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Nebraska's recruiting success in California is only getting started

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Huskers have a surprise talent pipeline (2:31)

Recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to explain how Nebraska has been able to land so many ranked recruits from California. (2:31)

ESPN Junior 300 QB Tristan Gebbia’s commitment to Nebraska, on Monday, gave Cornhuskers head coach Mike Riley his third ranked commitment from the state of California.

Riley has had previous coaching stops at USC and with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, as well as his most recent stop as head coach at Oregon State. It’s that past success in California combined with the current opportunities at Nebraska have made the Huskers an intriguing program for recruits on the West Coast.

Nebraska director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson says that California is a priority for the staff as well as some of the bigger talent producing states across the country, mainly because of Riley’s notoriety and the opportunity to secure top talent.

“California is just an area that we have history and some really strong connections, and we know more people and they know our coaches,” Gunderson said. “When we talk about recruiting those major states like California, Texas, Georgia and Florida, we try to identify the best players and then quickly decide how recruitable they are and begin heavily recruiting the prospects we have a connection with. I just think that so far in California, we have found more prospects that we have a major connection with.”

That includes ESPN Jr. 300 wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson Jr., whose father, Keyshawn Johnson, played for Riley at USC in the mid 90’s, when Riley served as offensive coordinator for the Trojans.

The elder Johnson has talked to his son about Riley and even some of his son’s teammates at Calabasas, California, high school, who also happen to be top targets for Nebraska.

“A lot of people know Coach Riley personally out here,” Gebbia said. “… He seems like a great guy to play under and I think a lot of people are taking notice of that.”

One of those taking notice is Gebbia’s teammate Darnay Holmes, an ESPN Jr. 300 cornerback. The No. 2 player in the state is being heavily recruited from team all over the country but is looking hard at the Huskers.

Prior to 2016, Nebraska had only landed one ESPN 300 recruit from California, going all the way back to 2006. That alone is a signal to Riley’s influence on the program’s recruiting.

The initial intrigue of Riley has gotten players interested, but once the recruits get to campus, they say that the Huskers’ coaching staff has a way of making the recruits feel at home.

Comfort level is always a big factor for prospects, and Holmes says that is one of the biggest things he noticed with the Nebraska coaches.

“Just the way they bring guys in and treat them like they’ve known them since day one,” Holmes said. “The coaches are just down to earth and they know what to do to get guys there. They tell you the truth, they don’t sugar coat anything and they just talk about what’s best for you.”

Part of the ability to make prospects feel comfortable is that the staff has been together. Most came to Nebraska with Riley from Oregon State. That chemistry among the staff has been noticed by recruits as well and adds to the appeal for targets.

While Nebraska hasn’t had much success in California prior to Riley, the recruits now see the situation in Lincoln as an opportunity for them to start something new. Riley and his staff have talked about the opportunity to help rebuild Nebraska into what it used to be, a national powerhouse.

The notoriety and comfort level are all factors for prospects, but they also want to win. Success on the field is something that Gebbia says he, and other recruits, see in Nebraska’s future, which is also attracting them to Riley and his staff.

“It’s definitely that we could start something special at Nebraska and help Coach Riley build that,” Gebbia said. “I think the sky is the limit for that program because they’ve only been there for six months and they had some close losses last season. As long as they get some of the recruiting pieces, I think they will win there, which will help land more recruits.”