thinkEach and every year, it is amazing to see this recruiting. There seems to be more coverage, more public interest, more hype. I am not sure that the hype that is involved in it is good. I don't think it is necessarily good for the kids that are getting recruited because that is what they are, just kids. I think to a certain extent it has become a circus atmosphere and I wonder how that will play out for some of them. What they have to realize is that it is not the end of the year it is just the beginning. They start all over again much like they did in high school.
We are very pleased with this class. We met our needs across the board, which I explain every year that with the number of scholarships that you have to work with nowadays it becomes increasingly difficult to really balance that out. I think we were really able to blend size and speed, and once again we put a high premium on athleticism. With that a lot of times is projection. I know that right away I will get a question that deals with who I anticipate playing right away and I will not even go there because if I ventured a guess I would be wrong. At the same time, some of these guys are projections that, at least in our mind, and we may be wrong, but we feel that can play right away. It is about a program. It is about developing players. Most players aren't meant to play as soon as they get off of the bus in college. A lot of them didn't get to play until they were juniors or sometimes seniors in high school, so why wouldn't someone think that would be the same process in college, and that's okay as long as they develop as fast as they possibly can.
We are announcing 18 high school signings. They happen to come from eight different states - seven from the great state of Minnesota, five from Ohio, one from Missouri, one from Georgia, one from Iowa, one from Wisconsin, one from Florida, and one from Illinois. I have already mentioned that they are all from high school. We did not recruit any junior college players, and there are no mid-year guys. They will all be coming next fall. When you break down by position - one quarterback- Marcel Jones, one running back- Jay Thomas, two tight ends- Chris Mensen and Troy Reilly, two wide receivers- Mike Chambers and Eric Decker, four offensive linemen - Otis Hudson, Ryan Ruckdashel, Jason Sekinger, Nedward Tavale, one defensive end- Steven Davis, one defensive lineman- Matt Stommes, four defensive backs- Boyd Coleman, Dominique Jones, Keith Massey, and Michael McKelton and two linebackers- Nate Triplett and Alex Daniels.
It is kind of a wide variety and with that I think it is a pretty good class as far as academics. Ten of those 18 guys are honors students. Thirteen of them are two-way players that give us flexibility once they are here, even though they might have a preference once they come in, and some do not have a preference. In terms of the athleticism, 14 of the 18 were multi-sport players. A lot of the guys are track athletes, which is understandable when you talk about how we put a high premium on speed. The faster, the better.
We are also very happy to get the handout to announce some walk-on players that have signed letters acknowledging their intent to enroll at the University of Minnesota and play football for the Gophers. Some of these guys, you have to realize, have passed up aid at other places, some full scholarships, to try and live their dream of playing Big Ten football at the University of Minnesota. They are good players. We refer to them as recruited walk- ons. We have worked very hard to encourage them to come here. They are very, very important to our success. I know a goal of theirs, for some of them is to eventually earn scholarships, they may play and letter, they might even start.
Over the years, since I've been here, not including these guys coming in obviously, we have had a number of walk-ons come into our program that have been very important to us. Thirty-four of them, since I have been here, have earned scholarships. They came through the door looking for the good old "American way" for an opportunity. That is a little over four a year. Twenty-one out of 34 of those guys that earned scholarships also completed their eligibility and also left here with a degree, which means that they are successes on both fronts. We have one guy that came through the door that is currently playing professional football. Twelve of those 34 guys started at one time or another during their careers. It is a pretty good success picture for those guys and we welcome them with open arms because we think that they will be able to help our program.
Q: Can you talk about the focus on the defense backs and what you like about them?
Mason: Some years are a bigger emphasis than others. One year ago we didn't sign any offensive linemen, any, because we had all of those guys coming back and we said we'd have a premium on that for this year. Any of those positions like the offensive line or defensive backfield where you play multiple players, you always need a wide variety of guys coming in. Let's face it, and I made no bones about it, we need to play better defense, we need to do a better job of coaching defense, and we need to get better players on defense, so that was one of our priorities, and obviously, if over one-third of your defense is defensive backs, you need to bring a large number of those guys in.
Q: Did one of the Brookhaven (Ohio) kids sway the other two? Did it start with one and it was just a domino effect?
Mason: No, it was not a package deal. It may have ended up that way, I don't know. If memory serves me correct, and Mitch (Browning) could correct me, Dominique Jones was the first one, and then his brother was second, and then last but not least was Alex Daniels. Three kids coming off of a state championship team. A city school state championship team is something to say.
Q: Is 18 for your class a normal number?
Mason: It fluctuates as you can imagine, the number that you have available. Initially when we started our planning for recruiting, way back in the spring, we were looking at probably going for 15 or 16 players because we had a small senior class. Then certain things happen - guys decide to graduate, a guy leaves the program- so you go a little bit north of that. We probably could have gotten a little bit north of 18, but that's okay. I am not concerned with filling up, because what you don't use this year, first, it gives us room again for those walk-ons, again I always want to be able to reward those walk-on players within our program, and second, you'll just be able to use them next year.
Q: Did you have to look at academics a little more with the new NCAA rule?
Mason: I don't. I have always looked at academics. I have been asked questions about those new rules, but I can't explain them because I don't understand them. No one asked me when they were putting them in. We do the best job that we possibly can from an academic standpoint, and I mean that. At the same time, you have to be cognizant of the fact that you are a major college football coach, and if you don't win football games you are going to get fired, I don't care what your graduation rate is. I tell the story all the time, it is kind of funny, but it's sad, I used to be the president of the American Football Coaches Association and every year we would hand out an award at our national convention for the highest graduation rate. Five or six years running, the guy who won the award wasn't there because he got fired. He had a 100% graduation rate, and it's tough. I am not trying to be coy about that. We always want to do better from an academic standpoint with the kids we have. The kids that stay the distance in our program have done a good job. I don't look at it any differently than I did before.
Q: Looking at the running back position this year, do you see it the same as you did with the offensive line position last year, where you feel you are in pretty good shape?
Mason: Yes, to a certain extent. We have good running backs in our program, and we didn't anticipate the loss of Marion Barber. It didn't take us by total surprise, but we didn't anticipate it. Like I said, we have good running backs, and with the caliber of running backs that we have in our program you better be awful good for us to bring you in here. Believe me, we had a lot of interest from running backs across the country that wanted to go someplace that features running the football the way that we do. I can tell you this, we had one guy out of state who signed with a pretty good school. After the last day he was begging to come here because he sees himself as an inside-outside zone runner, and that's what we do. He is a good player, but we didn't think he was the caliber that we could invest a scholarship in at this time.
Q: Being that you don't hand the ball to just one kid or feature only him, is it attractive to these guys that there's more than one shot to be the guy?
Mason: Well, if they have seen us play they have seen more than one guy carrying the ball quite a bit. That has been highly publicized not just by game but also by year. Most teams do not have anybody get 1,000 yards, and we had two guys in the last two years.
Q: Are there some players who could play right away?
Mason: I think there's some of those players in there that we see have a lot of upside potential to them. When you look over the course of time, we have done a good job with them. I think that is one thing, that we have continuity in the program and some stability in the program, and you have a lot of guys around you. You sit and evaluate film, and a guy will say, `Yeah, that guy reminds me of Rian Melander when he came out of high school,' and you think back and see Rian as a 290 or 300-pound guy now, and he was a 210-pound guy when we recruited him. You know that you have those types of abilities that are built into your program already, that you can get those types of things done. I am one of those guys that doesn't care what type of credentials a guy comes with to this level, no matter what they have to be developed. Sure, some guys can step right off the bus and be good players, but they are the true minority.
Q: Do you ever go back and look at three years ago, the kids that were recruited at a certain position, what percent actually stay where they want to play or where you thought they were going to play? How many of these kids will actually stay at the position you recruited them at?
Mason: I think most of them. Typically, everyone has a different philosophy. I already talked about the multi-position guys that we have, and what I am reporting is a combination of what I think they can play and what they think they can play. If a guy thinks he is a running back, but I really think he is a defensive back that is what I'll tell him in recruiting. I'm not going to play that bait-and-switch with a guy. We just don't do that at Minnesota. There are some times when a guy will come in and you think that he can play a certain position, you know he is a multi-position guy, and after he's here awhile you see he can't, so you call him in and you talk it over. You give him your opinion - that he could probably play a different position. Sometimes they move, sometimes they don't. We did that with Amir Pinnix during bowl practice, and he said he would give it a try. We got to watch him during bowl practice, and regardless of whether Marion Barber was coming back or not, I was going to move him back because he is a lot better offensive player. I was wrong. I thought that he could perform the same on defense. At least at corner he couldn't, maybe he could at safety.
Q: Can you comment on how many of these guys will be redshirted, and how many you expect to play right away?
Mason: I'd like to tell you that every year we expect a couple of those guys to play. I don't know how many played last year, at least a couple, but typically someplace in the low end, two, and the high end, four, will play as true freshmen. If too many more than that are playing, it's either one of two things: we don't have a good football team coming back, or these guys are really good. We return most of the guys off of last year's team.
Q: What can you do to keep the Minnesota kids here?
Mason: We're working our tails off, I can tell you that. Some regards we are having success and some regards we are having disappointments. I don't know of a team anywhere that keeps all of their players. You are going to lose some. When you come to a state that has a limited number of players, it becomes more of a focus than other places that have more players. You know what I look at. You do the best you can to sell your school and everything that goes with it. Those kids have a right to decide what is best for them.
Q: Do some kids want to leave the state, regardless?
Mason: I think that is true. I think some kids want to go away to school. Some kids come out of a school where it is real popular. They want to go away. I'm not talking about athletes now, but if you have the financial means to go away to school you are going to go away. That becomes kind of a culture.
Q: How special is what the Brookhaven trio did in winning a state title as a city team which hadn't been accomplished in Ohio in some 30 years.
Mason: I think it has to be recognized. Just like in every state there are certain schools you expect to win state championships. Then a school like Brookhaven, a city school, they have great football players, don't get me wrong. I think any school that wins a championship is special.
Q: What stood out about Matt Stommes?
Mason: There are certain kids that are intriguing. Gordon Shaw, talked about this guy a lot. He really believed in this kid. So I watched his film and I liked him. I brought him in and he's a big guy, 6'6 and weighs about 245, but he's got a 6'8 300-pound hands. He's got the biggest mitts - I'm not kidding you. He's kind of like Matt Spaeth, impressed how big the guy is, but he's still kind of skinny. He's one in nine kids with number 10 on the way. He lives on a farm and milks cows every morning and comes home and does farm chores. He sits at the end of the couch and stares you in the eye. About the time I said, `I'd like to offer you a.' as soon as you say scholarship he's jumping and taking it. He wants the opportunity. If I had nine brothers and sisters and had to come home and milk cows and do farm chores I couldn't wait to go to college either. Plug a guy like that into your program and work with him and just watch him develop.
Q: Did you look at any punters or kickers, or are you satisfied with what you have coming back?
Mason: We did not look at any punters or kickers. We invested some money in guys last year and like what we've seen. Jason Giannini has really came on as well as Joel Monroe, who came as a walk-on last year. We kicked those guys every day of practice understanding that Rhys Lloyd was going to be gone. They have got a strong leg and I'm confident that we can develop those guys during winter and spring practices. Justin Kucek, who was a punter, has become more and more consistent. Again, I'm confident. That doesn't mean I'm not going to encourage walk-ons. The more the merrier, but I think we're going to be okay.
Q: Have you decided on a Defensive Coordinator?
Mason: I have not even looked yet. That's my next priority. I didn't really think I could do diligence, with recruiting and our players coming back to school. I have not talked to anyone yet. I plan to do that within the next few days.
Q: Did being short-staffed hinder your recruiting?
Mason: I had some guys on the staff that had to pick up the slack. I thought they worked extremely hard and finished it off pretty well. I really think college football is changing and changing rapidly. It is becoming more and more like professional football as far as with coaches moving and not being retained. I really had much less of a reaction than I had anticipated.
Q: Do you feel better about this year's class than you did last year?
Mason: I would like to honestly answer that but I can't remember how I felt last year or the year before. I feel really good about it. Like I said before, when I get around these kids I think they will fit in our program nicely. I don't know any coach that is totally happy because you want to get them all. There is no one out there that didn't lose a player here or there that you think would have made you a little better. We did all right. We are kind of used to being ranked eighth, ninth, 10th or 11th in recruiting in this league. We don't finish there normally, and we will continue not to finish there. You can read anything you want into that.