HOUSTON -- Just days before Houston's 2016 season-opening upset of Oklahoma, when the college football world would be introduced to Ed Oliver, the then-18-year-old was already making his coaches shake their heads at his athletic feats in practice.
While practicing a Sooners play they'd scouted -- a quick pass to the running back in the flat, designed to get speedy Joe Mixon out into the open field -- they assigned Oliver, a defensive tackle, to "spy" the running back. So when Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. motioned running back Duke Catalon over and Catalon sprinted toward the sideline, imagine the surprise when the 280-pound Oliver beat him to the ball.
"When we ran this [in practice], we widened our back out all the way behind the tackle, because we knew [Mixon] could run," Houston coach Major Applewhite said. "And [Oliver] ran down Catalon's hip, and the ball was thrown perfectly by Greg, and he knocked it down ... like he was in man coverage."
When the Sooners actually ran the play during their meeting, Oliver didn't get there quite that quickly but did sprint from one side of the field to the other to catch Mixon -- who runs a 4.5 second 40-yard dash -- for a meager 2-yard gain.
A defensive tackle covering a running back on a pass play might sound unwise, but with Oliver, anything is possible.
"Athleticism and effort," Applewhite says, reviewing the play from his office. "He's a unique player because of his athleticism. There's a lot of [defensive tackles] that can sit there and plug."
For the last two seasons, Oliver has terrorized many an offensive backfield. In that time he has amassed 39.5 tackles for loss, more than any other player in their first two seasons in recent memory (nobody in the past five years has compiled that many in their first two years). He's second among FBS defensive linemen in pass breakups in that span. In December, Oliver became the first underclassman (freshman or sophomore) to win the Outland Trophy.
"I think he's the most disruptive defensive lineman I've seen in college football," said former Rice coach David Bailiff, who coached against Oliver last season. "He's as close to the Tasmanian Devil on the football field that I've ever seen."
When it comes to pure football talent, there's no doubting Oliver's credentials. That's why Oliver is at least on the periphery of the way-too-early discussion of Heisman Trophy candidates. Whether he'll have a realistic shot at the hardware is another discussion entirely.
"We have to see what he does on the field [this season]," Applewhite said. "I think he deserves to be in the conversation. If the award is what it says it is, which is the best player in college football, then he deserves to be in the conversation."
In the 83-year history of the award, only one player from a primarily defensive position has won it: Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. Only 18 defensive players have finished in the top five in Heisman voting, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Ten of those were defensive linemen, but only two defensive linemen have finished in the top five since 1990.
Will a defensive player ever win it again?
"In my personal opinion, no," said former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, now with the Miami Dolphins. "And the reason why I say that is because I think there has been some elite guys, not including myself, that have given it some good shots and had good bodies of work to do it, but I think just because it's such a heavily offensive-oriented and quarterback-oriented and running back-oriented type of award, it's very difficult."
Suh, who finished fourth in the 2009 voting and is the most recent defensive lineman to finish in the top five, had a strong case. He also had a "Heisman moment," by nearly lifting Nebraska to a Big 12 championship with 12 tackles, six for losses and 4.5 sacks in a 13-12 loss to Texas that year. Alabama running back Mark Ingram wound up winning the trophy that season.
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, whom Suh threw around like a rag doll when they met, finished third, a spot ahead of Suh "even though I put a good thrashing on him in the Big 12 championship," Suh said.
Former Houston quarterback Andre Ware, who won the Heisman in 1989 and voted for Suh, said that illustrates how difficult it is for a defensive player.
"When that happens, then it's tough for it to ever happen," Ware said. "You get that one shot down ... then you've made it an offensive award. [Suh] deserved to win it in my opinion. But that makes it tough."
Only six players who have won it didn't play in the offensive backfield. The frequency at which quarterbacks and running backs touch the ball is a big reason they win it most often.
"It's different when you have a chance to touch the football every snap. That alone creates the attention that you're going to get," said Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin, who coached 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. "Really that's a quarterback and a running back. It's difficult for even a receiver to win it.
"What are we voting for? Is the Heisman trophy the best player in the country? Is it the best catalyst on a team in the country? Those are two different things. ... Is this guy the best player on the best team in the country? That's happened before, too."
Coaches and former players acknowledged that being a part of a great team is a virtual necessity. Having a big performance on a big stage helps, too. That can be a challenge for a defensive lineman, especially considering how creative coaches get to minimize an individual player's impact.
"You can game plan around a player," said Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who played against Woodson's Michigan team while he was at Penn State. "You can do a lot of speed, no-huddle, up-tempo stuff. You can mitigate some of the defensive player's ability to affect the game just by getting the ball out of your hand before he gets to the quarterback."
Oliver has experienced some of that at Houston, but the Cougars' staff has been creative about where he lines up and the assignments he gets to maximize his impact. So far, it has been successful. The main thing that slowed down Oliver was a knee injury last season that kept him from playing at full strength for the better part of five games. Still, he finished with 73 tackles, 16.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.
"[The injury] took away from my mobility, moving sideways a little bit," Oliver said. "I'm upset at the way I played last year. It really makes me mad, watching film, knowing what I can do and what I was limited to doing."
The junior-to-be says that he's at 100 percent now. After winning the Outland Trophy, he's coming for more hardware.
"I can't stop there," he said. "I need to go back and win the Nagurski and the Bednarik. I need both of them."
If he comes up short, it won't be for lack of effort or physical gifts. Applewhite said Wednesday morning that Oliver challenged one of the team's linebackers in a six-station drill -- which included a 60-yard shuttle and a short-shuttle, among other agility drills. Unsurprisingly, Oliver won.
Given his production and ability, 2018 figures to be Oliver's last in college. He hopes to be not just a high draft pick but No. 1 overall. As for the Heisman, Oliver said while he doesn't expect to be there, being in the conversation would be special "for the city and for the guys I play with and the guys that helped me get there, the coaches for believing me and trusting in me."
What does he think would it take for him to get there?
"I'd love to be there, but I doubt I'd win," he said. "I gotta pass for a touchdown, catch a touchdown, run for a touchdown, get some fumbles for touchdowns, picks for touchdowns. It's all about how much you score."
Oliver did run for a touchdown lining up as a goal-line running back in Houston's bowl game last season. Could he lobby for more of those touches?
"You never know," he said.
A weird thing happened about a week and a half ago: Alabama's recruiting efforts were, shall we say, underwhelming. On at least five high-valued targets, the Crimson Tide came up empty. By the end of the holiday formerly known as national signing day, coach Nick Saban was in the unfamiliar position of not possessing the best recruiting class in the country.
For the first time since his hastily thrown-together initial signing class at Alabama back in 2007, Saban finished outside the top three of ESPN's Class Rankings. Instead, the Tide checked in at No. 6, leaving Saban awkwardly looking up at his former defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, who had Georgia at No. 1.
At his afternoon news conference in Tuscaloosa last Wednesday, Saban resisted the notion that he and his staff swung and missed on key prospects. Sure, he would have liked an extra inside linebacker and defensive lineman. And, yeah, a quarterback would have been nice and maybe another offensive lineman. But, no, he said, "I really don’t think we struck out anywhere to be honest with you. You know, nothing comes out perfect because we don't control these things."
Nothing comes out perfect? Since when? Mike Shula is long gone now. From the time ESPN started keeping track of recruiting in 2006, no one has had more No. 1-ranked classes (five) or signed more ESPN 300 players (156) than Saban at Alabama.
Such is life when grading against a curve, though. There were plenty of reasons why this year was different from others, which we'll get into in a moment, and besides, this class was still solid and addressed some pressing needs. But after a decade of dominating the recruiting trail, signing day 2018 marked a different tone from the 66-year-old coach.
The man who says every year that he doesn't pay attention to recruiting rankings seemed keenly aware that he had no one's No. 1 class. He alluded to the fact that "in every recruiting class, there's always a guy that you get that you thought you might not get, and there's also a guy that you thought you might get that you didn't get." Then, a few moments later, he added that "sometimes it matches up in terms of how you get ranked and rated and sometimes it doesn't."
Ranked in the top 10 or not, Saban wasn't pleased with the final outcome.
There are plenty of reasons why, though, starting with the notion that signing day wasn't really signing day to begin with, at least not in the traditional sense. Nearly three-quarters of the players in the ESPN 300 had already signed their paperwork during the first early signing period back in December, thus rendering the post-national championship wave of momentum Alabama had come to rely on as less effective.
What's more, Saban was fairly up front about how he was feeling his way through an entirely new process, saying on more than one occasion that, "It's been something that's been hard to sort of figure out." When the first wave of the early signing period was over, he admitted that he wasn't sure what the rest of the recruiting calendar would look like.
"I can't tell you because I've never done it before," Saban said back in mid-December. "I just know there's a lot of stuff going on here right now, trying to prepare for a playoff game, trying to recruit. ... I would say now that we're going to recruit the rest of this recruiting cycle pretty much like it's been in the past. It's just going to be a smaller pool of players. But I can't answer the question because I have no experience with this."
Not that anyone needs to explain away a top-10 finish, but that's a good place to start. The coach who coined the term "The Process" was no longer sure what the process was, and it showed.
Then throw in massive turnover on the coaching staff, and Alabama's relative struggles this recruiting cycle start to make sense. Two years after losing Smart to Georgia, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt accepted the head-coaching job at Tennessee. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll left for the Buffalo Bills and defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley went to the Oakland Raiders. Bobby Williams, a former special-teams coach turned special assistant to Saban, accepted an on-field coaching job at Oregon, and shortly after signing day it was announced that defensive line coach Karl Dunbar would be joining the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When Alabama made its final push to signing day, it had a bunch of new faces trying to build relationships on the fly. Saban said, "I don't think there's any question that there may be some prospects out there who were being recruited by someone who left and maybe that was a little bit of an issue with them."
Still -- and this is where Alabama fans should start to feel better about things -- Alabama finished with the sixth-highest-rated class in the country. Still, 13 of its 20 signees ranked in the top 300, including the No. 1 cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. and the No. 1 defensive end Eyabi Anoma. Still, with all four starters in the secondary gone, Saban got the influx of talent he needed in Surtain and No. 1 junior college cornerback Saivion Smith.
So, no, it's not all bad news for the defending champs.
The early signing period isn't going away, and Saban's former assistants continue to spread his playbook across the SEC, but the adjustment period is over and Saban is doubling down on recruiting with his recent coaching hires all sharing the common traits of youth and strong reputations on the recruiting trail (see: Josh Gattis, Karl Scott and Jeff Banks).
The Alabama recruiting giant may have surrendered its lead this past recruiting year, but it’s too soon to tell whether it’s truly fallen behind.
Over the next few weeks, we'll be chatting with each ACC football coach to go over the highs and lows of 2017 and take a look at what's in store for spring practice and the season ahead.
Next up, Miami coach Mark Richt, whose Hurricanes won their first Coastal Division but face a 2018 season with questions about depth and quarterback play.
You opened the season with 10 straight wins. You lost three in a row to finish. What's the takeaway from last season: the great start or the struggles at the end?
Richt: If you look at it overall, we accomplished some things we set out to do. We won the Coastal. Of course, we wanted to win when we got there, and we realized we were a little ways off of that one. I'm not sure our roster was ready to go toe-to-toe with [Clemson] yet. But that's why we're recruiting. The bowl game, we certainly had our chances, but we didn't take advantage. We played a really good team. If we won, we'd have finished in the top 10. Are we progressing? Yes. Are we getting better? Yes. Are we getting closer to a championship-caliber team? Yes. Are we there yet? We proved we're not quite ready to be champions yet. But I think we got a chance to smell. We didn't get a chance to taste it.
Before last season started, I thought depth would be the biggest limitation for you. It certainly seemed to catch up with you by year's end. How much does a strong recruiting class and some valuable playing time for young guys last year help address that going into 2018?
Richt: It could be a huge boost. We know we're still going to need true freshmen to help us win. They're playing all over America, so it's not like you're ever in a position where true freshmen can't make an impact for you, but we were probably at 73 scholarships or something like that at the end of the year. And you have attrition for a lot of reasons: guys turning pro, guys, unfortunately, Malek Young gets hurt. We're not quite at our numbers that will give us the full 85, but we're getting closer. And you want guys that can play at a level that will help you win a championship. You want guys who can play at a high level, and that's what we're working on.
You mentioned Malek's injury, which is awful. Is the secondary a big area where those freshmen might step in right away?
Richt: They're going to get their chance to play, for sure. Malek played a lot for us and played well for us. When you lose a guy like that, it's just opportunity for someone.
So Malik Rosier. Is he your quarterback? Is there a competition? How secure is that job?
Richt: Malik is the starting quarterback, for sure. Someone's got to dethrone him. Someone's got to beat him out if that's going to happen. It's not like -- to say it's wide open, every position is wide open because we want a competition at every level. Every player that comes back talks about the greatest competition they had was on the practice field. And I also want to go into this season with a sort of first-year mentality. Let's go compete. Show us you're ready to take somebody's job. But Malik is the starting quarterback, and he's going to be unless somebody knocks him off the perch.
The way the year ended looked bad for him, for sure, but he did make some big plays along the way, too.
Richt: I go back and watch TV copies of the games, and we don't win a bunch of those games without him making some plays. Was he consistent every game, every series? Probably not, but the guy made some plays that were game-winning plays. The Notre Dame and Virginia Tech games, those were less dramatic than five other games we played. Plays just had to be made.
What about N'Kosi Perry? We didn't get to see him last season, which probably surprised some fans. Was he making real progress behind the scenes?
Richt: A lot. He got a lot better. He's learning what to do. He's got a great skill set, but you can't compete until you really know what to do. He came in the summer, and he wasn't as ready as he might've been if he was a midyear enrollee. If he'd had all spring and summer and fall, maybe he makes a bigger push toward the job. But on the flip side, Malik played his tail off. I've said it a bunch of times: The guy earned it in practice. He practiced better than everybody and by a clear margin. But does N'Kosi have a skill set that's going to be fun to watch one day? No doubt about it.
Struggling to find that perfect last minute Valentine's Day gift? Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy, and his saxophone, have some advice for all those hopeless romantics out there. How about some hoops?
— Oklahoma State (@OSUAthletics) February 13, 2018
The Cowboys' hoops team, with recent ranked wins over Kansas and West Virginia, host Kansas State Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU/ESPN App).
Over the next few weeks, we'll be chatting with each ACC football coach to go over the highs and lows of 2017 and take a look at what's in store for spring practice and the season ahead.
First up, Boston College coach Steve Addazio, whose Eagles finished as one of the hottest teams in the league and with an offense that looks poised for big things in 2018.
The offensive breakout in the second half of the year surprised a lot of people. Did you see this coming?
Addazio: We felt great about where we were in training camp, from last year's bowl game. We were finally getting to what I felt was the right fit for us here. The bowl prep last year was an advantage. We felt pretty damn good. We were playing with a young quarterback and a young tailback, and there would be growing pains. We knew that. But then, really, what happened was: Early, we lost Jon Baker, our starting center. He really tied everything together -- made all the calls, the protections. He was a security blanket. When we lost him, it really affected us dramatically. We had to play a true freshman, who'd never played center in his life. We started him against Wake Forest. That was hard for anybody. The kid went on to have a great year, but it had more of an effect on a young quarterback than anyone, including us, expected. It stymied our growth a little, and it took us a couple, three games to get our sea legs back.
In the process, what happened was we lost Connor Strachan, Max Richardson -- we went on this injury routine that didn't stop. When we finally stabilized our offense, we lost the heart of our defense. We lost Harold [Landry], essentially for the rest of the year. Then we got against Notre Dame, and the next thing you know, we're just kind of bolo punched. But here's what you could see. We knew we'd have a really good football team, we just had to hang in there for a little bit while guys kind of reset.
Addazio: Anthony really started really coming on. A.J. started really coming on. Ben Petrula started really coming on. Little by little, it started to really click against Louisville. And you said, "We're going to be alright here." We felt great about it. I couldn't be more excited about where we're going right now. At the end of the year, we were down 10 starters. But here's the good news: Our team improved. And we have talent. We've got to get Anthony healthy. We have two backs that are the real deal. We've got two tight ends who can play anywhere in the country. We've got speed at wide receiver. Zach Allen is coming back with Wyatt Ray and Ray Smith, and we'll have like six linebackers that could start for anybody. We've got two safeties that are as good as there are in college football. We've got Hamp Cheevers at corner who came in for Kam [Moore]. We've got super-talented young guys. We feel like we've got a real team coming back.
That you can rattle off guys all over the depth chart is a big change from years past where there were maybe a lot more strengths and weaknesses.
Addazio: We've got a balanced team. We've got eight linemen that will come back with at least 10 starts under their belt. That's a lot now. I'm pretty optimistic. I'm not naive. I know it's a small margin of error. But we've got talent, we've got experience, and we've got some confidence, and the chemistry on this team, I think, is special.
You mentioned Anthony's injury. Is there a concern, especially for a young guy, that it's a big setback?
Addazio: Nothing is going to derail him in terms of his ability and confidence. He's just got to rehab and go through the process of getting back. It's solely time and effort and rehab. I don't think anybody is worrying about what's going to happen. He's going to be strong, and he'll be back. It may take the first couple games to get back in the saddle. But if you're a real baller, he'll shake it all off.
When I talked to A.J. after the season, he said over and over how he thought there were so many more ways for him to improve. That's sort of crazy for a guy who had a year like he did. What's the ceiling for him?
Addazio: He kept growing all year, and he's still growing. Where do I think he can be? If he stays healthy, I think he can win the Heisman Trophy here at Boston College. He's humble and he's smart and he knows he has a ways to go. He's pretty damn good, but that speaks to where he can be. If he's healthy, he's a unique player. A.J.'s going to be a beast.
Maybe more than just talent, one thing that really changed last year was style. You guys ranked 15th in plays per game last year after being 110th the year before. What happened?
Addazio: One of the interesting things is, with our tempo, the plays we ran per game, we were in the top 15, and some of those games, we slowed down because we were winning. We changed who we are, restructured who we are, and I think we're on to something special right now. We have the ability to give you a spread or a pro-style offense with one grouping, with great, fast tempo. I think we're on the cutting edge of something good right now.
LOS ANGELES -- When Chip Kelly strolled into UCLA's Wasserman Football Center last Wednesday for his second-biggest news conference at his new school, he was looking more beach bum than football coach.
Though many coaches around the country capped national signing day by sporting suits and even some ties during their end-of-day news conferences, Kelly greeted media members in Westwood wearing a charcoal UCLA T-shirt and shorts.
There was no podium. No seats for reporters.
It was as if Kelly was just passing through before stopping to talk for a little more than 12 minutes about his first full recruiting class with the Bruins.
His news conference was as laid-back as his outfit, and in many respects it was very symbolic of the recruiting class he just signed.
There wasn't much flash or flair to it. It was a good but not overwhelmingly great or exciting transitional class, and no matter which recruiting service you followed, it wasn't loaded with a bunch of stars.
According to ESPN's RecruitingNation, UCLA had the nation's 19th-ranked class with four ESPN 300 members and 16 three-star prospects among the 27 recruits. Unranked offensive tackle Jon Gaines completed the haul.
Some might wonder if Kelly's time away from the college game might have caught up with him in recruiting, but this was totally Kelly's style. A master of theatrics and razzle-dazzle on the field, his recruiting classes during his four years at Oregon were never really about the aesthetics.
Use the term "under the radar" if you want when describing many of the players Kelly has signed over the years, but he doesn't even pay attention to the radar. He looks for prospects who fit his systems and his university and who are receptive to his teaching and developmental methods.
The biggest takeaway from Kelly's first class at UCLA is that he isn't straying far from the formula that brought him so much success at Oregon.
Kelly prefers to exert his energy developing rather than chasing big fish.
"We're not concerned with stars, never have been," he said. "We're not driven by that.
"We take a kid because of what he does athletically and academically fits where we are."
That process didn't fail Kelly in Eugene, and he's hoping it propels him in Westwood.
Remember, this is the same coach who helped turn lesser-known Kiko Alonso into one of the NFL's best inside linebackers. He also turned former tight end Dion Jordan into one of the Pac-12's top defensive ends and the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Kelly also had two-star Marcus Mariota and three-star Johnny Manziel committed at quarterback in his 2011 class. Manziel eventually signed with Texas A&M and won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Mariota won it in 2014 and led the Ducks to the College Football National Championship game that season.
Kelly certainly has an eye for talent and couldn't care less about golden stars attached to players' names. And he's allowed to scoff at the notion of computer-generated star power after going 46-7 in four years at Oregon with the same amount of ESPN 150 members during that span as Alabama signed in 2012 alone (13).
For his UCLA debut, Kelly basically hit the reset button on the 2018 class and re-evaluated all committed and uncommitted prospects associated with the Bruins to figure out which pieces he needed -- and wanted -- for his program and his style.
Though UCLA signed 46 ESPN 300 members during Jim Mora's six-year tenure, the Bruins lost 32 games during that span. The stars were there, but the development wasn't.
It was the complete opposite at Oregon, whose success hinged more on developing the relatively unknown talent to fit what he needed.
Before Mora's firing at the end of the regular season, UCLA owned the nation's No. 14 class. However, Kelly signed just four of the original 18 players committed to Mora. Kelly ended up with eight signees during the early signing period in December and 19 more on Wednesday. This class wasn't as sparkly on paper as Mora's original 18, but it delivered the kind of balance and potential Kelly needed in his first class.
"We've got to recruit to what we want to build here at UCLA," Kelly said.
The second Oregon aspect that sticks out is the emphasis on size and length. The mostly dry Kelly was gushing about the measurables of this class after signing 16 players who are 6-foot-3 or taller. All eight of his offensive and defensive linemen hit that mark, and reminiscent of the days of Jordan, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner at Oregon, Kelly made sure he got enormous wingspans along his defensive line. That group includes massive 6-foot-8, 244-pound junior college transfer Steven Mason.
"Big people beat up little people, so we're looking for big people," Kelly said.
To create some mismatches with smaller Pac-12 defensive backs, Kelly signed receivers Bryan Addison, Chase Cota and Michael Ezeike, who are all 6-4 or taller. Three of the five defensive backs he signed are at least 6-foot, including monster cornerback Rayshad Williams, who is listed at 6-4 on UCLA's website.
To Kelly, length goes a long way in development, and when it comes to recruiting size for his systems, he said he'd rather take a chance on measurables than undersized projects.
One signee who isn't a risk is ESPN 300 quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The Bruins have a slew of projects in this class, but Thompson-Robinson, the nation's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, could make an immediate impact this fall.
And what a recruiting win for Kelly. He made sure Thompson-Robinson held his UCLA commitment from last April and left February's signing day with the signature of one of the best quarterbacks in the country -- a prospect who fits his offense as well as anyone could.
"He was a priority, to make sure we kept him committed," Kelly said.
Kelly’s first class at UCLA won't jump off the page for hardcore recruitniks, but it checked a lot of boxes. Could it have been better? Sure, and there's no doubt that it stung to watch crosstown rival USC have a monster signing day with the nation's No. 7 class -- including two top UCLA targets (linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu and cornerback Olaijah Griffin, a former UCLA commit).
But Kelly is content with his first class because he hit his areas of need with good depth and the kind of talent and potential he's looking for -- the kind no recruiting service would properly rate, in his eyes anyway.
This class will call Southern California its home, but it reeks of past Februarys in Eugene. Kelly's area code might have changed, but so far, he is implementing his Oregon method at UCLA.
But as the years mounted in the wait for a first conference title since 1999, chatter about a return to greatness in Lincoln drew dismissive looks from outside the borders of this state.
Then at some point over the past decade, the talk all but stopped in every corner of Nebraska.
A return to the 1990s, when the Cornhuskers won 60 of 63 games over five seasons and a share of three national titles? They would be advised to first avoid embarrassing home losses and join the 42 Power 5 programs that have won 11 games in a season since 2001 -- incidentally also the last year Nebraska beat a top-five foe.
The '90s became something of a sore subject, a source of discontent even among the people who work in the football and administrative offices of the building named after Tom Osborne on the north end of Memorial Stadium.
That is, until a big piece of a bygone era marched back into their lives.
New coach Scott Frost has made it fashionable again to long for the glory years. He has allowed a generation of fans who have never experienced a championship season to dream big and empowered those who remember it to talk openly about their feelings.
Just two months into Frost’s return, visions of greatness are wildly premature. They’re a symptom, in fact, of Frost Fever -- a condition that has taken hold here since the school announced on Dec. 2 the return of its former national championship-winning quarterback and native son. Frost directed UCF to a 13-0 season last fall in his second year as a head coach.
“He’s a rock star,” said athletic director Bill Moos, plucked from Washington State in October to make the decisions amid a 4-8 season that led to Frost's hire. “Nebraskans love him. They remember him. He gives them hope that the days of yesteryear can come back. And they can.”
In the past week alone, Frost Fever produced a sellout of the April 21 spring game -- 85,000 tickets claimed, most at $10 a pop in less than two days -- and much clamoring over the results of a recruiting class ranked 21st nationally.
Frost and his staff, transplanted in whole from UCF, pulled in 24 signees to build a class that sat outside the top 40 in the rankings two months ago. They landed eight prospects from Florida and won signing-day decisions for coveted targets from the Sunshine State, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and California.
“It’s one of the few times ever in college football where everything has been aligned,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “Where the administration, the school, the students, the fans, the alumni, the state, they all wanted one guy to be the head coach. And he became the head coach.”
Frost’s straight talk possesses widespread appeal.
“Our goal is going to be simple,” the 43-year-old coach said. “It’s going to be to get better, day by day to get better. And that means waking up and being better than you were the day before. Any challenge that comes in front of you, you’ve got to conquer it and overcome it, put your head on the pillow and get ready to do it again the next day.
“Nebraska football used to be built on being physical and tough and working harder than the other team. There’s some missing pieces here that we’re going to try to get back.”
Not surprisingly, the fan base, which has fueled 361 consecutive home game sellouts, fell collectively head over heels.
They showed up en masse to hear the new Nebraska assistants speak at banquet halls around the state last week in the wake of signing day.
“It’s more than I expected,” said Chinander, who first followed Frost from Oregon to UCF in 2016. “I’m a pretty realistic person. I thought I knew what to expect, but Scott was like, ‘It’s going to be crazy. People are going to know you everywhere.’ I was like, ‘I don’t think so. We’ve coached a lot of places.’”
Sure enough, Chinander said, it happened when he first rented a car in Lincoln. Another assistant was identified while shopping for a mattress.
“It’s crazy that they’re that passionate enough to know us by face when we haven’t even been in town,” Chinander said.
For Frost, though, the passion runs many times hotter. Before a visit last month to Omaha Burke High School, home to three elite 2019 and 2020 prospects with offers from multiple Big Ten and SEC programs, word spread that the coach was on his way.
Burke coach Paul Limongi hosted former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel at Limongi’s old school in Youngstown, Ohio.
“But nothing has been like Scott Frost [visiting],” Limongi said. “The excitement of the new beginning that everybody’s excited about, it’s really got people wanting to get a piece of him.”
Chinander estimated that Frost stopped 200 times on that day at various schools to sign an autograph or take a photo.
He’s got a bit of a Jim Harbaugh quality that way; Frost draws unusual attention at every turn. But you likely won’t find him in search of the spotlight, in contrast to Harbaugh’s occasional brow-raising tweets and public appearances.
Frost reportedly won over the mother of Nebraska signee Caleb Tannor -- a defensive end from Lithonia, Georgia, who had offers at one time from Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Florida -- by, without being asked, helping to stack chairs in the high school cafeteria.
As for the spring game interest, it’s unprecedented. Nebraska, despite drawing more than 60,000 for each of its past nine such events, has never sold out a scrimmage -- let alone sold it out in February. Last year, when the spring game attracted a crowd of 78,000, it took until March 28 to reach the same level of tickets sold in one day this year.
And that’s without selling seats to the general public (non-season-ticket holders) until the second day, when the remaining seats were purchased in 90 minutes.
The secondary market for Nebraska spring game tickets is hot. In anticipation, the school took measures to prevent resale on StubHub of youth tickets, provided for free to kids in eighth grade or below with the purchase of an adult seat.
Season-ticket holders were allowed to purchase no more than 20 tickets.
Some have connected the energy around Frost’s return with the success of the basketball programs this winter. After struggling last year, the Nebraska men sit fourth in the Big Ten at 10-4; the women are third at 9-3.
“Right now,” said Diane Mendenhall, senior associate AD for tickets, premium seating and strategic engagement, “there’s just so much enthusiasm for Nebraska athletics. Football, of course, is always top of mind.”
Moos, in his first year on campus, loves it. He took Frost over the past five days to Omaha, Arizona and California for a private audience with donors.
“This was a fan base that just a few months ago was fractured and, from my observation, filled with apathy,” Moos said last week. “I think now it’s a legit feeling of, ‘We’re going to get back to where we once were and where we feel is our rightful place -- and that’s in a position to compete for championships again.’”
The administration, you can see, is doing nothing to stop this talk of reclaiming lost glory. From 1970 to 2001, Nebraska won 34 more games than any team nationally and lost 18 fewer. Since 2002, its winning percentage ranks 29th in the FBS.
Moos’ bosses dared to get this talk started in September as they announced the dismissal of Shawn Eichorst, the athletic director who hired Mike Riley as coach in 2014.
“This is going to sound a little glib,” chancellor Ronnie Green said at the time, “and I don’t mean it that way, but I’d love to be back in mid-1990s. Right? I don’t need to say more.”
Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska system, immediately added his two cents.
“The truth of the matter is,” Bounds said, “why not? Why shouldn’t we have those aspirations here?”
Aspirations are one thing. Expectations are another.
Both appear on the rise, thanks in large part to Frost, at Nebraska.
The ink is barely dry on Keondre Coburn's national letter of intent, yet the Texas defensive tackle signee already got his first taste of Red River rivalry trash talk.
After Coburn, the No. 47 prospect in the ESPN 300, signed with the Longhorns, he posted a tweet discussing how relieved he is that his recruitment is complete, and he delivered a promise to Texas fans: His class will beat rival Oklahoma.
I'm so happy to finally be a longhorn baby this has been the hardest process ever but it's over and my next journey is in Austin and with my boys in this Revolution Class AND I PROMISE WE WILL BEAT OU and the rest of them><þ= pic.twitter.com/5Il1vSAmpB
— Keondre Coburnyy (@KeondreCoburn99) February 7, 2018
If you think that caught the eyes of some Sooners, you would be correct. That includes a certain somebody -- former Sooners quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield -- who couldn't help but chime in with his two cents.
In a tweet, Mayfield replied: "This is what we call being naive. Kid has no idea what it's like stepping into the Cotton Bowl. So here's how it works... The team north of the Red River doesn't flinch. But it's okay, you'll see for yourself, wish you the best."
Mayfield is never one to shy away from saying what he thinks or displaying his emotions, but it looks like he did flinch because not long after posting the tweet, it was deleted.
Reason No. 27,598 not to tweet at recruits.
Also, can October hurry up and get here so the Longhorns and Sooners can square off again on the field?