach Ryan Held was named one of the nation’s top 25 recruiters by Rivals.

ELSIE STORMBERG/THE WORLD-HERALD
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LINCOLN — It’s 2:30 a.m. somewhere — Ryan Held doesn’t remember the town — and the new Nebraska running backs coach is putting another hotel room on his credit card.

If he’s lost track of every flight, car rental, meal he has had in two months recruiting for the Huskers, the card knows every detail. It also knows Held is a creature of habit. He likes the food he likes.

In California, he’s waiting in one of those long, famous lines at an In-N-Out Burger. In Texas, he might eat Pappasito’s Mexican food twice a day.

And when Held finds a minute to sleep, he wants to sleep. So he takes the hotel key from the front desk and drags his stuff, exhausted, to his room. He sticks the plastic card in the slot and the light goes green.

Except he can’t open the door to the room. It’s locked from the inside with that metal latch designed to keep out the housekeepers. Only this time, it’s locking out Held — for a reason.

“Hey! What are you trying to do!” a guy yells from inside. A girl starts yelling, too. Then Held realizes: The hotel gave him keys to a room that was already occupied.

“It’s kind of funny,” Held said. “Well, it’s not really that funny. If the door hadn’t been latched from the inside, that would have been a bad deal.”

But Held, named one of Rivals’ top 25 recruiters for his work in Texas and in junior colleges, can laugh and smile a little. All of Nebraska’s assistants can. So can coach Scott Frost.

They pulled it off.

In two months — while working for two teams — they took what was left of NU’s 2018 commits — not much — and built it into a top-25 recruiting class by the February signing day. They did so with a limited number of official visits, recruiting to a program some had never visited before Frost hired them. They also helped Central Florida win the Peach Bowl and complete an undefeated season.

Frost brought all of his UCF staffers to Nebraska. They repaid him by recruiting their tails off.

“If Coach Frost told me to go to Alaska, I would,” Held said. “I don’t know anything about Alaska, but I’ll go. Whatever it takes — within the rules — to make this deal what it needs to be, I’ll do it.”

Of six consensus four-stars in NU’s 2018 class, Frost’s assistants landed four of them. That includes Adrian Martinez, the highest-rated quarterback signee in the Big Ten according to the 247Sports composite.

Nebraska signed four top-50 junior-college recruits. Held helped secure Arizona Western running back Greg Bell and Bell’s teammate Jaron Woodyard. Nebraska went from zero wide receiver/defensive back recruits to more than 10.

Husker assistants took rubble — a class Frost said was ranked 94th at one point — and built a sturdy house. Yes, there are five juco signees. But there are also 19 high school signees. Previous coach Mike Riley signed 20 last year, and two didn’t show up.

“It’s unprecedented what these guys have done,” Frost said on signing day. Frost has consistently talked up his staff, even dispatching them across the state Thursday night so gatherings of Husker fans could meet and cheer them firsthand. He’s proud to have imported his whole staff from UCF. His staff, in turn, is proud of Frost’s unvarnished approach.

“We are who we are,” Held said. “We’re not going to put on an act to try and get them to come to Nebraska because then, if they came to Nebraska, all of a sudden, you’d dupe a kid, you’d bait-and-switch him.

“We are who are. We’re going to act like who we are. We’re not going to be someone we’re not, and that’s been a winning edge for us. That’s who Coach Frost is.”

Rivals national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell agreed. Farrell, who talks to high school coaches, prospects and other college assistants often, described Frost as “very direct” in his pitch and practical in his scouting. Frost wants players who fit his offensive system and his personal style. Farrell predicted Frost wouldn’t pursue a star-studded player just to nab a commit who later becomes a decommit when the player signs with a bigger school.

“It won’t be as exciting as ‘Calibraska,’ but there won’t be as many lows, either,” said Farrell, referencing Riley’s two-year, much-publicized recruiting foray into California. Calibraska generated hype at satellite camps and Friday Night Lights events. It created a T-shirt craze and helped the Huskers land their top-rated recruits in the 2016 and 2017 classes. But Calibraska guys also bailed on Riley. Or they visited multiple times only to commit elsewhere.

Farrell sees Frost’s recruiting process being more stable and predictable. Farrell said Riley was a straight shooter in recruiting, but some of his assistants sold the dazzle of being a star at Nebraska.

Frost will be more honest. His hand-picked staff will follow his lead.

“We are not going to be used car salesmen,” Frost said. “Not lying, cheating, stealing and blowing kids’ phones up to get them.”

Said Farrell: “And that’ll turn some people off. A lot of kids don’t want you to be honest. Some of them want to be sold a lot.”

Those aren’t the prospects, Farrell said, Frost wants.

Frost’s assistants appear comfortable letting Nebraska — and Frost’s vision — sell itself.

They began to piece the class together in part by going back to the guys they tried to coax to UCF, only to be turned down because the Knights aren’t in a Power Five league. Martinez, for example, was quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco’s favorite prospect last spring. Frost’s, too — both coaches see some of Marcus Mariota’s strengths in Martinez. But Martinez, coming off a stellar junior year at Fresno (California) Clovis West, had better offers.

“In spring, Adrian Martinez tells me, ‘Hey, Coach, it was great getting to know you, but we’re going in a different direction,” ’ Verduzco said in an interview with The World-Herald. “Fast forward to that Saturday (when Frost was hired). Adrian’s like, ‘Hey, Coach, good to talk to you!’”

UCF couldn’t land Martinez. Nebraska could.

Ditto with Montgomery (Alabama) Park Crossing athlete Cam Taylor. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said at a coaches reception Wednesday night that Taylor turned down UCF, but Chinander reached back out after taking the Nebraska job with Frost. The next time I see you, Chinander said, I’ll be wearing a different shirt.

Nebraska landed Taylor, whom Husker coaches think can play several positions on defense.

So it went. The coaches liked Miles Jones before Nebraska; they had a better offer for him after they went to Nebraska.

Tight ends coach Sean Beckton long had strong ties in the Atlanta area while recruiting for UCF. Once he took the Nebraska job, a guy out of UCF’s recruiting league — Lithonia (Georgia) Miller Grove outside linebacker Caleb Tannor — was right in the Huskers’ league. NU beat Florida and Auburn for Tannor’s signature.

While recruiting for the 2019 class, Verduzco’s seeing the same thing.

“That N, I’ll tell you, that — hoo! — that carries a lot of weight,” Verduzco said. “Seriously. No matter where I go. East Coast, down south, West Coast, it’s really, really, really special.”

Offensive coordinator Troy Walters said even airport travelers do a “double take” when Walters wears the N on his shirt.

“It’s a powerful brand,” Walters said.

Which has taken a hit in recent years. As coaches talked at the Lincoln reception Wednesday night and fanned out around the state Thursday night, a familiar theme emerged. Nebraska has returned to its roots.

Only one of them — inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud — served at NU in any recent coaching or analyst position, but a 4-8 season speaks plenty. It doesn’t say good things.

And Chinander indicated high school coaches want Nebraska to be good. Even if the prospects are too young to remember when Husker football romped, blitzed and smacked opponents the way Alabama does now, their coaches, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, remember well.

Frost’s staff wants to tap into that sentiment and make it real again. Back to the future.

“The overwhelming consensus from high school coaches is we’ve got to get this thing right because college football isn’t as good when Nebraska isn’t Nebraska,” Chinander said.

Fans in the dark, murmur-filled theater applauded for 10 seconds after he said that.