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Friday, January 27, 2012
Assessing Huskers' recruiting in Big Ten

By Adam Rittenberg

John Papuchis' first phone call came from the tarmac in Phoenix. The next came several hours later from Omaha.

John Papuchis
Nebraska assistant John Papuchis, left, has noticed a difference on the recruiting trail since the Huskers joined the Big Ten.
Like most college football assistants, Papuchis, Nebraska's defensive coordinator, is racking up plenty of frequent-flyer miles right now. National signing day arrives Wednesday, and Nebraska, which has 14 verbal commits after Imani Cross' pledge, hopes for a strong closing kick.

"There's certainly some kids that we're after who I think we have a good chance of getting," Papuchis told ESPN.com on Thursday. "If they end up coming, it's going to take our class from being very solid and what I feel like is a good class, to being a great class. The next week is going to tell the tale."

Last February, Nebraska signed its first class of recruits who would play their entire careers in the Big Ten. Nebraska since has become a full Big Ten member (July 1) and played a season in its new conference.

How has Big Ten membership impacted Nebraska's recruiting? The changes are more subtle than dramatic, according to Papuchis, who served as the teams recruiting coordinator in 2011.

"A lot of recruiting is relationship-based, and we weren't going to scrap all of the relationships that we had worked so hard over the years to develop, whether it was in Texas or California or Arizona or anywhere else," Papuchis said. "We just expanded the pie a little bit as opposed to restructuring it."

Nebraska continues to recruit nationally, and its 14 verbal commits hail from 10 different states. But Papuchis has seen a difference in the Midwest and northeast, where the Big Ten name carries weight.

The Huskers also have placed a greater emphasis on states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, assigning coaches to individual states rather than to the region, as they had before.

"Although the kids always respected what the Big 12 had to offer, I don't think it was received quite as well as when we made the move into the Big Ten," he said. "All those kids, they could see themselves being able to play close to home, and play teams they grew up watching."

Nebraska's challenge is two-fold: increase the presence in the Big Ten footprint while maintaining ties to states like Texas and California that have funneled talent to Lincoln.

Last year the Huskers signed five Texans and one Californian. This year's list of verbals includes three Californians and a Texan.

Although the Big Ten move prevents Nebraska from playing league games in Texas, the distance from Lincoln to the Lone Star State hasn't changed. Nebraska's sales pitch remains more or less the same.

"For the Texas kids, we were the [Big 12] school that was farthest from home, the most north school," Papuchis said. "Those kids were predominantly coming because they enjoyed and respected the tradition and what we had to offer. Even in a different conference, they realized that part of it wasn't going to be any different."

The Big Ten move hasn't impacted the types of players Nebraska recruits, with one notable exception: linebacker. Nebraska didn't need as many traditional linebackers in the Big 12, a league filled with spread offenses, and could get away with safety-linebacker hybrids. The Huskers faced more power-type offenses in the Big Ten this past season, which exposed some issues with size and depth.

Nebraska has four linebacker recruits committed for 2012, including ESPNU 150 prospect Michael Rose.

"It's going to take a few classes to get it totally where we want it to be," Papuchis said, "but we targeted to take four guys in this class, thought it would be a good first step in getting the depth a little bit closer to where we want it. Next year, we're going to graduate two, maybe three backers off the team, so we're going to have to grab a bunch in next year's class as well.

"Over the course of a couple years, as long as we recruit well, we'll be able to replenish the depth there."

Nebraska will continue to recruit nationally, and Papuchis noted that recruiting hotbeds are tied to population density, which is increasing in states like Texas and Florida. The key going forward for the Huskers is to land more elite recruits from Big Ten territory.

The 2012 class features only four recruits from Big Ten states (two Ohio, one Illinois, one Nebraska).

"The longer we're in the league and the more success we're able to have going forward, the more impact we're going to be able to have in the Big Ten states in terms of recruiting," Papuchis said. "But we're excited about the states of Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, into western Pennsylvania, what kids from that area are going to be able to offer for our program, and what we’re going to be able to offer them."