Shortly after we arrived in Chicago for Big Ten Media Days, the word circulated on all of Nebraska’s recruiting message boards: Abu Lamin might be coming for an official!
Then the 6-foot-4, 305-pound four-star out of Fort Scott (Kan.) chose an official visit to NU over one to Auburn thanks to the late-night work from assistant coaches John Papuchis, Rick Kaczenski and John Garrison, and rated that visit, according to Husker Online, a “big 10.”
Then, website GoGamecocks — representing, unsurprisingly, South Carolina — called Lamin after his Husker visit. Lamin told that little corner of the Internet that NU was still No. 4 on his list — behind South Carolina, Alabama (which had just offered) and Arkansas. Monday morning, Lamin officially committed to South Carolina. The Gamecocks closed the door fast once Bama offered and the Huskers impressed.
If you didn’t know why I’ve been writing for nearly two years how hard it is to land juco DTs, perhaps now you have a better idea. Even the two-time defending national champions, with all of their excellent recruiting, need a juco DT.
Good DTs not only are hard to find — they’re harder to develop. Really hard, in fact. Ask Nebraska. Ask Bo Pelini. In one of his more candid moments in Chicago, he freely admitted that the Huskers have had some “good players, but I don’t know if we’ve had any difference-makers” since Jared Crick got hurt midway through the 2011 season. Lamin has the frame to be a difference-maker. He hasn’t played a down of juco football — he sat out last year — so it’s hard to gauge the quality of his technique, his instinct, etc. However polished he might be, he’d still take development. However good his frame is, redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine’s 6-foot-3, 325-pound frame is just as impressive. Having a good defensive line is more than recruiting the bodies. It’s cultivation, development. It’s nurture over nature.
Trying to relay these thoughts on Twitter Sunday night, the responses shot back at me often reflect the popular-but-tiring recruiting meme that NU coaches are proverbial blind men when it comes to recruiting top-flight defensive linemen, and Lamin’s post-visit list is yet another example of the close-but-not-quite identity of the program.
I agree that there have been head-scratching recruits in Pelini’s past — most of them in that giant 2008 class that, under what I suspect was poor advisement from others, Pelini cobbled together in the few free weeks he had before Signing Day — but, at least on the defensive line, nearly every recruit is a kind of project. Neil Smith wasn’t Neil Smith on day one. Ndamukong Suh wasn’t Big Suh until halfway through 2008, his junior season.
In 1994, Christian Peter enjoyed a season as dominant as Suh’s senior campaign. Peter had 71 tackles, seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss against a schedule that afforded Peter 126 fewer passing attempts for sacks that Suh had in 2009. But in 1993, Peter’s sophomore year, he played in 11 games — and had just seven tackles. He developed. He played behind defensive tackles who had developed. In 1994 and 1995 — Christian Peter’s final two years — guys like Jason Peter and Jeff Ogard developed. In 1996 and 1997 — Jason Peter’s best years — Steve Warren developed. In Warren’s best year of 1999, Jason Lohr developed.
To some extent, the development train slowed after Warren. That coincided with Charlie McBride’s retirement. McBride, usually in conjunction with a defensive ends coach, created over the last 15 years of his career the kind of defensive line that was consistently fast, athletic, aggressive and technically sound. It was more than recruiting the right players, it was coaching. Nurture.
How do you know? Look at the names through those years. Englebert. Parrella. Connealy. Ogard. Noonan, Danny. Noonan, David. Ramaekers. Kaiser. Kelsay, Chad. Kelsay, Chris. In-state kids. Not one of them from Omaha. Not one of them a five-star recruit. (Although, today, Danny Noonan might be.) Developed. Cultivated. Made. Those guys came to NU with good tools, the work ethic, toughness. But the weight program shaped them, McBride shaped them, the offensive line shaped them, the culture shaped them.
So we circle back to Kaczenski — what he was hired to do. He was Pelini’s biggest hire to date on defense. He had a considerable task when he arrived in Lincoln. His face wore the most painful grimace after the Big Ten title game. There’s a challenge in rebuilding an entire unit after last year’s late-season collapse. A freedom, too. If nothing else, the Husker players under Kaczenski’s care — with the potential exception of Jason Ankrah — don’t have any illusions about the playing time they think they’ve earned. Most of them haven’t played. The few who did have lost so much time to injury that they rarely developed a rhythm. This is Kaz’s Tabula Rasa year. A blank slate. You can’t ease up on the recruiting gas. But he’ll also have to plunge his hands into the big table of clay before him.
What’s easily lost in the recruiting meme is that some positions don’t come pret-a-manger. Defensive linemen take a little more cooking. Even Lamin.