By Joe Kerlin and Madalyn Laske | Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography and Ben Gumeringer
There’s a method to the madness when examining the success of the Bison Athletic Department. Where are these athletes coming from and how does North Dakota State snatch them up before other schools do?
Elite programs often speak for themselves, but all of these athletes hailing from different backgrounds and different parts of the country see NDSU as a common denominator for a new home. The recruiting process never ends, and NDSU seems to have mastered the process. The long hours, the tedious preparation and the dedication form the backbone to the Bison’s success. We talked with the coaches responsible for bringing in the athletes and asked some players about their take on the recruiting process.
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If a player says he/ she commits, NDSU believes he/she will, and NDSU stops recruiting anther kid for that position. But, a player can walk away until they sign their letter of intent.
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If a player is unable to play because of an injury, they can apply to get that year of playing time back. There’s a cut off point for playing time that needs to be met for this to be granted.
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A player can sit out for an entire year without playing to have time to grow and develop. The second they notch playing time, though, the redshirt is eliminated.
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If a player transfers from a FBS school to a FCS school, they can play right away.
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Recruiting never ends, but for NDSU football, the summer after a high school player’s junior year is when they can contact them and the process continues until signing day.
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At NDSU they keep the difference between a walk-on and a preferred walk-on minimal. If a player gets hurt, they will take the next player in line, whether they’re on scholarship or a walk-on.
We sat down with a few coaches who have firsthand experience in recruiting the best.
What is the general process of recruiting?
“Well the process really never ends. But, the process is collecting data, to start getting those kids’ names, numbers and emails. And then going out on the road recruiting and meeting those kids and seeing them workout, and seeing what kind of kids they are, and the big thing is getting them up here to camp and see them perform.”
Do you like to go anywhere specific for different types of positions?
“Yeah. I would say certainly the bigger linemen are lot of the times the kids you find in the Midwest. Then down South sometimes in some of the bigger cities you find more of your skilled players and stuff like that. Certainly, you can find certain kids in certain areas so that’s not always true.”
How much do you talk with Coach Jim Kramer about these kids through the recruiting process?
“Coach Kramer meets with each kid individually… we always look for feedback from him. What kind of frame does this kid have, where do you see him going in the future — so he certainly has a big input on kids that we recruit and kids we bring in here.”
What’s the biggest challenge for recruiting at NDSU?
“I think you look at the demographics and the population. Not necessarily in Fargo, but the areas around here. The metropolitan, Twin Cities area is over three hours away and that’s our closest area.”
How do you think the new BSA will help out along the lines of recruiting?
“I think it will be tremendous. I can honestly tell you there has been one or two kids we have lost in the past because of our facilities. And with that being said, we don’t want kids simply because we have a new arena. We want what’s on the front of your jersey.”
Have you come across recruits that you think might have too big of an ego to play for NDSU?
“There’s no question… There’s a lot of talent out there while you’re out recruiting, but, particular to Fargo, you go back to fit. People that are humble, have some humility to them, come in here and are willing to learn and are team-first guys.”
How do you go about redshirting players?
“We try not to redshirt anybody. We want guys to come in… and play. It comes down to the player and how they stack up against their teammates. We have a walk-on freshman pitcher that we think is going to play a lot for us. We also have some first year guys that are on scholarship that are not going to play simply because it comes down to the players and their performances.”
Baseball is a unique sport to recruit for because you’re in season so late in the school year. When do you do the bulk of your recruiting?
“June, July and August is by far our biggest recruiting season. The majority of the guys we are recruiting are going to be seniors in high school or sophomores at their junior colleges. Body size and height don’t come in as much as football and basketball, and baseball players really do develop late in their high school careers and junior college careers, so we are constantly trying to fill spots with guys and we’re never too late to recruit players.”
When is the earliest you can contact recruits you are going after?
“July 1 after their junior year and there’s a time during the winter when we’re not allowed off-campus from the signing date in November to March 1 we’re not allowed to recruit.”
Is contacting highly-touted recruits a priority for the program?
“No doubt. A lot of it is generated through camps and that interest at a younger age. A lot of those things are we see them play during their sophomore or junior years, but we can’t call them until July 1.”
Why did you choose to come to NDSU and play for the Bison?
“NDSU has had more of a football history than any of the schools in South Dakota so for me it was just appealing right away. I knew this was the kind of the place I wanted to be. … I grew up going to USD games all the time. … I remember I went to probably a couple USD/NDSU games when I was younger. So yeah (NSDU has) always kind of had that history going for them.”
What was it like being recruited by NDSU’s coaches?
“I came to camp up here and they knew who I was and I was like, ‘Holy crap. I didn’t even know I was getting recruited.’ And then I ended up having a really good camp that summer and they offered me right at camp. A couple weeks later, I took it.”
Was there a special connection you felt with the guys at NDSU compared to other places?
“I was fortunate enough to have Zach Wentz and John Straka as hosts and I just remember being as nervous as can be because I was a pretty introverted kid. They brought me to the dorm room…we just hung out, and everyone was joking around, having a good time… I didn’t get the sense that anyone thought they were better than anyone else.”
Now that you’re the upper-classman, what’s it like showing recruits around?
“I think pitching the program is the biggest thing for me and to make the guys comfortable… I just want to give them honest answers about how NDSU is. … I just want to give them my honest opinion on questions they have and give them my true feelings of how everyone is.”
What did you do after you left your old school?
“At the time, I was at home because I still had no idea where I was going and my dad actually just contacted NDSU. … Coach DeHoff called me and asked for me to come on a visit.”
What was different about being recruited the second time around compared to the first?
“The second time around I knew what I was looking for compared to the first time around I didn’t know what to expect. But the second time around I knew this was exactly the school I wanted to be at.”
What did you enjoy most about your visit to NDSU?
“It felt like I had known the players forever. I just felt so comfortable around them and they were just easy to get along with.”
Why did you come to NDSU?
“The coaches are very understanding. I love Stevie (Keller). I love working with him, he understands me when I come to practice he asked how I feel and based on that he structures the workout to suit me.”
Jack Plankers began attending Bison football camps since he was 12 years old, but it wasn’t until his junior year of high school he realized NDSU was noticing him. “My first drill I ever did here was a quarterback drill with Brent Vigen when I was 12. And you could definitely tell I wasn’t a quarterback right away. Even then,” Plankers said. After ruling out numerous Division II schools and a couple other Division I offers, his final decision came down to the University of Wisconsin and NDSU. For Plankers, the decision was a no-brainer. “A program like this kind of does a lot of recruiting for itself, you know?” Plankers said.
What was it like being recruited by NDSU?
“I’m not going to lie, the first time Coach Vigen called me, I was like ‘You sure you got the right number? Who are you trying to get a hold of?’ I mean I had no idea.”
What does it mean to be representing your home state?
“It means a ton. Because North Dakota, up until recently, hasn’t really been known as a football state. And now with these three national championships it’s starting to really come into its own that way.”
Did you have a notable freshman eye-opening experience?
“Carlton Littlejohn lit me up my first half-padded practice. And that was the first time I had ever been knocked down in football in my life. That was a big shock.”
In high school, Chase Morlock never thought he’d choose a local college but that didn’t stop Coach Brent Vigen from pursuing him his senior year. “They just told me, ‘We win championships here.’ I thought that this program would make me the best football player that I can be,” Morlock said. “Because they knew I kind of wanted to be away but they made sure I knew that you can make it as far as you want from home.” Eventually it came down to South Dakota State University and NDSU, but on his visit and meeting the team, the location didn’t matter. The school and the program had everything he needed to call home.
Why did you decide to come to NDSU?
“It came down to NDSU and SDSU and I took visits to both and it was just a clear deciding factor that I wanted to come to NDSU… I knew this was the program I wanted to be a part of. I could tell.”
What was the determining factor for you?
“Just being around the guys — what they want to do and what their goal is. They want to win championships and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Did you have a notable freshman eye-opening experience?
“Walking into the K-State stadium was just a wild moment. But it was another football game. I was excited for it.”
Tight End – Freshman
Unlike any other Bison athlete, Marcus Collins graduated high school in December 2013. During his freshman year of high school, he knew he wanted to play college football and decided early enrollment would benefit him the best; he was right. “It’s definitely given me an advantage,” Collins said. “It’s given me an opportunity to meet the guys before summertime or fall camp. I really get to get acclimated before rush time. I can take what I learn now and introduce it to my class that comes in.” Collins loaded up his class schedule toward the beginning of his high school career while loading up with college football offers. “I was in the teens for scholarship offers, but ultimately it was a pretty easy decision.”
Why did you decide to come to NDSU?
“Basically I wanted to win. All the coaches when they are recruiting, you talk about how they are going to do this and do that and it’s all going to result in winning. But here they are actually doing it, where as other places are just talking about it.”
What would you say about the NDSU recruiting process?
“I was originally committed to Pittsburgh back during the summer. Coach Goeser, the best recruiting coach, stayed with me. From the time I started talking to him back in January last year, he was constantly talking to me, all the way up until I committed. He was always saying there’s a place for me at NDSU. Once I gave my commitment to Pittsburgh, all other schools fell off and they just gave up on me. But Coach Goeser never did.”
Did you have a notable freshman eye-opening experience?
“Well I had my expectations up when it comes to the workouts, when it comes to the class work. Everything was easier because my expectations were so much higher, like thinking it’s going to be so hard. So when I don’t end up puking after a workout it’s a success (laughs). So it’s living up to what I thought it would be.”
Linebacker – Sophomore
Pierre Gee-Tucker had schools calling him every day in high school. “To be honest I would never go through the process again,” he said. His long recruiting process ultimately came down to the last second. Tucker was going to the University of Northern Iowa until 2 a.m., on signing day. He even told Coach Klieman the night before he wasn’t coming to NDSU. “Klieman had got really emotional and I could tell he really cared about me and that’s when I started thinking about everything. I texted Coach Bohl at two in the morning telling him I wanted to be a Bison. He couldn’t text me because of NCAA rules, but the next morning, I called him and he said, ‘Pierre, is this for real?’”
What was the revelation in your decision process to decide for sure to come to NDSU?
“I was thinking, what if they have all this success that they have been having and what if they are doing the same thing and I’m just at another school just watching? I was just thinking how much things could go well for me if I came here.”
How did NDSU find out about you?
“My older cousin actually played for Coach Klieman at Western Illinois and they got in contact and found out about me because I didn’t go to any camps.”
Did you have a notable freshman eye-opening experience?
“At fall camp when I went against Billy Turner for the first time. That’s probably the first time I was lifted off my feet like that.”
Why did you ultimately choose NDSU?
“I saw those two rings coach had on his fingers I was like, ‘That’s got to be me.’ I had never had a ring in my life and I was just thinking how sweet that could be.”
How did NDSU get you into the DI mindset for workouts?
“Fall camp really got me like, ‘I’m really playing college football because of the grind.’ It’s a mental thing than more-so physical, but after a while my body got programmed and I got used to everything; making sure I was on task not doing things I’m not supposed to be doing.”
Running Back – Sophomore
NDSU recruited King Frazier his junior year of high school, but the University of Nebraska got him first. After spending a year at Nebraska, Frazier made the switch to NDSU because of its style of offense and playing time. “Coach Klieman just kept hammering at me, kept recruiting me hard,” Frazier said. In October with the help of his high school coach he got a hold of Coach Klieman and withdrew from Nebraska. “Even without the three rings, I still probably would have came here just because of the program and Coach Klieman. He’s a great guy, a guy I can tip my hat to. He really is a good leader for me,” Frazier said.
Did NDSU contact you or did you approach them?
“They contacted me. We joke around because (Klieman) always said ‘You’ve been number one on my recruiting board for the last three of four years and now we finally got you.’ Coach Polasek is funny because he goes, ‘You should have gotten him a long time ago,’ teasing Coach Klieman about it.”
What would you say about the NDSU recruiting process?”
“They hit you hard. I like how they stick with you forever. Even if you do commit elsewhere, they’re still there. No matter what. Just in case something goes wrong, or like my situation, they still are there for you. So you have more of a connection with that school than you would anywhere else. So you feel like, ‘Okay. I trust this school more, because they have been with me since the beginning.’ And that’s what they do different from other schools.”
What is the difference between NDSU and Nebraska?
“When it comes to the football aspect of things, the coaches and stuff like that, it’s not really much different. If anything I like the coaches here better than I will say for Nebraska coaches.”
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These cover the entire realm of academic and living needs for the athletes. Among the expenses full scholarships cover are room, board, tuition and textbooks.
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Baseball, men’s golf and men’s track scholarships are not fully funded by the NCAA.
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These sports have the flexibility of handing out partial scholarships to their athletes. Example: Bernie Bison’s scholarship covers his tuition, but he still has to pay to live in the dorms and for his Psychology 115 textbook.
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Men’s Golf: 4.5
Men’s Track: 12.6
Women’s Golf: 6.0
Women’s Track and Field: 18.0
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These three sports can only give full scholarships. Example: Bernie Bison was fortunate enough to get his class credits, dorm and textbooks paid for while he participates in NDSU athletics.
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Men’s Basketball: 13.0
Women’s Basketball: 15.0
Jim Kramer joined the Bison staff during the 2003-04 season and quickly became one of the most revered coaches on the football staff. Kramer has trained Bison football players for the past ten years, preaching hard work and discipline. Everything has come full circle since Kramer was acknowledged as one of the Samson Equipment/ American Football Monthly Strength and Conditioning Coaches of the Year last month as the top strength coach in the FCS. Today, he helps us understand his role in recruiting and what it takes to develop the top athletes in the country.
How involved are you in the recruiting of the football players?
“During the recruiting visits and official visits, I meet with each of the recruits. I give a presentation personally in the weight room.”
What do you guys talk about?
“There are three main areas I go over with them. There are coaches here working with them in the weight room. The next thing I talk about with them is position specific. A defensive back spends half his life going backwards and receiver spends most of his life going forwards, so we’re going to train them that way. Lifting is pretty similar for just about every position. And then the last area I get into is development.”
How do you go about developing these young men into football players?
“The coaches develop you as a football player and you gain knowledge about the game… It’s my job to develop them physically. Now, that’s not always gaining or losing weight; that might mean maybe they gain strength and they gain quickness. So it’s not always about getting bigger, it might be getting smaller. It’s about increasing your flexibility and your way to bend and change levels. Then I sum that up by saying we can’t develop you unless you’re eating correctly.”
Players Thoughts on Kramer
In what ways is nutrition important for the athletes?
“Nutrition is important for the physical development in those four or five years they are here. It’s about the ability to recover from a workout. It’s not just ice, saunas and massages and stuff like that. That helps, but nutrition helps in fueling the body. It’s the best way to recover, come back the next day and train hard and not getting hurt and missing any days.”
Do you evaluate the recruits before they sign with NDSU?
“No, we can’t evaluate them. Back in the Division II days, yeah, we could test them on vertical jump, their 40…but at this level you can’t do any evaluation. The evaluation occurs on the football field with the coaches watching either at the camps or maybe at another school’s camp or off film.”
Can you even go to the high school games and just see how they look?
“No, I can’t. For me, I always kid with the coaches and tell them to work on the incoming kids and I’m going to worry about winning the next game next season (laughs). The coaches may ask me when the kids come in on their recruiting visits, ‘Hey, what do you think about his frame?’ And all I can do is eye-ball him. But when they come here in the fall we have our nutrition consultant come in and consult with us on his frame measurements and from those frame measurements, it’s pretty accurate at predicting how big those kids can get, and if they can maintain that weight or they can maintain that speed.”
Do you prepare your incoming recruits for workouts before they step foot on campus?
“Yeah… A lot of those kids are still in sports and it’s important for us as a program not to hinder what they’re doing with that sport that they’re in. We don’t want him to lift too hard and not be able to compete on that basketball court or that wrestling mat, baseball field or track. …I think it’s important and it encourages those kids, especially the lineman, to stay active…don’t quit your senior year because what usually happens, especially the lineman, is that they are not as active and pretty soon they’re at 300 to 320 pounds, but not a good 300 pounds.”
Do you worry that recruits will hurt themselves competing in other sports?
“If you say that then you better tell them to live in a glass house (laughs). I mean, I think that competition is very good because it keeps the kids sharp, their minds sharp. … I think that competition is so critical in keeping the body and the mind sharp and then keeping the athlete in shape and that will structure them.”