The Gophers football program long has been criticized for losing the recruiting battle for top in-state talent. St. Thomas Academy lineman Isaac Hayes wants that to change, and just two weeks ago he took matters into his own hands.
"Coach [Jerry] Kill stressed playing for the home team and closing down the border," Hayes said. "Give back to Minnesota."
The 6-3, 275-pound senior, who received offers from high-profile programs such as Virginia Tech, Boise State, Oregon State, Iowa and several others, verbally committed to the University of Minnesota for the 2012 season.
A lifelong Gophers fan, Hayes always dreamed about playing for the Maroon and Gold. He made a connection with the coaching staff and believed in what they were selling.
"I think Coach Kill is going to do a really good job turning the program around and making Minnesota a great team again, and just being part of that is one of the main reasons," Hayes said. "I think that they can do it here in Minnesota. Just being part of that, turning the program around, it's proving people wrong that Minnesota can return to greatness."
Hayes especially liked longtime line coach and first-year Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, whom Cadets coach Dave Ziebarth called a great teacher.
"When you watch him, he really cares about the kids that he's coaching," Ziebarth said. "I think Isaac really wanted to get into a situation like that and it was just the perfect fit. They really wanted him, and he found a real bond with them."
But football was not the lone factor in Hayes' college decision. Academics were of the utmost importance. He aspires to be an engineer, so the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering helped complete the overall college picture. Hayes, whose older brother Anthony will play for Stanford this fall, also wanted to be close to home.
Helping lead the Cadets to an 11-1 record and Class 4A state semifinal appearance last season, Hayes brings size, speed and a mean streak. His overall athleticism separates him from the pack.
"As you move up, on every level from JV to varsity in high school and then into college ranks, it's really speed and quickness that makes a difference," Ziebarth said. "He has that."
For now the Gophers offensive staff wants Hayes at center, while the defense hopes to get him at defensive tackle.
"Wherever I can help out the team the earliest," Hayes said.
As one of the most heavily recruited players of his class, Hayes is glad to get this decision out of the way. Widely known as a team guy, he can now focus on the upcoming season at St. Thomas. Despite losing many key seniors to graduation, the Cadets again will have lofty expectations with a strong returning group. St. Thomas Academy has won five conference titles in the past 11 years and 10 section championships in the past 14.
After reaching the state semifinals the past two seasons, Ziebarth said he believes his Gophers recruit can set the tone and get his squad over that hump.
"If we get them all to work as hard as he does, we're going to be in great shape," Ziebarth said.