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Monday, December 17, 2012
Updated: January 3, 10:38 AM ET
Off the beaten path

By Mitch Sherman
ESPN RecruitingNation

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- Patchy grass outside Herbert Hoover Hall on the campus of Iowa Western Community College hints at the high volume of foot traffic that passes near the outside of this budding football hub.

Above the double doors, the second "O" in Hoover is missing, along with the "R" and part of the "V." It adds to the unspectacular look of the rectangular structure parked on the perimeter of a courtyard behind the school's basketball arena.

Inside Hoover sits a collection of nondescript rooms and a hodgepodge of desks and chairs -- the offices of the nation's best junior college football team.

Iowa Western
A number of top college football coaches have descended upon Herbert Hoover Hall, home of Iowa Western's football team.

But oh, to be a fly on the wall here.

An exclusive club of major college head coaches and assistants paraded in and around Hoover this fall, many during these final, furious few weeks before the midterm junior college signing period opens on Wednesday.

Twelve members of the Reivers' 12-0 team, which defeated powerhouse Butler Community College 27-7 on Dec. 2 in the NJCAA national championship to finish atop the final NJCAA rankings, are expected to sign this week with programs from the Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and Mountain West.

Last week, Kansas State outdueled Penn State for the commitment of quarterback Jake Waters, who threw for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns as a sophomore and was named NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year.

All of it made for some kind of a crazy stretch at the fourth-year startup under coach Scott Strohmeier. Details of the late rush at IWCC offer a glimpse into the frantic world of recruiting at junior colleges, an underpublicized but often vital piece to the success of FBS programs.

"It's a good problem to have," said Mike Strohmeier, the head coach's brother, receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Iowa Western.

Waters went unrecruited out of high school in Council Bluffs two years ago and received his first offer in early October. By the end of the recruiting fury this year, he was "halfway crazy about this whole situation," according to Nevada-bound running back and juco teammate Don Jackson.

Not many college programs target junior college prospects early in the recruiting process.

With fewer remaining seasons of eligibility and an unpredictable development track, they are often deemed a higher risk than high school recruits.

But injuries happen in the big programs. Players fail to progress. Some transfer. Others just leave.

It places coaches like Nick Saban and Mack Brown in need of help on short notice. Enter the junior colleges.

Two weeks ago, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier visited Waters and Scott Strohmeier's staff at IWCC. The Crimson Tide considered recruiting a junior college quarterback in case AJ McCarron declared early for the NFL draft next month.

Alabama never offered a scholarship. Neither did Texas, which also inquired late about Waters. The Longhorns' former co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, now the head coach at Arkansas State, told Waters they would consider an offer only if the quarterback agreed in advance to accept it.

Last Thursday, when Waters and defensive end Devon Nash announced their pledges to K-State in a news conference at Hoover Hall, the quarterback's name was trending nationally on Twitter.

"It's obviously awesome that so many people cared," Waters said.

On the same December day Nussmeier visited, Kansas defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt and assistants from Syracuse and South Alabama showed up unannounced.

"We want our guys recruited," Scott Strohmeier said. "It's the No. 1 recruiting tool for the next kid."

Still, it can get overwhelming. And uncomfortable.

"We're going to accommodate everyone," Mike Strohmeier said. "I tell them that. But this was the most traffic we've ever had."

Occasionally, Iowa Western sat recruiters in each of its four coaching offices while its offensive and defensive coaches held meetings in the hallway.

On the eastern edge of the Omaha, Neb., metro area, Iowa Western sits within 100 miles of one FBS program: Nebraska, from which no coach visited this year. Plenty of others did, though, documented on the wall behind Mike Strohmeier's desk. IWCC coaches listed in blue marker on a white board the schools to recruit at the junior college since September.

"I don't know how to explain the experience," said IWCC receiver and Maryland commit Deon Long, who set records this fall with 1,626 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns.

Long, from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., attended West Virginia and New Mexico before landing at Iowa Western.

"My high school was good," he said, "so we got a lot of attention from college coaches. But not like this. Coaches visit daily -- two, three, four, five, six, seven of them."

The recruiting craziness progressed to the point that Iowa Western coaches tried to complete daily strategy sessions by 9 a.m. to prepare for the crush.

Imagine Saban -- or for that matter, a high school coach -- trying to adhere to that schedule.

Iowa Western board
Iowa Western coaches note on a white board all the schools that have visited the program this fall.

Second-year Maryland coach Randy Edsall recently spent several hours at Iowa Western to chat with Long and the Iowa Western coaches.

"He just sat by my desk and talked to me all day," said IWCC assistant Donnie Woods, a former Maryland offensive lineman.

Others, such as Wyoming coach Dave Christensen, get in and out of the offices in a more businesslike manner, according to Woods. He said he understands their demands -- college coaches want to research their prospects, especially some of the junior college players who come with excess baggage.

At the Reivers' bowl game in Cedar Falls, Iowa, against Butler, defensive end Nash met simultaneously with Paul Randolph and Bill Young, defensive coordinators at Arizona State and Oklahoma State, respectively.

"Kind of awkward," Nash said.

The day before Nash's announcement last week, Young and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy visited Nash at the Lincoln, Neb., home of his grandmother. Kansas State defensive ends coach Joe Bob Clements arrived a few hours later.

At the same time, K-State co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Del Miller met with Waters and his family at their home.

Two days prior, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien strode into Hoover Hall.

Scott Strohmeier has invited Baylor coach Art Briles and Illinois coach Tim Beckman into film sessions. But the encounter with O'Brien stopped Strohmeier in his tracks.

"Just meeting him, that was one I'll never forget," Strohmeier said. "I have a lot of respect for him and what he's done. That really stood out to me.

"These are guys and programs that you watch on TV. You study what they do, and then you have an opportunity to sit down and meet with them. We're trying to help our kids. And they're obviously evaluating our players, but you want to show them you run a nice organization, too."

O'Brien, seeking a junior college quarterback to stem potential depth issues after Matt McGloin's departure, spent a couple hours with the IWCC coaches before visiting Waters at home. That night, O'Brien returned to campus for another lengthy visit.

"Again," Strohmeier said, "that's what we coach for. It's what our guys play for."

Places like Herbert Hoover Hall fade again into the background next week.

That is until next fall, when the parade starts again.