It never quite made sense. When Oklahoma would be looking for junior college help in the past, the Sooners would bypass the in-state school, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in Miami, Okla.
It didn’t matter that NEO was the only in-state junior college that offered football. If OU was looking to go the juco route, it was Kansas, Mississippi or out on the west coast.
There were no hard feelings. NEO’s leadership knew the No. 1 reason for why this was happening. Simply put, the talent wasn’t there.
“When I got here six years ago, it was all about getting that talent,” NEO recruiting coordinator and assistant coach Zach Allen said. “We had to start to get the guys that would make schools like OU and others want to come here.”
The task wasn’t easy, but it’s clear the Norsemen have reached that goal. Not just with OU, but other major Power 5 conference schools as well.
And while that’s great, there’s a certain pride that comes with being the in-state juco that is now officially sending recruits down to Norman.
(2015 OU commit Austin Roberts)
The first recruit should happen in a couple of weeks with defensive end Austin Roberts. Ranked No. 39 in the Juco 100 last year, Roberts picked OU over Nebraska and several other offers and is a part of the 2015 class.
Roberts committed to the Sooners last month, and it didn’t take long before he had company. Three-star cornerback Maurice Chandler, originally from Lawton (Okla.) High, pledged to the Sooners as well and is one of OU’s six commits for the 2016 class.
That “Okla.” label is starting to carry weight at NEO and with the Sooners. It was a goal for Allen and the staff, and it’s happening now.
“Our No. 1 goal in recruiting has always been to develop the relationships with the in-state schools,” Allen said. “We’re able to offer something here (juco football) that nobody else in the state can offer. We’ve got the program to develop kids.
“We work extremely hard to uncover every rock in the state. We’ll go up to the Panhandle down to the southeast corner of the state to southwest past Altus and try to develop any kids up here in our area. It doesn’t matter.”
NEO makes its living off the Oklahoma high school scene. But in order to get OU in the mix, the staff had to prove on a consistent basis that it was doing things the right way. It had to earn that comfortability factor that is so crucial in developing relationships in recruiting.
Allen said there isn’t one coach at OU that handles the load. He said it has been a staff-wide thing with the coaches showing interest.
(OU CB commit Mo Chandler)
“They’re very inviting and cordial,” Allen said. “Been talking a lot with Coach (Kerry) Cooks. It’s usually defense for OU right now. It starts at the top (Bob Stoops). They’re making the effort.”
That effort was once again on display last month at OU’s elite one-day camp. Numerous NEO coaches were a part of the staff assisting in the event. A great chance for the coaches to get to know each other better and a great chance for NEO to build that bond with some of the high school players.
A huge part of the emergence of NEO has been trying to erase the juco stigma. Going juco doesn’t mean you’re a screw-up. Going to juco doesn’t mean it’s because you’re not intelligent enough to make it to a Division I school.
Going juco now just means it’s another road to get toward the end game.
“It has been a huge priority for us to educate everybody in the state what’s here,” Allen said. “It’s a second chance. It doesn’t matter why you need it. It’s that’s second chance, an opportunity to take advantage of and make something happen.”
There’s a lot of pride in that happening from within the state borders. NEO has been producing the last couple of years one quality recruit after another, and that’s an outstanding sign for the state consider Allen said 80-85 percent is an OKPreps product.
(Linebacker Chris Baccus)
And OU might not be done yet, either, for this class. Linebacker Chris Baccus doesn’t have an offer, but he’s already made one unofficial visit and could be on the short list for an offer once the season rolls around.
“He has gotten quite a bit of attention,” Allen said. “He’s our leading returning tackler. He didn’t play linebacker in high school, but he has made the transition real well.”
It can’t just a one- or two-year thing. Allen knows for NEO to really matter it has to continue to stockpile quality recruits to be able to compete in a loaded juco conference and to be able to produce prospects for the Division I level.
That next big guy could be wide receiver Stephan Robinson from Moore (Okla.) Westmoore. An incoming freshman, Robinson sort of got lost in the shuffle at Westmoore, which is easy to do when eventual OU signee is also on the field.
Allen said it’s incredibly early for Robinson, but he’s already putting in the work that could set him up for future success.
It won’t just be on the field, though.
“We’ve had a good number, around 65-70 percent, of our guys who have been qualifiers,” Allen said. “That’s important to us. They’re not just going to take basket weaving or something like that to qualify. We want to make sure they understand we’re going to challenge them in the classroom.
“You’re working toward a four-year degree just like you’re working to play football. Both of them are great goals.”
Goals that are now being started at NEO with the hopes of finishing in Norman.