I just want to start out by saying that I am very, very pleased with the way recruiting went this year. I think that our staff did a great job, not only in terms of recruiting, but the evaluations. It was the most efficient and effective year that we have had in recruiting, and I think that is a positive sign.
We received great support on campus from our players, support staff, administration, faculty; everyone has just been tremendous as they always have been.
I am pleased with the fact that we are getting favorable returns on this class, with the rankings and all of that type of thing, but I think recruiting rankings, and I have said this consistently, they are like preseason rankings in a lot of ways. They are projections based on past performance, but we still have a lot of football to be played.
Our focus is the player's seasons and how they end, and how a career goes, and it will remain there. That being said, you can't win football games if you don't recruit well, we all understand that.
Overall, I was very impressed with the class. The performance that all of our players have had during their high school years is certainly impressive, not only in football, as many of them were involved in other activities and sports as well. I think that I am most impressed with the attitude and intangibles that we were able to get familiar with during the recruiting process.
The other side bar is that I think that this group has developed an interesting chemistry, in many ways. The guys have really developed some relationships from different areas and different cities, and I think that is a start to future success for these guys.
It's been an enjoyable process for us; it can be a little bit of a grind, but it's been fun the last couple of months to get out in homes and in high schools to visit with some of our prospects, get to know them better and understand them better.
The bottom line is that our staff did a good job of getting on the right guys, and I think the process went the way that it should be. We are not selling beaches, we are not selling weather; our guys know that you don't come here with spotlights on and you don't run through dried ice to get out onto the field. What we have tried to do during this process is focus on the areas that we feel are going to be essential to their having success in their college careers. That is pretty much what we sell, and I think we have attracted a group that is looking for the right things and have made decisions based on their having success in college, and not the color of our helmets.
We think this is an outstanding group of players and we are really impressed with what we found. We think they have the necessary pride and desire that it takes to be a championship caliber student athlete in our conference. We are looking forward to working with them.
What examples of them being grounded can you share with us?
That is not our style. So I think immediately based on our style and geographic limitations, or what some people might say are geographic limitations that probably eliminates certain players. To me, that is where the process works, because recruiting does not always bring the best out of prospects and sometimes parents. We did not have one experience this year that was even somewhat entertaining, I guess. It was all very businesslike.
You look at a guy like Dan Doering; I don't know how many trips he made to campus to be around the program, to learn more about the school and the players. I think our prospects did their homework, and that is enjoyable when you have guys that are grounded; a lot of these guys do have some pretty impressive credentials. It strikes me as a group that is going to be fun to coach because of those characteristics.
How important was it for Jake Christensen to commit early in this class?
I think Jake had a major role. The interesting thing about him is that I pretty much made up my mind that we were going to recruit him before I ever saw him on tape. I spent a few days in Chicago last May just riding around with Coach Erb, and everywhere we went in the Chicagoland area, coaches were just talking about Jake. Some had faced him, but I am talking about guys from the North or the West. They had been at the playoff games and had seen him. To me, when you have that many knowledgeable coaches talking about that young man in such a fashion, that really piqued our interest. Then everything we found out after that was very, very favorable.
The fact that he committed early helped give us more credibility in the Chicago area. Jake and his dad (Jeff) were very aggressive. Quarterbacks are smart; it helps to have good teammates on both sides of the ball, so they were aggressive to help us recruit a good class.
Did everyone you expected to receive a letter of intent from fax one in?
It was really undramatic here the past 24 hours, which was great. The last bit of suspense that we went through was when Tony Moeaki announced at the US Army All Star game. Tony is a pretty good poker player; if it doesn't work out in football, he can be on that poker show on TV. We felt pretty good with the way things went. We thought that he had a great visit here and he seemed comfortable with our environment on campus and with our program, yet he really didn't tip his hand until that game.
There was some interested and intrigue through December and into early January, but one Tony cast his lot, things were on course for us.
So are you picking walk ons right now?
We are going through that process right now. We have had some on campus and I am sure that we will have a few more. That is an ongoing process for us, certainly, with the major focus being in state.
Is this going to be the entire class?
I think we are pretty close, if not there.
Can any of these players contribute to the program right away?
Time will tell. With the graduation we had on the defensive line…I say this every year, but it seems that defensive players usually have a little better opportunity and that is probably true with some skill players on the offensive side of the ball, too.
The graduation of the four guys up front, we are looking for all of the help that we can get. That process has already begun, through the bowl game and through spring practice. There may be an opportunity there.
We had two guys play in the secondary as true freshman this year, and looking at the running back situation, we are cautiously optimistic, but we have a lot of ground to cover there, too. So there would be some areas that jump out.
You are making good inroads in Ohio. Who recruits that area for you?
Ken and Eric Johnson recruit that area. Ken has a pretty good background in the Cleveland area. He went to school there at John Carroll, and then coached in Meadville, (Penn.) at Allegheny, which is in close proximity. He has some good ties in there and a lot of players have left the state of Ohio and have had success in the conference, so we look at that as well.
There are a handful of Iowa players in this class. Is it still a priority to get the best players from the state?
That remains our first goal. On the field, our goal is to be the Big Ten Champions in November, and we feel that it all starts in Iowa for us and then spreads to the Midwest. That is where Chicago ties in a little bit. We made the decision to treat Chicago like part of our state. There are not a lot of people in this state, and a few are still down there in Orlando. So with the population base being what it is, we have to look elsewhere. Chicago makes perfect sense. You can be in the West Suburbs in three hours and in downtown in three and a half. So we have tried to make a good effort there. But we are pleased with the way things went instate and in the Midwest
Do you see Tyler Blum fitting in on the defensive side of the ball?
That will be our starting point on the defensive line. We like to recruit guys that are flexible and who have position flexibility, and Tyler is a great story.
Jim Zalesky was the first guy to give us the tip on Tyler. I think Jim saw him back in his sophomore year. He contacted Reese (Morgan) and Reese followed up and we have been in hot pursuit of Tyler since that point, so he impressed us at an early age.
I think he does have the flexibility of helping us offensively or defensively. Right now, we think that he can be an excellent defensive player, so that is where he will start out. Our needs at that position makes our plan to keep him right there.
Four of your incoming defensive linemen are wrestlers. Is there a correlation there?
I learned that in the 1980's coming here from Pittsburgh. Wrestling in Pennsylvania is pretty serious, but the intensity that it has in this state is very impressive.
I never coached a guy that was a good wrestler who didn't turn out to be a good football player. It doesn't mean that they are going to be great football players, but there were never bad ones, because they know how to compete and they have great pride.
So that has really continued on. We like seeing guys play in a lot of sports, but wrestling is really one that is more popular in this part of the country and we have had pretty good luck with those guys.
Does it help defensive linemen more to have a wrestling background?
I think the leverage, the hand-to-hand combat, and all of those things; but to me it comes down to the competition. There is nobody to blame in wrestling, other than your practice partner. When you get on the mat, it's you and someone else competing. When you go through that experience, it helps a player develop.
You have been knocking on the door of some high profile defensive linemen the last few years. Was this a breakthrough year for you?
We are really happy with the group that we were able to sign. We were hoping it would work that way; it's an area that we have neglected a little bit in terms of numbers since we have been here. We have always been worried about other areas, so we wanted to focus on that, the same way with the defensive line.
That runs parallel with our recruiting success in general, is that we have demonstrated some success out there on the field and after a while that starts to have an effect.
How much effect has the success of your team, the bowl games, etc, had with regards to players opening their doors for you?
I think we are being received a little bit more enthusiastically. It goes back to after we won the Alamo Bowl. I didn't feel that it was going to give us a great thrust during that class, but it gave us some credibility and that has continued. We have put together some statistics that are pretty impressive to young players looking at us, and you couple that with a great institution, and most importantly, great people involved. You have those things going for you. The trick for us is to get the players on campus. If we can get them to travel to campus, that gives us a great edge.
In the past, it seems like you have gone after players with chips on their shoulders, like a Bob Sanders, who were over looked. Now, you are getting players that everyone wanted. Can that work for you, too?
I hope so, but I know what you mean. I think that gets back to the intangibles. That is what we are still looking for number one. That is where the recruiting process works, because when they do come here and visit our campus, we are not selling pipe dreams. What we talk about is what is real and what they have to go through. We let them know how demanding it is to be a top caliber student athlete, because we have high expectations for the guys on our football team. We talk very candidly about that, so all of them understand what to expect when they get here, to the best extent that they can at this point.
I think they get that from our players when they are around those guys. Our players don't paint a rosy picture; they tell them that it's tough. But we all believe that is what it takes; to be really happy in November, it takes a lot of work and sacrifice. To earn a degree from a Big Ten institution, they don't just hand those things out. Those are the two things that we try to tell our guys.
Recruiting classes like this are going to cost you your underdog and no respect role.
I am sure there are plenty of teams way ahead of us. We won't have any problem with that next fall. I was looking at those top five polls after the national championship game, and I didn't see us on there. So we still have some work to do.
How does this class help for that (competing for national titles)?
Maybe long term it will. It's all about building. We have told all of these guys that we are not counting on any of them to come in and save our football team next year; I think that would be unrealistic. I am sure that we will get some contributions from some of the guys in this class, but it's more long term and all about a process. The big thing is that we don't stray off of the path that we have been on. That is the biggest challenge that we have been facing for the last two years and we will continue to face. Everyone here needs to be aware of how competitive things are and if we are going to stay in the area we have been in the last couple of years, its going to be tough. We lost a lot of good seniors off of this last football team and we are going to lose a lot more this coming year. You are always in the process of meeting the criteria that the guys in front of you have set.
Do you have satisfaction seeing guys that you recruited and missed out on, develop at other schools, knowing you were in on right guys
Yeah, we do. We don't dwell much on the guys that don't come here, but we do stay aware of what is going on, to see how close we were on our evaluations and that type of thing. That is a part of the process.
Talk about Marshal Yanda
He enrolled the day after Martin Luther King Day, and is in the program doing a great job. He is a great story.
We didn't start out this year looking to recruit any Juco players. He would be the first to tell you that a couple of years ago, it dawned on him too late the kind of potential that he had and maybe the interest that he had in playing Division 1 football.
I give him an awful lot of credit, because he invested two years and did a great job at NIACC and took advantage of his opportunity. We really like him. We felt comfortable from the first time that he came on campus, and we are really excited to have him in the program now.
Is linebacker a position that you feel like you missed out on this year?
We came up one short at that position. We would have liked to have had at least one more and we were in on a couple of good football players and they chose excellent programs and excellent schools. With the guys we have graduating next year, that will be first and foremost for next year.
Vernon, that was the luxury of being in the bowl game. It was quite coincidental. One of the security police (Henry) that was escorting us in Orlando had a wife who was the principal at Vernon's school. Henry told us about him a little bit, his coach dropped some tape off and said great thing about Vernon. Ron (Aiken) looked at the tape down in Orlando and we really liked it and as soon as we were able to get on the road, Ron and Phil (Parker) went down there and visited with him and he came to campus and things worked out beautifully.
If we had not been playing in Orlando, that wouldn't have taken place.
Dana Brown is a guy who really came on his senior year. He was a good football player throughout his career, but he just had a great senior year. I don't know if he was overlooked or not, but when we saw the tape, we were really excited about him.
The most impressive play that I saw him involved in…he is an excellent running back and had a lot of great ball skills, but I was more impressed with him running down on a kickoff more than anything. He was running way out ahead of the rest of the guys and the first person that he hit knew he was there. It was pretty impressive. He is a little reminiscent of some of the guys that we have had play for us; we really like that.
Talk about recruits connecting on personal level; was the huge December 10th visit weekend a part of the plan?
Because of our academic calendar, we try to get as many of the top prospects in town that we can prior to the holidays. That is tough, because we would rather stay away from games (football) if we can; we had three official visits during the season. That really spreads it over three weekends.
One of them is not great, because school is out and we have prospects coming on campus. I would rather have balance. The first weekend of December has been tough for us. We have had five to eight typically. It seems to be the weekend that we get the biggest group (2nd weekend in December), and a lot of momentum and relationships were established.
Part of it was strategic, geographically or guys that had developed relationships during the recruiting process, because a lot of those guys visit other campuses as well. It does not hurt. It was not purely planned. Some of it was fate or chance.
Recruiting has developed a big following. Does that make it harder or easier?
I think the biggest comment I would have is that it is interesting to see how it affects the people involved; the prospects, their families and their coaches. It really has changed. When I was gone from the college game for nine years it impacted me when I got back. The 85-man roster was a big thing, and then the rate of recruiting, the attention that it has gotten.
The Army All Star game was on ESPN2 at one point, and its on NBC now. It poses a challenge for the prospects, because of the attention that is focused on that can take them off track if they are not careful.
That is one of the great things about this class, the way that the players went through the process. They really impressed me, doing the right things, doing the right research. To me, that spells that they are more apt to be satisfied customers when they get here, because they knew what they are getting before they got here.
Did you look to find a punter this year?
Not really. We have two young guys on campus right now that have done a good job and I was really impressed with what they did during the bowl preparation in the month of December. I think with both John and Andy, there will be pretty strong competition this spring. It will be fun to watch and see how those guys compete. It will be like the quarterback races of the past; it will go right into camp and who knows.
How about a place kicker?
We will continue to look for some guys if they want to join the program, but as far as scholarship in a place kicker, that would be a luxury at this point. We are real pleased with what Kyle has done. He has a few years to go, so we are a year or two away from that being a topic of consideration. We will go for two or the first down if we have to.
Will there be a spring game this year?
Probably not. I don't want to put all the water on the fire yet, but probably not. Logistically, it will be tough. That was part of the thinking last August to have two events opened up. I am not sure if we will be able to do that this year, based on the construction. If it's possible, I would like to do two things again. I think that is good for our players. Probably not, but that is not definite.