Six years ago, Willie Mobley broke the Gophers’ hearts. A coveted defensive lineman from Eden Prairie, he was the equivalent of The Bachelor, with his pick of 29 swooning universities.
It came down to Ohio State and Minnesota, and Mobley gave the final rose to the Buckeyes. But that relationship soon fizzled. Since then, Mobley has been on the rebound, working his way through a series of increasingly less attractive schools.
Mobley tried UCLA, then Arizona and has since moved to New Mexico State. At age 24, after two major injury setbacks, he’s still playing college football. In fact, he’ll face the Gophers on Saturday night in Las Cruces, N.M.
“It’s crazy how it all works,” Mobley said.
Mobley didn’t lose a game as a junior and senior at Eden Prairie, and then-Gophers coach Tim Brewster worked tirelessly, trying to land him, along with two other standouts from that class.
Michael Floyd, a wide receiver from Cretin-Derham Hall, chose Notre Dame and is now entering his second season in the NFL. Sam Maresh, a linebacker from Champlin Park, picked the Gophers but endured numerous setbacks on and off the field.
Mobley arrived at Ohio State full of promise, but he’d suffered a shoulder injury at Eden Prairie and during his first Buckeyes practice, that injury became significantly worse. He took a redshirt year, then worked to transfer to UCLA.
“I was going through a family situation, so I decided to move closer to where my mother was going to be, in California,” Mobley said. “I was still recovering from my injury and wasn’t in great football shape, and UCLA kind of held me off until it was too late.
“You’re on campus, you’re going to start workouts, and that’s when [Rick] Neuheisel was the coach. My family believed in everything they were saying, and the last couple days, [UCLA officials] were like, ‘We can’t get the credits right [to complete the transfer].’”
This news came more than a week into fall semester. Always a good student, Mobley suddenly had nowhere to take class. The football coach at Orange Coast College stepped in and got him into that school for one year, even though Mobley never played for the team.
This helped smooth Mobley’s transfer to Arizona, where Mobley played sparingly in 2010, making seven tackles. He was penciled in as Arizona’s starting nose tackle for 2011, but that May, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees while playing pickup basketball.
“I couldn’t understand why I was going through all those things,” Mobley said.
Mobley returned to the field last season and made 20 tackles as a backup nose tackle under new Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. With his eligibility expired, Mobley petitioned for a sixth year, and the NCAA gave it to him, declaring his freshman year at Ohio State a medical redshirt because of the shoulder injury.
He landed at New Mexico State, which finished 1-11 last year. What Mobley wanted most was playing time. Transfers normally have to sit out for one season, but the NCAA allows exceptions for players seeking graduate degrees.
Mobley got his undergrad degree from Arizona and is now pursuing a master’s in criminal justice. He started New Mexico State’s 56-7 loss at Texas last Saturday and made three tackles.
“He plays with a lot of passion, and he’s been a good role model for our younger players,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said. “He’s one of our more explosive players, so I’d look for Willie to get better and better.”
Mobley said his goals haven’t changed. He still wants to play in the NFL.
“I love the game so much, and that’s why I came back for another year because I honestly don’t have a lot of football experience,” Mobley said. “This is really my second full training camp, where I’ve been healthy. Getting a sixth year, it’s crazy. It’s been a journey.”
Maybe if Brewster and the Gophers hadn’t finished 1-11 in 2007, during Mobley’s senior year at Eden Prairie, he would have been more tempted to stay home. Maybe then things would have worked out differently.
“We’ll never know, I guess,” Mobley said. “I love Minnesota. It’s home, it always will be home, and I’ve always had a thought of playing for the Gophers.
“But like I said, from the learning experiences I’ve had, and the people I’ve met, I’d do it all over again.”