After seeing the success of last summer's “Friday Night Lights” prospect showcase, Nebraska knew the potential was limitless for what the event could become.
That proved true in a major way this time around on Friday.
With an announced 6,718 fans in attendance - though the actual final count was likely much higher - this year’s Friday Night Lights camp was unlike anything the NU program had seen, and that probably goes for most every program in the country.
Along with thousands of fans cheering on more than 25 prospects holding Husker offers, including 14 four and five stars, there was also a Fan Fest event that offered free catered food, games, and face painting before the camp.
There was even a live DJ playing music through the Memorial Stadium speakers during the event.
“I didn’t know what to really expect,” NU head coach Mike Riley said. “I think it was awesome. What a great, electric atmosphere. We really appreciate it. That’s a pretty good picture for some of these guys that are both coming (to Nebraska) and thinking about coming tonight. They got a pretty good glimpse of how our fans think of our team, and maybe our future team.”
The higher-profile players in attendance were certainly shown plenty of love from the massive crowd. Four-star 2018 cornerback commit Brendan Radley-Hiles was far and away the star of the show, and he even got a rousing round of cheers from the fans as he took the field.
Guys like five-star linebacker Micah Parsons and four-star running back TJ Pledger (an Oklahoma commit) also got their share of attention, having their names chanted by the crowd as they waved and “threw the ‘bones” in appreciation.
“I think they really enjoyed that,” Riley said. “We all know Memorial Stadium at night is electric anyway, so you take a deal like this - our fans are knowledgeable, so they know a lot of the guys that were here tonight, and there were a lot of good players.
“I think that the players and the fans enjoyed it, and that’s pretty special. I think almost every player that I talked to about it, none of them had ever experienced something like this. I really makes it fun to be a part of it.”
Riley said having that collection of talent together to see one of the most unique Husker football events in recent memory could pay off in a major way down the road for the remainder of the 2018 class and beyond.
“It was a good group of athletes across the board position-wise,” Riley said. “There were some guys that were definitely prospects that we know. There were some commitments out there, some offers out there, and some guys that we’re really recruiting hard at this point.
“There were some young guys. That’s always really helpful. We’re way ahead in our evaluation for 2019 and even some into ’20, so we got a glimpse of some of those guys too.”
FNL camp further solidifies current commits
This year’s Friday Night Lights camp wasn’t just about wooing uncommitted prospects, but also further selling a number of players already verbally committed in the 2018 class.
In fact, eight of the 10 players the Huskers currently have committed for ’18 either participated or attended the event: Radley-Hiles, four-star receivers Joshua Moore and Manuel Allen, four-star defensive back Chase Williams, three-star offensive lineman Will Farniok, three-star defensive linemen Masry Mapieu and Tate Wildeman, and three-star kicker Barret Pickering.
Riley said it was extremely valuable to get the majority of the current 2018 class together for that kind of experience, as it should go a long way in strengthening the bond between them.
“This was kind of a gathering time for that group, and I think that’s one of the good things about them being here, is they get to know each other,” Riley said. “I think we have recruited a bunch of like-minded guys. They have a vision like I do, and they want to be great. It was fun to see that group out there tonight.”
Friday only the start of things to come for FNL camp
As impressive as Friday night was, Nebraska is still only getting started in perfecting the event.
After getting a taste of what the Friday Night Lights camps could be last year, Riley said this time around was just the next step in maximizing its massive potential.
“I’m really proud of the people that are with me, because for them, the night like a year ago created a think tank for them to grow it,” Riley said. “So we keep searching for ways to do this better, and I like that. I like that energy from our team.
“I think that we have to do that on the football end of it and in the evaluation/recruiting end of it. That has to be something that we keep kind of pushing the envelope and trying to make it better.”
What's next for NU's staff?
When Friday’s event came to a close, it also marked the end of camp season for Nebraska’s coaching staff.
They would still continue to host the many recruits on campus Sunday, but after that their focus would go back to focusing on getting their current players ready to go for the start of fall camp at the end of July.
Riley said he made it a point when scheduling NU’s satellite camps to hold them all over the course of just one week. He also made sure not to bring entire staff so there would be coaches in Lincoln to be a part of daily training sessions.
“Next week will be an exclamation point, because our coaches after next week will have a break and go on vacation,” Riley said.
“So next week for our staff, we’re going to stay in house, we’re going to do a lot of our (fall) camp preparation, and we’ll also continue to do our recruiting for this (2018) class. This will be I hope a really productive week, a pretty intense week for our staff.”
Booker makes unofficial debut as safeties coach
Another wrinkle to Friday’s camp was that it was the unofficial debut for Scott Booker as Nebraska’s new safeties coach, as he was promoted from an analyst role after Bob Elliott suddenly stepped down earlier this week.
Riley said he couldn’t be more thankful that such a qualified candidate was already on the staff following Elliott’s unexpected departure, which was said to be for personal reasons.
“I was so thankful, in a really rough situation with Coach Elliott - and we’re still hopeful that he gets back to help us - but we were so thankful that Scott Booker was here,” Riley said. “We had him as a consultant, and that ended up being a long-term interview.
“Getting to know Scott, watching him do his work, watching him work with our coaches, preparing our coaches as a consultant, it was a no-brainer for me when I had to deal with a rough situation with Coach Elliott. So I was really thankful that Scott was here and had gotten to know him. I think it was seamless that way.”
Riley reiterates door still open for Johnson Jr.'s return
The annual offseason roster attrition started last week with the loss of freshman wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and redshirt freshman linebacker Greg Simmons.
Johnson Jr., one of the centerpieces of Nebraska’s 2017 class, made the majority of the headlines for his unexpected move back home to California.
Riley reiterated that the former Calabasas, Calif., standout would be welcomed back with open arms when he was ready to return, but was unclear as to when that could be.
“That’s a situation where there’s actually a lot of variables there,” Riley said. “We’re disappointed that he’s not here with us right now today. I think there’s kind of a wellness factor for Keyshawn going home.
“We talked to him about the possibility of maybe enrolling part-time and taking care of his progress towards his degree and also getting in great shape. We opened the door for a return, which is just kind of left open that we’ll deal with at the time that he is physically, mentally ready to do that.
“We have an open door, and we have no set date. I don’t think it will be this fall, but that’s where we are right now.”
***During Nebraska’s “Husker Tour” last month, Riley made a comment that he thought there could be a chance that the Huskers could fill their 2018 recruiting class as earlier as July 1.
Seeing how that date is now a week away, does Riley still think that was an attainable goal?
“I knew that question was coming,” Riley said with a smile.
“I hope tonight was a really good recruiting night. Maybe through this, we’re going to get maybe another one or two commitments in this next span of time after this camp, just because of what we’re doing this weekend.
“We also have a big recruiting day tomorrow with a lot of these same players that were hear tonight. This is kind of continuing work, and I like where we are right now.”
***Riley said outside of Johnson Jr. and Simmons, there were no other roster departures to report at this time.
***One Husker injury note was with freshman linebacker Avery Roberts, who was seen with a protective boot on his right foot at Friday’s camp.
Riley said Roberts “sprained some ligaments” in his foot, and the recovery timeframe could be as long as six weeks. Riley said he was hopeful that Roberts would be ready for the start of fall camp.