||Sunday, December 30
Updated: December 31, 12:43 PM ET
Instate recruiting fuels Big Red Machine
By Wayne Drehs
PASADENA, Calif. -- The Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s and the Soviet hockey teams of the same era originally shared the nickname and brought it to the national stage. But perhaps no athletic team is more deserving of the moniker "The Big Red Machine" than Nebraska football.
After all, the state of Nebraska is hardly recognized as a hotbed for high school football talent. Yet each year, into The Big Red Machine goes a new group of tall, skinny, underdeveloped Nebraska boys. And in time, out spits a massive, rugged, disciplined group of football players.
"It's like a factory," said senior offensive tackle Dave Volk of Battle Creek, Neb. "They bring you in, you redshirt a year, put on 15 or 20 pounds, learn what everything is all about, get bigger, get stronger, and then come out one hell of a football player."
This year, 94 of the 170 kids on the Cornhuskers roster -- nearly 53 percent -- hail from Nebraska. Included in those 94 are nine who will start against Miami on Thursday in the national championship game.
"We wouldn't be where we are today without the assistance of our instate recruits," said Nebraska coach Frank Solich, who inked 27 instate recruits in his first three seasons as head coach. "Because of the small recruiting base, we must recruit on a nationwide basis, but those kids from home are vitally important to our success."
It's nothing new to keep talented players from your state in your state. After all, 52 of Miami's players are from Florida, and the Hurricanes had to kick, bite and claw with Florida State and Florida just for those. It's just that in Nebraska, there isn't much superstar high school football talent to begin with. And yet the Huskers keep finding ways, despite their state's relatively small population, to use instate players to key their success.
"When you look around the country at the high school All-Americans and the guys who are supposed to be the next big thing, you don't see a whole bunch of Nebraskans," said senior defensive tackle Jeremy Sletcha of Lavista, Neb. "We get to where we are, year in and year out, because of how hard we work."
Which is where the machine comes in. Husker Power, the school's strength and conditioning program, is often the standard by which all other programs are judged. It consists of 14 full-time staff members, along with eight graduate assistants, 11 student staff members and four consultants. The staff is comprised of strength and conditioning coordinators, as well as nutritionists. Each program is tailor-made for that specific individual.
And the 30,000-foot main strength training facility is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the country.
So while Miami, Texas and Florida State scour the country for the biggest talents in the land, Nebraska more or less looks for people who will fit its mold. A big, burly offensive lineman with a mean streak here, a quick, shifty, tough-as-nails quarterback there and -- presto! -- you have the Cornhuskers.
"These coaches know what they're doing," Sletcha said. "They know that if you put some hard-working, blue-collar Nebraska kid into this system, and he listens and buys into it and does everything you ask of him in the weight room and out, in three or four years he's going to be a very fine football player."
And a big part of knowing that, says Huskers defensive end Chris Kelsay, is continuity in the coaching staff. Despite Solich replacing legendary coach Tom Osborne four years ago, the staff has had very little turnover. All but two of the staff's nine coaches have been in Lincoln for at least five years. The average coach has worked at Nebraska since 1987.
"Because of that, you have a consistent, almost set-in-stone knowledge of what the structure should be and what it takes to build football players," Kelsay said. "It's a perfectly structured machine that just knows how to mold 'em."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Walk-on program is Nebraska's secret sauce