LINCOLN, Neb. -- If you’re familiar with Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, you understand that he’s not the best candidate to dive over a table.
The 30-year-coaching veteran, in fact, might struggle hurdle a shoe box. But a week ago Wednesday night, seated in the kitchen at the South Dakota home of ESPN 300 offensive tackle Matt Farniok, Cavanaugh fought back the urge to go airborne.
In delivering his commitment to the Cornhuskers over Iowa and Michigan State, Farniok didn’t even let Nebraska coach Mike Riley get to his pitch. Nebraska poured a full year of effort into recruiting Farniok -- longer if you count the work of the former coaching staff. With seven days left to recruit for this class, it paid off.
Riley lobbied for the last home visit and got it. He brought offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and Cavanaugh, the vertically challenged but endearing assistant. Early in their visit, when Farniok cut the suspense and accepted the Huskers’ scholarship offer, Cavanaugh said, “I almost frickin’ dove over the table.”
Farniok is the poster child among the Huskers’ 21-member group that was finalized Wednesday and ranked 26th nationally. He’s not the most heralded signee -- No. 3 athlete Lamar Jackson, No. 5 guard John Raridon and No. 6 safety Marquel Dismuke are ranked higher -- but Farniok meets all the criteria to qualify as exactly what Nebraska needs to regain contender status.
He’s local by Nebraska standards, well within the 500-mile radius of Lincoln, an often-stated target zone. He plays a position vital to Nebraska’s success and one that has tormented it in recent years with bad luck and poor development. The Huskers, rich in history, last produced all-conference tackle in 2003.
Farniok selected Nebraska over the two teams that played for the Big Ten title in December. It's a victory more symbolic than substantial, but sends a message nonetheless.
And, most important, the Huskers’ genuine, sustained effort to land an elite prospect represents the method through which Riley plans to build. He said the Huskers recruited Farniok “the old-fashioned way,” nurturing relationships and stressing real talk.
“It never felt like a recruiting thing,” Farniok said. “it wasn’t a lie. They meant what they said. It felt like the right place for me. Whenever I would daydream about football, I always came back to doing it at Nebraska.”
A year ago, when the Huskers’ new staff got involved with Farniok and Cavanaugh met his mother, Christine Jones, she asked the coach about the returning offensive linemen at Nebraska.
Cavanaugh swallowed hard.
“I looked her right in the eyes and said, ‘To be honest with you, Christine, I don’t know,” Cavanaugh said Wednesday, recalling the conversation. “I’ve watched some of them on film, but I don’t want to watch too much and get a preconceived notion.
“Next year, I’ll be able to answer a lot of stuff for you.”
He stuck to his word. To Riley, it was “very encouraging” to see that “if we do this right,” big things can happen.
“It’s got to be the right process,” Riley said. “It’s got to be individualized to the right people.”
Translation: Nebraska won’t consistently score big with recruits by fishing for headlines. Not this Nebraska, at least, which doubled down 14 months ago on substance over style with Riley and his diligent cast of coaches.
Few of the new signees picked the Huskers because of their flashy play or trendy brand. None picked Nebraska for the weather.
“These guys get why they are coming to Nebraska,” Riley said. “Eventually, after you get past all that, this is an important decision that involves real stuff, and it involves somebody’s child that has to be at the right exact place.”
In his words, a vision has emerged of how the Huskers might look as winners under this regime. Despite the 6-7 finish in Riley’s first season, it’s much easier to see the blueprint than a year ago.
It was chaos, as Cavanaugh described it, when the new coaches arrived in December and tried to piecemeal a recruiting class without long-standing relationships.
The Huskers didn’t win every battle this year. Top-rated, Nebraska-bred prospects left for Arizona State and Iowa. Nebraska whiffed on a high-impact pass rusher.
But Riley, sick last year on signing day from the travel and lack of sleep, appeared refreshed Wednesday, invigorated by the likes of Farniok.
And if Cavanaugh actually leaves his feet in the future, they’ll really be on to something.