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October 14, 2010

Big Ten tag not hurting Huskers in Texas

Conference realignment dominated the college football world last summer, with seemingly every school scrambling to know where it stood and who it would stand with once the chaos settled. But in the end, the change was minimal with the biggest move being Nebraska jumping from the Big 12 to the Big Ten in 2011.

The Huskers are leaving a century of tradition against rivals such as Kansas and Missouri, and a relatively young Big 12 Conference that quickly became one of the nation's top leagues with heavyweights Texas and Oklahoma. But the biggest loss for Nebraska, many speculated, would be a closing of the recruiting door to talent-rich Texas.

So far, that hasn't happened. The Huskers have done well in Texas and remain in the hunt for many of the Lone Star State's top prospects, especially in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

On the field, the once-dominant Huskers appear to be on the rebound. They currently sit at No. 5 in the AP and No. 4 in the coaches' poll heading into Saturday's monster matchup against Texas - likely the final meeting between the Huskers and Longhorns for a long time.

The game will be played in Lincoln, but will have a decidedly Texas feel to it. The current Nebraska roster features 25 players from Texas, many of whom have contributed to the turnaround in recent years. And there are no signs of the Texas pipeline drying up for Nebraska, despite its new Big Ten label.

Nebraska currently has three commitments from the state of Texas in the class of 2011. Jamal Turner chose the Huskers over several other big offers. Three-star linebacker David Santos of Klein Collins is also committed to Nebraska. However, the biggest coup for the Huskers so far is landing Mansfield Legacy cornerback Tevin Mitchel.

Mitchel is the No. 1 corner in the state of Texas and the No. 6 player at the position nationally. His father, Eric Mitchel, played football for Oklahoma. The younger Mitchel grew up in Arkansas as a big Razorback fan. Despite offers from both programs, he still chose Nebraska.

"I really liked the coaches," Mitchel said. "I also knew a lot of players up there or that are going there. Talking to Nebraska and talking to the other schools, Nebraska was the only school that touched base with me and that I could see myself getting along with."

When the Huskers won their first of five national titles in 1970, they had one Texan - sophomore center Doug Jamail. Nebraska gradually made more progress in Texas, landing stars such as former quarterback and current Kansas coach Turner Gill. But the Big Eight Conference was without a Texas school, making it tough for Nebraska to recruit heavily there.

In 1995, the final season of the Big Eight, Nebraska had seven Texans on the roster. In coach Tom Osborne's final year at the helm, the national championship team of 1997 and the second year of the Big 12, Nebraska's roster featured eight Texans. The number did not go much higher than that for some time.

In 1999, four years and four recruiting cycles into the Big 12, Nebraska was down to six players from the Lone Star State. Former coach Frank Solich made an attempt to gain ground in the state and had 11 Texans during his final season in 2003. The next coach, Bill Callahan, held steady in Texas as well. In 2007, his last year in Lincoln, he also had 11 Texans.

And then came coach Bo Pelini and an entirely new emphasis on recruiting Texas.

Coming from LSU, Pelini already had many connections to the neighboring state. In fact, his first season in 2008 saw the number of Texans on the Nebraska roster jump to 17.

Though the Huskers have recruited some in the Houston area, Nebraska has made the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex a big part of their efforts. The Huskers hired away Tim Beck from Kansas to be the running backs coach. Beck is a former head coach at two different high schools in the D/FW area. He led perennial doormat Carrollton R.L. Turner to two playoff appearances in his tenure there from 1999 to 2001. He then led Mansfield Summitt for three seasons from 2002 to 2004 before taking a job at Kansas.

Beck is well-respected by the coaching community in the area and has been a big part of landing several top prospects the past few recruiting classes. He could be a big reason the Huskers continue to recruit Texas well despite leaving the Big 12.

"Tim Beck, he's my main recruiter," said Turner, the Arlington Sam Houston four-star quarterback and current Nebraska commit. "He's an amazing person. He's a really cool guy and he's really funny. He's a big reason I chose Nebraska. My coaches and other coaches around here talk highly of him. They know him from when he was coaching at Summitt."

In recruiting the state of Texas heavily, Nebraska had hoped to replicate the model of Kansas. The Jayhawks had filled their program with so many players from the state that it made incoming recruits feel comfortable as soon as they arrived. It is something of which Mitchel took notice.

"Jamal Turner is going there with me," Mitchel said. "I've heard of Ciante Evans from around here but I just know who he is. I don't really know him yet. It kind of makes it feel more like home with the fact that there are so many guys from around here up there. It doesn't necessarily feel like an out-of-state school."

Turner echoes that sentiment.

"I've been up there three times for a camp and for games," he said. "It's cool because I have a lot of friends that are going to the school. It makes it a lot better. I'll be a lot more comfortable going there because I have a support system up there already.

"I know Donovan Vestal from Bowie. Ciante Evans, he went to Seguin and we talk online a lot. Tevin's going to be going up there with me. Aaron Green is going to be going up there too, hopefully. You've got Rex Burkhead from Plano. Cody Green, I know him. I met him when I went up there and we hung out since we're both from Texas."

Nebraska currently plays conference games in Texas each season as a member of the Big 12, and is on television often in the state with regional coverage. With that changing, beginning next season, some schools have tried to sway Nebraska's recruits.

"Some other schools have tried to use it as a negative when they try and talk me out of my commitment," Turner said. "Schools will always use what they can to recruit against another school and they try to bring up the not playing in state and not being on TV as much."

However, Turner does not see it as a negative. In fact, he thinks it will actually be better for him and his family.

"I think there's going to be more TV time with the Big Ten Network," he said. "I always see it on my TV. I flip through the channels all the time and see the games and always want to buy it. It's under the sports section on my TV. Pretty much everybody with cable can get it down here. You have to have cable to watch all the Big 12 games except the ABC ones now anyway, so it's not a big difference.

"People say, 'They're not going to be playing in Texas anymore,' but I don't see that as a big deal. If my family wants to see me, they can buy the Big Ten Network and watch me every weekend. There's nothing wrong with that. Watching a game is probably better on TV (than in person). The announcer is talking and it helps to watch the flow of the game. You get to sit down and be comfortable too."

Mitchel sees it a bit differently and admits to thinking twice about his commitment after the news came of the conference switch, but decided Nebraska was the best place for him.

"I committed before the Big Ten thing happened," he said. "Honestly, I kind of thought about (my commitment) for a minute but I told myself I was going to stay with Nebraska. It's still the same school I committed to.

"A lot of people down here and my family in Arkansas, they probably won't be able to watch me as much on TV. Nebraska probably won't be on TV down here like they are now in the Big 12."

When recruiting the state of Texas, it is easy for Nebraska coaches to point out the number of players from the state making an impact on the program. Burkhead was somewhat of a legend at Dallas-area Plano High School before starting at running back as a true freshman last season. His head coach at Plano, Jaydon McCulllough, does not see the Cornhuskers slowing down in their recruitment of the state.

"I can't really see them (not recruiting Texas as hard)," McCullough said. "To me, Texas is where a lot of the best players are so they're still going to come down here. I just don't see that happening, them not recruiting the state just as hard."

However, he does not know if the outcome of Burkhead's recruitment would have necessarily had the same result had the announcement been made two years sooner.

"From my perspective, and this is my opinion only, I don't know if Rex would have gone there if they'd been in the Big Ten," McCullough said. "Rex is not a selfish person and he's perfectly fine with the move now.

"I do know that he had a special love for Nebraska from him going to games with his dad when he was younger. It's the place that he wanted to go, but them being in the Big Ten would have made it a harder decision."

For his part, Beck does not seem worried about the move causing a drop off in the state.

"People ask if it will hurt us in Texas, but the Big Ten recruits guys from Texas too," Beck told HuskersIllustated.com this summer. "(Recruits) are going to go anywhere."

Several current Big Ten coaches think it might be an uphill battle, though.

"We'll cherry pick down there, but my observation over the last 11 years is I think the Big 12 expansion has made it tougher for Big Ten schools to go down there and compete," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We might be able to beat some Big 12 schools in the Midwest on kids, but down there in Dallas we are more likely to lose to a Big 12 school because of the TV exposure and proximity and those types of things. Texas is more of a Big 12-oriented place in general terms."

However, McCulllough sees it coming down to one simple factor.

"The biggest factor in recruiting is winning," he said. "When you're winning, you can recruit people because people want to go to where it's a winning program. I think that's the No. 1 thing in recruiting. Distance from home and conferences and stuff is probably secondary to that. Usually if you're winning, you're going to get exposure on TV. Nebraska's doing pretty well with that, so I personally don't see a big drop off coming in the state of Texas."



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