When heralded four-star defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles announced his decommitment from Nebraska’s 2018 class on Tuesday night, it culminated a period of weeks and months where the IMG Academy star was considering weighty questions with no exact answers.
What will Nebraska football look like after this fall? Will Mike Riley be the head coach? Will Donté Williams be the cornerbacks coach? If one or both leave, would he still feel comfortable here? Would it be the same Nebraska he fell in love with?
Nearly every football program goes through this phase at some point — for Nebraska, disappointment in a 4-4 start, hope for a strong finish and uncertainty past Nov. 24’s regular-season finale — but it’s often the in-between period rather than an actual decision whether to stick with a coach or make a change that costs programs on the recruiting trail.
“I’ve always kind of said that a rumored coaching change is worse than an actual coaching change itself,” said Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for Scout, which recently combined with 247Sports. “Families just want stability. The whole not knowing, that’s what kills recruiting. Change actually spikes it — you can tell the new energy and direction.
“But when there’s all that limbo and doubt and other schools negative recruiting you, it’s just really hard to sell any kind of stability.”
That’s where the coaching staff finds itself with four games remaining in the regular season and a sizeable recruiting weekend on tap when Northwestern comes to town Saturday. They’re not only trying to add to a class that now stands at 10, but also trying to keep verbally committed players from following in Radley-Hiles’ footsteps.
“On-field impact is always going to affect you on the recruiting trail,” said Steve Wiltfong, national director of recruiting for 247Sports. “Especially when you have a new athletic director that hasn’t come out and said Mike Riley is his guy next year. If the AD came out and said Mike Riley had another season in him, it would certainly help Nebraska on the trail right now.”
Bill Moos has sat down with the Journal Star and made the rounds to many area media outlets since officially starting Oct. 23 and has reiterated that he will support Riley and his staff this season. Past that, though, he’s said he’s in the process of evaluating the program from top to bottom.
“It comes down to, if the Nebraska administration wants this current staff to be successful on the trail, they need to come out and say that Mike Riley … will be back next year,” Wiltfong said. “And I think he should be. He’s only been there three years. I know they’re not playing well and it’s easy to say they’re going to try to get Scott Frost or what have you, but I think that Mike Riley’s recruited well and brought in a nice blend of guys that have a chance to take Nebraska to the next level. Three years isn’t enough to get it going the way he wants to get it going.”
Unless Moos decides the same thing and does so almost immediately, this fog of uncertainty will linger. That puts the Huskers staff in a tough spot, though certainly not a unique one.
“UCLA lost two guys this week for the same reasons,” Biggins observed. “People wonder if Jim Mora’s going to going to be around and what’s the status of the staff? It’s extremely hard if you’re a player or parent. You’re always told not to pick the school because of the coaches, but that’s impossible right? You build relationships and that’s one of the main reasons you like a school is because you have a coach that you connect with.”
Nebraska has more than a half-dozen uncommitted prospects expected on campus for official visits this weekend and may have some verbal commits on hand as well. It will be awfully difficult to talk confidently about the staff’s future, but that hardly means the weekend is meaningless.
“You can still sell your school,” Biggins said. “Even when there’s change, there’s always a couple of assistants that get hired to help keep the stability. If you’re an assistant, you keep working your butt off. I actually had a defensive backs coach on a staff right now where there could be change, he told me, ‘Dude, I want to be able to tell the new head coach that I have at least four guys that want to come if I stick here. Keep me around.’
“If you’re an assistant, you still grind, you still work hard and you still push the school and push for commitments. There’s still that motivation.”
The big question is how much attrition the Huskers suffer before resolution arrives. These weeks constitute the danger zone on the recruiting trail.
“I’m not sure that (Radley-Hiles) is going to be the last (decommit), you obviously kind of have to doubt it,” Biggins said. “Talking to some players and guys out here (on the West Coast), there’s some that were thinking about taking visits that now don’t want to set anything up until they know what’s up with the coaching staff.”
Once that’s clear, Wiltfong said he thinks the Huskers will be OK. Could the class look radically different by signing day on Feb. 7? Sure. But whether it’s Riley making a late push or someone else, the Huskers will find a way to fill its roughly 18-member class.
“Nebraska will find guys,” Wiltfong said. “Even if they lose a couple more guys, they’ll find some good players.”