NCF On The Trail: Wisconsin Badgers

If Jim Harbaugh takes the Michigan job, it could shake up the recruiting race in the Big Ten. Plus, Paul Chryst’s hiring at Wisconsin makes a lot of sense.

Top sleeper commits: Big Ten 

December, 17, 2014
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Five-star and ESPN 300 prospects create the most buzz, but with more than a hundred FBS programs competing for talent it takes more than just those top-rated prospects to have success. Rosters are built largely with prospects who enter college with little fanfare, but their development and contributions are key. Every year we see prospects who flew under the radar but developed into some of their conference's top players.

Throughout our evaluations we come across many players who show promise and are great additions based on their upside for development and/or scheme fit.

Here are five commitments in the Big Ten who we feel are unheralded but additions worth keeping an eye on:


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Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

December, 16, 2014
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We are almost in the home stretch on our way to signing day, so coaches are pushing it into overdrive to finish out their recruiting classes.

Here is a look at the latest news on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten.


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Wisconsin landed a four-star running back on Thursday despite not having a head coach. Plus, Nebraska is already impressing rival recruiters with its effort on trail.


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Big Ten season recruiting superlatives 

December, 11, 2014
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While the recruiting season isn't quite finished, we are done with the regular season. It has been a crazy year within the Big Ten with coaching changes, big commits and big decommits as well. Here is a closer look at the Big Ten's recruiting superlatives.


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Late last week, Oregon State commitments and recruits were blindsided by the news that head coach Mike Riley was leaving for Nebraska. While some commits remained on board, others quickly straddled the line between staying and leaving. Two -- linebacker Tyrin Ferguson and safety Adrienne Talan -- announced their decommitments.

Less than a week later, those same Oregon State commits were blindsided yet again, but this time the news was far more positive. The Beavers announced former Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen would be taking over in Corvallis.


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Ameer Abdullah, Tevin Coleman, Melvin GordonUSA TODAY Sports, Getty Images, USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, Tevin Coleman and Melvin Gordon ran right past short-sighted scouting reports.


On Thursday night, the Big Ten’s top three running backs will throw on their best suits and stroll down the red carpet for the Home Depot College Football Awards.

There, they’ll sit patiently and await a single line for the entire night: “I am proud to announce the recipient of the 2014 Doak Walker Award ...” No matter who wins -- Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah or Tevin Coleman -- this trio has already made history. Never before have the finalists for the award all come from the same conference.

And, truthfully, no one really expected these three to be standing on this stage back in high school.

These three weren’t blue-chip, can’t-miss prospects from the ESPN 300. These were the blue-collar players, the underdogs who overcame countless doubts and questions to establish themselves among the nation’s elite. One scouting service wrote that Gordon would have to switch positions to find success. Some scouts believed Indiana’s Coleman was better-suited for defense. And a popular opinion on Abdullah was that he’d never amount to more than a change-of-pace back.

But this trio either ignored those doubts or used them as fuel. It became a special group. And, like any group of players, their stories had to start somewhere.

Here’s a look at those beginnings:

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon


Even Melvin Gordon never dreamed this big.

Back in Bradford (Wis.) High School, where students painted their faces red every Friday night, Gordon thought about the future like any other student-athlete. He daydreamed about big crowds and bigger stadiums, about starts and touchdowns. But 2,000-yard seasons? Heisman campaigns? National interviews?

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin's Melvin Gordon rushed for 2,336 yards on 309 carries (7.6 ypc) and had 26 TDs. He also had 3 receiving TDs.
“I always had high expectations for myself, and I always expected to be good,” Gordon said recently. “But never did I think it would be this crazy and I would be playing this well.”

As a high school underclassman, it was difficult to look at Gordon and think “Heisman.” He stood at 150 pounds; he didn’t even make the varsity squad until his junior season. But high school coach Jed Kennedy told all his assistants that Gordon wouldn’t have to pay college tuition -- it was just a matter of whether that would be at the FBS or FCS level.

And, when he hit a growth spurt and showed up as a 175-pound junior, all bets were off.

“The thing that really started sticking out was the weight room,” Kennedy said. “We’d get done with our team workouts that last an hour and 15 minutes, and him and a group of seniors would work another 45 minutes. He was just a junior, but he was the first one in and the last one out. He was the leader.”

But not every college coach or scouting service was sold. ESPN questioned the level of competition in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place better known for its Interstate 94 cheese shop. A Rivals recruiting analyst wrote, “I believe he will have to make a major position change in order to become a starter for a major BCS level school.” And, outside of Tennessee, the SEC ignored the player with the long strides and video game-esque stats altogether. (Junior: 98 carries, 1,061 yards; Senior: 158 carries, 2,009 yards, 38 TDs.)

There was plenty of interest -- especially among Big Ten schools -- but most recruiting services still didn’t consider him elite. ESPN ranked him as No. the 39 running back in the country (and said he was built like a receiver), Rivals projected him at No. 24 (and said he could project as a safety or linebacker), and Scout said No. 38.

Kennedy just didn’t understand it. They traveled to Alabama for a camp, and the staff there didn’t even pull him aside. As a junior, coming off a knee injury, he carried the ball 16 times in one game and wound up with 265 yards -- during a muddy contest the local paper coined “The Swamp.” But universities from the South seemed allergic to the cold.

“I just think a lot of times they look at it like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to go to Wisconsin to get a running back because we got six or seven kids down here,’” Kennedy said. “They come up here for linemen, but they don’t look at the skill kids. I don’t know why.”

Those teams that failed to jump on Gordon are likely regretting it now. In Madison, he played two hours away from his old high school field in Kenosha -- but he still continued to post those same crazy numbers. As a high school junior, he averaged 16.5 yards a carry in a memorable game against Franklin. As a college redshirt junior, he averaged 19.5 yards a carry against Bowling Green and 16.3 yards a carry against Nebraska.

Kennedy stood on the sideline years ago when small, high school crowds chanted Gordon’s name. And he sat in Camp Randall earlier this season for Gordon’s 408-yard performance, when Kennedy’s hair stood on end once the crowd took to chanting “MEL-VIN GOR-DON!”

Gordon has come full-circle in the football world. And, even if he never dreamed this big, Kennedy swears none of this is surprising.

“Honestly, nothing surprises me with this kid,” he said. “He’s got unbelievable God-given talent, and he has an unbelievable work ethic. And when you combine that, well, that’s one hell of a combination.”

Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah


Dickey Wright can still remember sitting in the bleachers in the fall of 2006, watching as a small running back -- about a head shorter than his teammates -- weaved through defenders, bounced to the outside, and outran everyone to the end zone.

The high school coach at Homewood (Ala.) had just one thought: “I hope he grows.”

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Nati Harnik/AP PhotoNebraska's Ameer Abdullah rushed for 1,523 yards on 237 carries (6.4 ypc) and had 18 TDs. He also had 3 receiving TDs.
That running back, Ameer Abdullah, was never the most physically-imposing football player. Even as he grew older, often roaming the Homewood halls in blue-and-red shorts and a T-shirt, he didn’t look the part of a future Power 5 player. He looked more like a track athlete; his brothers and sisters even called him Peewee.

“He wasn’t going to give you that ‘Wow’ effect,” Wright said. “But once he got out in the practice field, you could tell he had the ability. Some kids walk out on that field and have it; some don’t. Once he put the pads on, you could tell he was a different-type kid than what you would see walking through the halls.”

The issue was convincing everyone else. He rushed for 1,045 yards as a junior for a respectable 4.95 yards a carry and fared well at a handful of camps, but a lot of schools thought he’d fare better at cornerback. Scholarships came, a few even from the SEC, but Abdullah wasn’t satisfied.

He wanted to play offense.

The scouting services weren’t at all kind to Abdullah. None rated him above three stars, and ESPN offered him just a two-star evaluation. The evaluation said, “Durability is a concern when projecting for the college level. Not a full-time back.” Most schools shared ESPN’s concern. He didn’t look like an every-down back, he wasn’t built like an every-down back so, surely, he wouldn’t be an every-down back.

Abdullah wouldn’t be underestimated for much longer. His numbers, his speed and his cutting ability couldn’t be ignored. As a senior, he more than doubled his average -- from 4.95 yards a carry to 11.4. He rushed for 1,795 yards and 25 touchdowns. Size issues or not, he was worth the risk.

He committed to Nebraska a month before signing day. And Wright still remembers calling up his close friend, Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning, to tell him just what they were getting.

“I just told Mark, ‘He’s going to be a diamond in the rough for you all. He’s going to do some great things for you all,’” Wright said. “I think size was probably a concern at first. But people never got to see he was a tremendous worker in the weight room.

“They never got to see the real Ameer Abdullah.”

Indiana's Tevin Coleman


Brian McDonough didn’t need to consult scouts or colleagues about his quiet high school freshman who never cursed. He knew Tevin Coleman was destined for greatness.

He just assumed it would be at cornerback. So did a lot of college coaches.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
Darron Cummings/Associated PressIndiana's Tevin Coleman rushed for 2,036 yards on 270 carries (7.5 ypc) and had 15 TDs.
During Coleman’s freshman season, when he threw on his shoulder pads for the Oak Hill (Ill.) sophomore team, Coleman primarily played running back -- but shined on defense. Although the coaches usually only plugged him in defensively near the end of games, when Hail Marys were inevitable and fatigue wasn’t an issue, McDonough swears that Coleman came down with 11 interceptions that season. And competed in maybe 16 -- yes, 16 -- total defensive plays.

“Yeah, interceptions on all but five plays. He was a great running back, don’t get me wrong,” McDonough said. “But he was incredible as a defensive back. We’d put him in and he’d just go get the ball wherever it was. He was phenomenal; he was unbelievable.”

McDonough can remember staring in the sky when a quarterback would hurl a ball toward the left hash, and Coleman would sprint from the right like a hawk flying to its prey. Time after time, he’d come away with the turnover. But in the game of high school football, where the running game is king, Coleman was more valuable on the varsity offense. So he played both ways in the big games -- but mostly wingback in the unorthodox offense, similar to Navy’s triple option.

That speed and athleticism is what made him a can’t-miss prospect in the eyes of many college coaches, despite his three-star ratings by the media. (He boasted more than a dozen offers, although none came from the SEC.) But that, and his scheme, also created another problem: Where did he belong?

He carried the ball just 83 times as a senior -- for a total of 949 yards -- and finished with 16 catches for 345 yards. He also had 44 tackles and two picks in limited defensive action. ESPN listed him as a receiver, numerous schools preferred him on defense, and Coleman wanted to be a tailback.

“A lot of the big schools wanted him at defensive back,” McDonough said. “But he just played better and better, and people realized he wanted to play running back. So some schools changed their tunes.”

Michigan State and Oklahoma both wanted Coleman, but the Spartans wouldn’t commit to the running back part of it. The Indiana Hoosiers were just fine with it, though -- and McDonough assumed Coleman could always play defense if running back didn’t pan out.

Turns out that was never an issue.

“I knew he had the explosiveness, I knew he had the big runs, but I just didn’t think he’d be an every-down back,” McDonough acknowledged. “I thought he’d be an all-pro defensive back.”
Whether it's the extra practice or the extra exposure, it's always a positive for a team to get a bowl bid. The Big Ten has 10 teams playing in bowl games this season, and beyond the obvious, there are some recruiting implications for a few of the teams within the conference.

Here is a look at what teams might benefit from the bowl game they will play in and why they could see a positive impact on the recruiting trail.


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Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

December, 9, 2014
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The regular season might be over, but there is still plenty of recruiting to be done. Here is a look at the biggest recruiting news from the past week and a look ahead within the Big Ten.


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Wisconsin not only has a huge game coming up in the Big Ten Championship Saturday, but is also hot on the recruiting trail. Thursday, the Badgers got the Class of 2016 started with a loud bang picking up a pledge from ESPN Junior 300 running back Antonio Williams.


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When Wisconsin and Ohio State take the field in Indianapolis Saturday for the Big Ten championship game, their similarities might not be that distinct.

Ohio State is flash, speed and boatloads of playmakers. Wisconsin seems like it's all brute strength and the best running back in the country. One is a historic power and the other has only more recently become a dominant program.


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Best of the visits: Big Ten

November, 30, 2014
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Rivalry week did not disappoint this season throughout college football and the Big Ten. Michigan and Ohio State played in "The Game" and Minnesota battled Wisconsin for a spot in the Big Ten championship game, while plenty of recruits took in the exciting matchups.

In the 2015 class, UCLA offensive line commit Andre James took his official visit to Ohio State to see what all the hype was about.


Ole Miss offensive line commit Drew Richmond was also supposed to make the trip but ended up canceling the visit.

The Ohio State commits were also on hand to help recruit during the big game as well. Justin Hilliard, Matt Burrell and Jashon Cornell spent some time with ESPN 300 defensive lineman Neville Gallimore and four-star receiver Lawrence Cager.


Gallimore came all the way from Canada for the official visit, and the Buckeyes could be in good shape after the trip.


The Buckeyes also hosted some 2016 targets, including ESPN Junior 300 offensive lineman Michael Onwenu from Detroit.


Onwenu was joined by some of his Cass Tech teammates, including ESPN Junior 300 defensive back Lavert Hill and 2017 receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, among others.

ESPN Junior 300 quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was also on hand for the game and got to meet former Buckeyes receiver Cris Carter before the game.

Robert Washington, an ESPN Junior 300 running back, made the trip up from North Carolina with his father and took to twitter to show off his view.


The Buckeyes weren’t the only B1G team with big prospects on campus, though. Penn State also had a ton of recruits in attendance for its game against Michigan State. The Nittany Lions didn’t win the game, but they did get some good news when ESPN Junior 300 quarterback Jake Zembiec committed on Saturday.


Zembiec got a chance to hang out with some of the other Penn State commits on hand and build some friendships for the future.


ESPN Junior 300 offensive lineman E.J. Price and 2016 defensive end Tommon Fox drove up to Happy Valley from Georgia, and the trip was worthwhile as both prospects were offered scholarships.


Wisconsin had a big game as well, playing Minnesota for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. With that type of game, it’s only natural recruits would want to see it in person.

Linebacker target Christian Folau was one of those prospects and got a chance to snap a picture with Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon after the Badgers' win against the Gophers.


The Badgers also hosted ESPN Junior 300 running back Antonio Williams this weekend.


This visit is likely a big one for Wisconsin because Williams is slated to announce his decision Dec. 4. The Badgers are seemingly the leader, and with the win on Saturday it looks as though it will be very tough to beat Wisconsin for this talented back.

ESPN Jr. 300: What to know in the Big Ten 

November, 19, 2014
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The ESPN Jr. 300 has been updated with new rankings, and there are a ton of Big Ten commits and targets on the list. To help break down the movement and implications, here is all you need to know about the top list and the Big Ten conference.


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Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

November, 18, 2014
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There was plenty of recruiting news once again this weekend so we are here to recap all that happened within the conference. This is the Big Ten weekend recruiting wrap and a small look at what is ahead within the conference.


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Best of the visits: Big Ten

November, 16, 2014
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In one of the coldest games of the season, Ohio State and Minnesota squared off in a back and forth match that ended with a Buckeyes win. The snow and cold might have impacted the play on the field, but it didn’t stop Minnesotans from enjoying the day.

The weather also didn’t keep the prospects from visiting as there were quite a few recruits in attendance.

He wasn’t visiting as a Minnesota target, but Ohio State five-star commit Jashon Cornell decided to attend the game to watch his future team in Ohio State. The Minnesota native didn’t have too far of a drive, but it takes some dedication to sit in that weather.
The Gophers did have some of their own targets on campus, too, including offensive lineman Tyler Moore. There is no confirmation if his mother's name is Mary, but there is confirming that Tyler enjoyed his trip. The Gophers weren't the only team to deal with bad weather as Wisconsin also had snow and frigid temperatures. While it was an excellent game to watch, Florida native Andre Smith made it very apparent he was aware of how cold it was. Offensive line commit David Moorman was also at the game and got the chance to do a little recruiting. Moorman spent some time ESPN 300 offensive lineman Jalen Merrick, who is also from Florida. Penn State wasn't hosting a marquee opponent in Temple, but it didn't stop some of the bigger prospects from coming out to the game. ESPN Jr. 300 wide receiver Brad Hawkins came out for the match and tweeted a picture from his seats. Hawkins is one of the bigger receiver targets along the East Coast, ranked No. 239 in the ESPN Jr. 300, so he will be a focus for the Nittany Lions in the future.

Since the East Coast and surrounding areas are so important to Penn State, it was a huge visit with ESPN Jr. 300 defensive back Eric Burrell out of Maryland. Burrell is ranked No. 80 in the 2016 class and was also on campus with 2017 offensive lineman Jordan McNair.

Maryland ended up losing its game to Michigan State, but once again it was a good game to have recruits on campus for. Some of the prospects in surrounding areas, including ESPN Jr. 300 tight end Naseir Upshur took a visit this weekend. The Terps also had some official visitors, including defensive lineman Wesley Annan.

Because of its location, Maryland has some unique selling poins for recruits, some of which Annan was able to check out for himself. Annan got to check out the Lincoln Memorial since it's so close to campus. There aren't many other schools that can boast that type of experience for recruits.

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