- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Gary Andersen's roots are on the defensive side of the ball, which came in handy the past six weeks. Andersen's first priority as Wisconsin's new coach was to defend and retain the team's verbally committed players from other potential suitors. He and his staff also had to add a few pieces to their first recruiting class. They did a good job of achieving both objectives as Wisconsin on Wednesday finalized a class of 17 scholarship players, headlined by ESPN 150 running back Corey Clement and junior college quarterback Tanner McEvoy.
ESPN.com caught up with Andersen on Wednesday to discuss his first recruiting haul.
What are some of the challenges you faced coming in when you did, trying to keep the committed guys, and then trying to go out and get some new guys?
Gary Andersen: I think the biggest challenge first of all was getting a staff put together. Thomas Hammock and Ben Strickland did an unbelievable job of really calming the waters when the transition took place. Once I was able to retain them on the staff, it took off from there. They had the parents settled, the coaches settled, the young men settled to say, 'Hey, let's just wait and see what happens here.' So that was a big first step. Secondly, it was getting the [remaining] staff hired, and thirdly, it was getting into their homes and presenting who we are as a program. The positive thing is you didn't have to go out and talk about education or a great program or facilities. What you had to do is go in and lay the groundwork of who we are as coaches, and work to start the trust factor that's really built over a period of six or seven months in the recruiting process, and try to get that down in three weeks. That's very difficult. But those were the major challenges. Most of our young men, except for the four we signed once we came here, had already taken [recruiting] trips, so we did have a little bit of a convenience there, being able to be out on the road some of those weekends. For me, there are 17 total kids, and the goal is to get into 17 homes in a very short period of time. We started with the commits we had and sort of went from there. There's a lot to it, but I'm very pleased with the coaches and grateful to the mentors, the parents, the kids and the coaches who hung in there with us and gave us a chance. It all ended very well.
How were you received by those players and their families? Did it surprise you one way or another?
GA: We were received at first cautiously, which I would expect. You get somebody walking into your living room or picking up the phone that is brand-new. They want to get to know you. They're people who have been through this recruiting process, and have great care for each one of the young men. So everybody's going to be guarded when they first get into that scenario. I'm never a guy who walks in and says, 'Hey, trust me right now.' I want to be able to earn your trust. But we got that done in a short period of time. They understood the direction we're headed. My big push, and it always is and always will be, is to let them understand that we're going to take care of the kids first. As we went through that process and they understood who we were. When we walked out of those homes, they felt very comfortable with us.
You inherited a roster that has three quarterbacks with starting experience (Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien). Why did you feel the need to bring in another quarterback, and why did Tanner appeal to you?
GA: You're right, there is great competition at the quarterback spot here. Last year, we had three young men start and play in games, and [they] have done some good things. But for us, just like every position, the key is to create as much competition as we possibly can. We had some injuries at the quarterback position. There were a couple young men who had injuries, a couple young men recovering from injuries. All of them look good, but there's still that question mark of 'are we healed and can we really get through a season in the Big Ten the correct way?' That played a factor into it. The next thing is Tanner's a tremendous athlete, a tremendous quarterback, and he does a lot of things that we like at that position. He strengthens our competition for next fall, and he has three years left. That was another thing that was very intriguing to us.
The other thing I liked is Tanner has had to fight his way here. He started off strong and got himself in a Division I school [South Carolina], and then he had to go back into the junior college and fight his way through there for a year. The story he tells about going through that process and making his decision in about four days to hop on an airplane to Yuma, Ariz., where he'd never been before. That builds toughness. It builds commitment to the sport of football. It helps him grow as a young man, which I think will continue to make him be a very good quarterback going forward. And he brings a lot of athleticism to the position. As we move forward, we'll see how that all filters out, but the best players are going to play, bottom line, and we have great competition there.
From talking with Coach [Dave] Aranda, he mentioned the need you have in the secondary after losing three starters. How did you address the cornerback and safety spots in this class?
GA: We signed five DBs. Keelon [Brookins] and Sojourn [Shelton] are already in the program, so they've got a head start, which is great for us and great for them. They'll be in spring football. Keelon will be not quite full speed yet with the knee injury he had, but Sojourn will be full speed and ready to go. We feel great about those two young men. With Jakarrie [Washington] and Matt [Hubley] and Donnell [Vercher], Jakarrie's definitely a corner, he's got tremendous speed and I like his athleticism and toughness. And Matt and Donnell will compete at the safety spot. I'm impressed with the young men who are in this program at the cornerback position and the safety position. These young men are going to come in and fight for those starting spots. I think we're going to be in good shape, but we had to get the numbers up to secure next year and the future, and we did that with the five young men we have.
Are you hopeful some of these recruits can help you this season?
GA: We'll see. The numbers are in a lot better spot. We're going to be a sub-package defense, so there are going to be times where there are three corners on the field and sometimes where there are even four corners on the field to match skill with skill. That presents an opportunity for more corners to play. That opens up the window of some more corners are going to get on the field, which gives these kids a chance to play earlier if they're prepared and if they're ready. It definitely gives Sojourn an upper hand to be involved in the spring and to learn from the players who are here. We'll get those young men ready to understand the scheme, and then we'll build the scheme around their abilities as we move forward.
Coming in from the outside, how important was it to keep top players within the state committed, players like Alec James?
GA: We had six young men from the state of Wisconsin. A mixture of positions there. The two defensive ends [James and Chikwe Obasih] were tremendous players in high school. I really was impressed with them and their tape, and then as I got to know them, they're young men who, if they take care of their business and prepare the right way, they may have a chance to do some things at a very young age in this program. Love those two. And then Hayden [Biegel] is just going to continue on with the offensive-line scenario, and we expect him to be great. T.J. [Watt], I'm sure he wants to be like his brothers [J.J. and Derek], and he wants to be the best one, so he's going to compete like crazy. To secure our state is unbelievably important to us. It's been a tradition here for a long time. It's something I'm very used to in coaching, as far as understanding the value of getting the young men from your state involved in your program. To have six of them this year is a big step and a big statement to our commitment to the high school programs in the state.
Running back has been a big spot at Wisconsin for a long time. What have you seen with Corey Clement as you've watched him and gotten to know him?
GA: I think Corey will fit in with the tremendous core of running backs who are already here. At Wisconsin, you can go and recruit any running back in the country, and he's going to be very excited about the university. Corey was no different. I'm so impressed with the crew here, their work ethic and their toughness, the way Thomas [Hammock] handles them as a position coach is very impressive. And when you look at Corey and you get into Corey's home, it's a great fit. His family is unbelievable, the expectations they have on him and the expectations Corey has on himself on and off the field are tremendous. He sets very high goals for himself and expects greatness. That's why he'll fit well into that room.
What's next for Wisconsin in recruiting, whether it's expanding to more states or targeting different levels of prospects?
GA: The recipe is so similar to me, and that's one of the reason I was so excited about this job. We're going to recruit the guys we like. We want to recruit our state first. I'm used to that. That's going to be No. 1 for us. That's zero change in the plan. Now when I say that, you can recruit nationally here. The education that you get here is so powerful. It's a world-renowned situation from an academic standpoint. That gives us an opportunity to get in a lot of homes and present that to them. That by itself is so powerful. I expect us to continue on those lines, secure our state first, secure the Midwest and do a tremendous job of reaching out to those young men who fit within our program, let young men know we're in this to take care of them, but we also will recruit nationally at any position because we can. A lot of people in this country are out there trying to sell a program to young men. That's not the case at the University at Wisconsin. All we have to do is show them who we are, what we're about, show them our facilities, show them our fan base, show them our tremendous talent in Madison, and we've got a great opportunity for them to hold their hand up in the air and say, 'That's where I want to be.' The future's very bright, and we'll recruit at a high level every single day.