NIU, BG find the hidden stars
The big-name schools recruit at the equivalent of Rodeo Drive, choosing from among the dozens of famous label names, the high school seniors who are well known on every recruiting web site.
Schools like Northern Illinois and Bowling Green find their freshmen by combing through garage sales and flea markets, unearthing treasures that the guys with the big recruiting budgets overlook. Four years ago, while the Big Ten recruiters flocked to the south side of Chicago, tailback Michael Turner toiled in anonymity across town.
"No recruiters went to North Chicago High," recalls former Northern Illinois running backs coach Jay Boulware, now at Arizona. "The football was just OK. They were having a little bit of success, and Michael was a big part of it."
That's Northern Illinois tailback Michael "The Burner" Turner, the number two rusher in the nation (132.7 yards per game), who has rushed for 2,844 yards in 19 games over the last season and a half.
And both teams have established themselves while shopping for players after the big-name schools have gone through the racks.
"We've got to shake all the bushes," Bowling Green recruiting coordinator Troy Rothenbuhler says. The all-state players are rare, unless they come from a state not known for football. Finding a wide receiver in Alaska is as easy as finding an Iditarod racer in Ohio. The Falcons discovered junior Cole Magner at Palmer Colony High, where he made all-state as a quarterback and free safety.
The national recruiting craze, fueled by the Internet, only rarely affects these schools. They search for players without the help of the gurus and their top 100 lists. When the pack goes after the best four players on a state championship team, these schools look at numbers five and six.
"In Chicago, there are kids getting overrecruited," Northern Illinois recruiting coordinator Mike Sabock says. "Schools hear one Big Ten school is recruiting and they all go in there. I'll tell you what. There are other schools in the area that know we do a good job of evaluating. We're the only ones talking to a kid. The word is out that we offered him, and a couple of days later, he's got four schools calling."
Have-not recruiters must project. The Bowling Greens of the world will give more players a chance to prove themselves. Falcon linebacker Mitch Hewitt may have been the runner-up for Mr. Football in Ohio, but even as a fifth-year senior, he's still just 6-foot-1, 213 pounds.
"You can't completely overlook a guy when he's a player," Rothenbuhler says. "He might be an inch or two shorter than what the Big Ten wants but he knows how to make plays."
Turner didn't exactly fit the mold, either, but earlier this year, he became the school leader in career rushing yards. He is at 4,222 yards and counting.
"I saw a little bubble-butt kid with big legs, put together well," Boulware says of Turner. "I saw a kid that broke a lot of tackles. He was really fast. The competition wasn't stiff, but he was outrunning everybody and he had track times to back it up."
Bowling Green tight end Craig Jarrett arrived on campus as a walk-on. He would have a lot of company at Northern Illinois, where the Huskies began the season with seven former walk-ons in the starting lineup. These schools sell opportunity.
Don't want to wait until you're a fourth-year junior? Come play for us.
Want to prove you're better than those guys the Big Ten schools signed? You'll get a chance here.
Want to play your position instead of what the coach wants? We're your school. Falcon quarterback Josh Harris grew up a few furlongs from the Horseshoe, but neither Ohio State nor any other Big Ten school wanted him under center.
The 6-3, 238-pound senior set a MAC record last season by throwing or running for 41 touchdowns. No one questions his ability to play quarterback. The door he came through at Bowling Green is now wide open. On Wednesday, Chaminade-Julienne High quarterback Anthony Turner of Dayton, Ohio, spurned Iowa, among others, to commit to the Falcons.
There's always the risk of winning so many games that coaches forget the kind of player that got them there. They start recruiting the blue-chip players, and they finish second a lot. Sabock says that won't happen at Northern Illinois.
"There are some big-, big-, big-timers that realistically we are not going to have a shot at," he says. "We try to find the guys who are good enough to win the conference with. He may not be the best player in Chicago. He may be the 20th best at his position. But if he can help us win the conference, that's the guy."
Northern Illinois and Bowling Green may not shop among the elite, but you've got to admit, they know how to throw an outfit together.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.