U’s Mason closes state recruiting borders

by Tim Klobuchar

The beginning of the Glen Mason Era was looking suspiciously like the entire Jim Wacker Era.
During Wacker’s five years as head coach, the Gophers were plagued by his and his staff’s inability to funnel Minnesota high school stars to the University. When Mason took over as Gophers coach Dec. 14, he immediately pledged to “close the borders” on in-state recruits. Early on, however, those borders still appeared to be leaking.
Many of the state’s top high school seniors had already decided to go elsewhere, including Akeem Akinwale of Coon Rapids. Akinwale, a guard, verbally committed to Iowa State during his visit there Dec. 13-15.
Others, such as Elk River tight end Zach VeVea, appeared ready to join the exodus. VeVea, probably the most wanted recruit in Minnesota, didn’t have the Gophers very high on his college depth chart.
“I talked to (VeVea) on Christmas Eve,” said Terry McLean, his high school coach. “He had the schools ranked. He had Nebraska first, Wisconsin second, and Minnesota third.”
Gophers coaches in the past have stressed keeping Minnesota players in the state, but the results of these two cases illustrate why Mason might be the coach who makes good on that promise.
Mason was hired on Dec. 14. On Dec. 18, one of his assistants, Reggie Mitchell, visited Akinwale’s house. Wacker’s staff had been recruiting Akinwale, but was turned off by his size. Akinwale is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, but the Gophers wanted their offensive linemen to be 6-foot-5 or taller. The new staff had no reservations about his size and offered him a scholarship. Akinwale was impressed.
“I wasn’t too sure at first,” he said. “But I thought about it more, and then my best buddy Drew committed to Minnesota.”
“Drew” is linebacker Drew Dehnicke, a teammate, fellow National Honor Society member and best friend of Akinwale. Dehnicke was recruited by Michigan and Iowa, but was also lightly regarded by the Gophers until the new regime took over. He committed to Minnesota on Dec. 20. Akinwale changed his mind about Iowa State and committed to Minnesota Dec. 23.
Mason acted even quicker in VeVea’s case. Two days after his hire he was at VeVea’s house. Mason immediately instilled confidence in VeVea.
“After I talked to Coach Mason, I felt he was going to turn it around,” VeVea said. “It helped that I knew he’s going to be there for five years. I think the ‘U’ is ready to make a big step toward the top half of the Big Ten.”
On Jan. 3, VeVea became the seventh Minnesota high school player to verbally commit to the Gophers. On Tuesday, Minnetonka tight end Rob LaRue became the eighth (see graphic). The commitments won’t be official until the players sign letters of intent during the signing period, which begins Feb. 5. Until then, coaches are forbidden by the NCAA to talk about their recruits.
Mason did say, however, that he’s happy with the in-state recruiting process thus far, and that the Gophers will pursue two or three more Minnesota players. Adam Runk, a wide receiver from Stillwater and the Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year, is likely one of those few. His coach, George Thole, said that it is a “very likely possibility” Runk will attend Minnesota.
“I’ve been very pleased so far,” Mason said. “I’m impressed most players in the state hung around and waited for us to get aboard and hear our sales pitch. It shows an eagerness to come to Minnesota.”
The state does not produce as many Division I football players as others with Big Ten schools, but Wacker and previous coaches drew criticism for not keeping the players in the state who were good enough. Mason is trying to remedy that by being aggressive and appealing to players on other levels besides football.
“You’ve got to realize if they were just students and not student-athletes, where would they normally gravitate to,” Mason said. “There are some basic reasons for coming to Minnesota, and we use the same basic reasons in recruiting.”
It sounds too simple, but it’s worked so far. Many players who grew up rooting for the Gophers just wanted a chance to play for them. Others wanted a chance to play for a winner. With Mason, many Minnesota recruits feel they have a chance for both.