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South Dakota State football mines Nebraska for recruits

September 29, 2018

BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) — If you grow up playing football in Nebraska, you want to play for the Cornhuskers. That’s a given.

But if you’re a Division I caliber player and the Huskers don’t offer you a scholarship, Dan Jackson is ready to pounce. Jackson is the South Dakota State recruiting coordinator, an Omaha native and a former Jackrabbit player. And since joining the SDSU coaching staff in 2012, he’s been doggedly mining his home state for players he believes will help take the Jacks to the top of the FCS mountain.

There are 18 players on the SDSU roster from Nebraska, including top contributors like Isaac Wallace, Cade Johnson, Ryan Earith, Marquise Lewis, Elijah Wilson, Luke Sellers, Makiah Slade and Josh Manchigiah, the Argus Leader reported. Two Nebraska prepsters for 2019 have already given the Jacks verbal commitments. Jackson calls them #NebraskaJacks — a hashtag that’s become a major part of his savvy social media presence.

SDSU coaches know they aren’t going to win a recruiting battle for kids who have a scholarship offer to play for the Cornhuskers. And Jackson admits the arrival of Scott Frost as head coach could make his job more difficult. But he’s working to make South Dakota State a destination, not just a consolation prize, for the best athletes from neighbors to the south.

As Johnson, the Jacks’ emerging star receiver from Papillion, puts it: “If you don’t go to Nebraska on a scholarship, you’re coming to South Dakota State.”

That might seem like a foregone conclusion most of the time, but walking on at Nebraska isn’t the same as it is at other places. Few if any major college football programs have historically celebrated their walk-on program like Nebraska has. They’ll carry an enormous roster of well over 100 players to accommodate high school hopefuls who are willing to play without a scholarship, most of whom are from Nebraska and grew up rooting for Big Red.

Most of those walk-ons will never play a major role for the Huskers. Some will never play at all. But a small few might emerge as Big 10 worthy and earn playing time and perhaps a scholarship. It’s tempting for every walk-on to believe that’s going to be them, and that’s what Jackson has to work against.

“My recruiting pitch will always be the scholarship,” said Jackson, who doubles as the Jacks’ cornerbacks coach. “But the opportunity to play and compete and win is a big part of it. Nebraska is taking their roster to (well over 100 players) — how can you look a kid in the face and tell him you have a shot. When you travel 70 guys to road games, how many guys are sitting at home when you’re on the road? If those kids still want to do that just because they want to wear the letter jacket, that’s fine, but then they’re not our kind of guy.”

Still, selling SDSU, especially before the construction of Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, and before the Jacks had won their first Missouri Valley Football Conference title or sent Zach Zenner and Dallas Goedert on to the NFL, was difficult.

“I remember my junior year, coach Jackson came to my school and he had this little pamphlet on South Dakota State, and I had no idea who they were,” said Wilson, a defensive end from Omaha. “But he was really honest. The whole staff was. They were so upfront about everything. They invited me to a camp and they hadn’t offered me yet, but they told me what they wanted to see from me to get one, and they stood by that. I just felt really comfortable, and it helped that there were so many other guys (from Nebraska). He just does a good job of pushing the brand and selling South Dakota State.”

Adds Manchigiah, a sophomore safety from Papillion: “Coach Jackson started recruiting me my sophomore year and he was relentless. He’d get all the Nebraska guys together on visits, and when you’ve got guys going there from your own high school team, or guys you played against, it makes for a super easy transition.”

Ask any of the #NebraskaJacks if they grew up dreaming of playing for the Huskers and they’re not going to deny it. And most are realistic. Johnson’s father, Clester, played wide receiver for the Huskers 1995 national championship team, but Cade admits that with his 5-10 height, he wasn’t really a Big 10 prospect. He was offered by USD in addition to SDSU, and the Coyotes have nine Nebraska natives, too.

Wilson doesn’t seem upset that a scholarship offer never came, but he was disappointed when the Huskers invited him to a camp and not a single coach talked to him when he came.

“If you grow up in Nebraska you want to be a Husker all your life, but I think they kind of feel like they’ve got you in their back pocket — that they can just offer you a walk-on spot and you’ll take it,” Wilson said. “And before SDSU and NDSU and USD started recruiting Omaha you probably would’ve taken it. But Dallas (Goedert) proved that if you’re good enough they’ll find you and you can go to the league from here.”

Earith, who has emerged as SDSU’s top pass rusher, said it was tempting to walk-on knowing the tradition of the program at Nebraska. But there was no one there trying to convince him to do so. Jackson, on the other hand, made Earith feel like he was going to be a key component to something special.

“It’s definitely become a thing where if you don’t get an offer there, this is where you want to be,” Earith said. “There’s great competition in this league. There are people here who could play at Nebraska. You’re not going to play in front of 90,000 fans, but it’s still pretty great. It’s awesome to get to know guys through high school, become best buds with them and then get to college and play with them some more.”

Does any of this bother anyone at Nebraska? Maybe not. Only a handful of recent SDSU players would likely have made an impact in the Big 10. But legendary coach Tom Osborne often credited the beefy walk-on roster with giving the Huskers better scout teams than opponents, and the emergence of players like Johnson and Earith (not to mention basketball star Mike Daum, a Kimball native) could cause Nebraska to try harder to keep the bubble guys at home.

Jackson said he’s prepared for that.

″(Frost) is going to do a good job there,” he said. “It makes me a little nervous, but not too much. If Nebraska offers a guy I’m going to battle ’em tooth and nail, but at the end of the day, good for them. If what we’re doing creates more opportunities for kids in my home state then I’m happy for those guys, and if the offer doesn’t come, obviously we’ve made ourselves a pretty attractive alternative.”

The Huskers host the Jackrabbits in 2020, 2024 and 2028.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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