On paper, it’s easy to see why Washington offensive tackle Matt Farniok drew such heavy interest from so many major conference programs.
At 6-foot-5, 316 pounds, he’s built like a college offensive lineman – more specifically, he’s a Big Ten prototype.
“He’s definitely got the frame and length of a natural college offensive lineman and really as a run-blocker. He stood apart from some of the other guys (at the U.S. All-American Bowl),” said Scout.com national recruiting analyst Greg Powers. “He’s a guy that can just drive block. He gets off the ball pretty quick and can manhandle defensive linemen at the point of attack.”
“(Farniok) has got some edge and some nastiness to him,” said ESPN national recruiting analyst Craig Haubert. “Obviously, there’s some things to work on, but he does some little things well, like the way he uses his hands with positioning and creating leverage. I think there’s a lot of upside there.”
But the importance of Farniok’s decision to pick the Huskers over Iowa and Michigan State lies more in where he hails from than his talents as a player.
When you’re a program that’s entrenched in fertile recruiting territory (i.e. California, Texas and the Southeast), missing out on a four- or five-star recruit is usually forgivable. The talent pool for those teams is deep enough that they stand a chance of compensating for such a loss. But when you’re isolated from those football hotbeds, the pain of losing out on a highly-touted recruit from within your footprint is much more pronounced and can linger for quite some time.
In 2007, Nebraska lost out on Parkston lineman Riley Reiff, who switched his commitment to Iowa when the Cornhuskers fired coach Bill Callahan. Reiff flipped from defensive to offensive line with the Hawkeyes and went on to become a first-round draft pick. Obviously, that loss would have been much more pronounced if the Huskers weren’t still in the Big 12 at the time, but there certainly was a parallel between the importance of Reiff and Farniok.
“If Nebraska didn’t get (Farniok), I think he was going to be the kind of guy that Nebraska fans were going to hear, ‘Man, it would have been nice to have Matt Farniok,’” Sean Callahan of HuskersOnline.com said. “There aren’t that many guys like him in the surrounding footprint of Nebraska.”
According to Haubert, there have been fewer than 20 four-star recruits from Iowa and South Dakota (the two states closest to Lincoln) since 2006. Taking it a step further, whereas other Power 5 schools pull their players from within 300 feet of campus, Nebraska’s average distance is 800 miles.
When the Huskers signed Nate Gerry, a three-star cornerback from Sioux Falls Washington, in June 2012, it was their first scholarship signee from South Dakota since 2003 and just their third since 1997 – and he qualifies as more of a “diamond in the rough” find than a big-time signing.
“Gerry was a good get, but we didn’t know at the time how good of a get Gerry was,” said 93.7 “The Ticket” KNTK program director John Gaskins, who used to co-host a sports radio show on KWSN in Sioux Falls. “I think just because (Farniok is) four stars, this even felt like a more dramatically successful pickup because of what was at stake.”
For Nebraska, finding highly-touted recruits in its own backyard is rare. That’s why it went to such great lengths to recruit Farniok, even after Mike Riley took over for Bo Pelini in Dec. 2014.
Last year, former offensive line coach Barney Cotton flew one of the team’s private jets to see Farniok play in Rapid City. This season, Riley flew the jet out to Sioux Falls on multiple occasions on his own to watch Farniok play, plus numerous trips by his assistant coaches.
“You could argue that Nebraska has spent more time, effort and resources to recruit Matt Farniok the last several years – more money, more resources and time than on any recruit ever,” said Callahan. “As far as a guy they’ve wanted and targeted since really his freshman year, it’s almost amazing to think how much time and resources they’ve put in.”
“You have to give some credit to Mike Riley and his staff for seeing that they had a really good player in an area where you don’t necessarily get a lot of Power 5-type prospects,” Hubert said. “You start losing those players who are within an arm’s reach of your program, it makes everything you have to do more difficult.”
As for how he fits in with the Huskers, the depth chart is set up for Farniok to compete for playing time immediately. Nebraska enters spring camp with just four offensive tackles on its roster. Of those four, only one – redshirt freshman Nick Gates – brings any sort of significant experience.
“The tackle position at Nebraska is so wide-open,” Callahan said. “Matt has a great opportunity to compete and be a two-deep guy or even be a starter, very early in his career just based on where the tackle position is at right now.”
Isolating analysis to what he brings as a player, Farniok figures to be a vital piece for Riley as he works to re-establish the blue-collar, hard-nosed brand of football Nebraska (and the B1G as a whole) is known for. But on a much larger scale, his value to the program – no matter how his career in Lincoln unfolds – has already been established, and it has nothing to do with his qualities as a player.
“It would have almost been a bigger deal if they didn’t get Farniok,” Gaskins said. “Even if he doesn’t pan out, I still think the years and the time and the effort and the worry was all worth it because of what landing him represents.”