- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Jack Conklin couldn't believe it, and neither could his dad.
As they traveled from camp to camp, trying open the eyes of major college coaches, they were met with blank stares. Jack, an offensive tackle with length, strength and athleticism -- he played stand-up defensive end in high school --- performed well on the field, but he might as well have been auditioning in an empty theater.
Coaches said they had no scholarships available. They flocked to more decorated recruits. They thanked Conklin for coming but gave limited or no feedback on his play.
"You get to a point where you think, 'Geez, maybe I don’t know. What do they not see that I see?'" said Darren Conklin, Jack's father and coach at Plainwell (Mich.) High School. "Being a parent muddles that as well, but I'm thinking, 'He's as big as these kids, his arms are longer, he's faster.
"We had more than one conversation where Jack said, 'I know I'm better than that kid.' We just couldn’t understand."
There's still a level of misunderstanding about Jack Conklin. It goes like this: How the #*!#@ did no FBS school offer him a scholarship?
Almost no one wanted the guy who started 13 games as a redshirt freshman -- 10 at left tackle, three at right tackle -- and didn't allow a sack for a Michigan State team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. After paying his own way for his first semester at MSU in 2012, the 6-foot-6 Conklin is so far ahead of schedule that he and his coaches have a new plan.
The All-Big Ten team is the next step. But there's another goal, one not discussed as openly but very much in Conklin's mind: to become the first Spartans offensive lineman selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Tony Mandarich went No. 2 overall in 1989.
"That's my dream," Jack said. "I feel like I can attain that."
Doubting Conklin isn't a wise move. Plenty of FBS coaches did during the recruiting process. It could have been because of his hometown. Plainwell is tiny (population: 3,804, as of the 2010 Census). Its location, between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, isn't on the typical recruiting circuit. The high school rarely produced FBS recruits.
The Spartans' coaches evaluated Conklin's tape, but they already had three tackles committed. Conklin dominated games -- 80 percent of Plainwell's runs went in his direction -- but the coaches couldn't truly gauge him because of the competition.
"He's beating the crap out of a guy," MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten said, "but that guy's 5-6 and 140 pounds."
Jack received preferred walk-on opportunities at Illinois and Western Michigan, but no scholarship offers. Darren remembers sitting with a Division II coach a week before national signing day.
"Man to man, coach to coach, I don't understand. Why hasn't he been picked up by a Division I program?" Darren, a preferred walk-on offensive lineman at Michigan in 1986, remembers asking. "The coach said, 'They've looked at him, they've evaluated him, and they flat-out don't think he’s good enough.'"
Jack, sitting alongside his dad, didn't accept the answer.
"I don’t care what he says," he told Darren. "I'm good enough."
The Conklins had an easier time convincing the coaches at Fork Union Military Academy, one of the nation's top prep programs. Less than an hour after Darren sent Jack's highlight film, he received a call asking how soon Jack could get there.
"They said they didn’t understand how I got overlooked," Jack said.
Jack appeared set for the prep school route, which could boost his stock for 2013, but that spring Michigan State offered him a spot. Jack would be put on scholarship no later than that following January.
He made his mark during practice in 2012, especially before the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. MSU defensive end William Gholston, who had nine tackles and a sack in the Spartans' win, told Staten, "It's that freshman tackle [Conklin] who helped me have such a good game."
Jim Bollman noticed Conklin "was a little bit different" as soon as spring practice opened that March. Conklin's ability to make quick adjustments to technique and scheme, and to effectively communicate, stood out to Bollman, the Spartans' new co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach. Being a coach's son didn't hurt him there.
Bollman, who coached Ohio State's offensive line from 2001-11, had seen players such as Nick Mangold and Rob Sims contribute early in their careers.
"But those guys were bigger-recruited guys," Bollman noted. "It's hard to find guys that fit into the exact mold of Jack. To come in as a walk-on like that and then the next year have the recognition he’s had, that’s hard for me to put into memory.
"This is a little unusual."
It's not unprecedented, though, especially for offensive lineman. Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, was a low-grade recruit from Rochester, Mich., who landed at Central Michigan, where he blossomed. Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, the Big Ten's only first-round pick in 2013, received few offers in high school but became the first true freshman lineman in Badgers history to start the season opener.
"You look at the Fisher kid, players like that," Staten said. "He's turning himself into one of those."
Jack always was extremely competitive, but his dad and his coaches think the recruiting snubs drive him even more.
"He's still got that mentality, like, 'Hey, I had to pay my way. I'm going to prove to everyone not only that I'm worth it, but I'm going to be one of the best, if not the best, to walk through this door,'" Staten said.
Calhoun counts himself among those stunned by Conklin's path to MSU.
"I went against him a couple times and went, 'What, this guy doesn't have a scholarship?'" Calhoun said. "I thought there was no way. He's a guy you can tell has a lot of talent. Last year was just the start.
"He's about to sprout his wings now."
Conditioning has been the offseason focus for Conklin, who played the Rose Bowl at around 330 pounds but checks in now around 310. He has overhauled his diet -- he eats 300 grams of protein per day -- and expects a speed increase this season.
Bollman poses the pivotal question about Conklin: "To have the kind of success he's had the first two years, now where does it go?"
League honors are the minimum expectation this season. But why stop there?
Darren said Jack often thinks about players like Eric Fisher. When they talk about Jack's journey, Darren sees the same look in his son's eye, the one that showed up when coaches ignored him in recruiting.
"I've always had a chip on my shoulder," Jack said. "I'm not done trying to prove to people what I can do."
Jack Conklin couldn't believe it, and neither could his dad.As they traveled from camp to camp, trying open the eyes of major college coaches, they were met with blank stares.