Philip Nelson was only a sophomore at Mankato West, had barely begun the process of choosing where to play college football, but he had already made up his mind. "I remember telling my dad, 'There's no way I'm going to be a Gopher,'" Nelson said. "Ruled them out right away."
He laughs at the memory, because now he's got a new one: Last February, a full year before he could sign a letter of intent, Nelson, widely considered the most promising prep quarterback in Minnesota since Adam Weber, found himself in Jerry Kill's office, delivering an entirely different message: I'm yours.
"I'm a home-grown Badger [his father, Pat Nelson, played for the Badgers], and everybody thought I was automatic for Wisconsin," said Nelson, who has family in Madison. "But I don't want to leave Minnesota. That's how powerful Jerry Kill was to me."
It's a common refrain as Kill and his assistants slowly put together their first real recruiting class. The new coach, like most of his predecessors, said keeping Minnesota's most talented high school players at home would be a priority. At least initially, he's having some success.
Already, four Minnesota seniors-to-be have promised to play for Kill -- five if you count Hopkins receiver Andre McDonald, who committed last spring but has since said he is delaying his final decision. The Gophers also have a commitment from wide receiver Isaac Fruechte, who played last year at Rochester Community and Technical College.
Nelson signed on early, and offensive guard Isaac Hayes of St. Thomas Academy committed to the Gophers earlier this month. Both players had scholarship offers from such high-profile programs as Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Iowa. "With Hayes and [2011 freshman] Tommy Olson, you've got the inside of your line locked down for three or four years," said Matt O'Connell, an analyst for Gopher Illustrated, a rivals.com affiliate that closely tracks college recruiting.
McDonald, rated the top prep player in the state by the website, began wavering after a recent scholarship offer from Ohio State. Still, "the in-state players have really bought into Kill and what he's trying to do. They like his honesty, they like his vision for the program, and he's got a track record for winning," O'Connell said. "The in-state class is deeper this year, in terms of recruitable talent, than in past years. That said, [Kill and his staff] are targeting more in-state kids than other coaches did."
It's not just Minnesotans, of course; the rivals.com-affiliated website has confirmed 11 commitments from out-of-staters, including four players this month from Miami Central High. And some other highly recruited in-state players are still considering the Gophers, such as offensive linemen Nick Davidson of Eden Prairie and Jonah Pirsig of Blue Earth, tight end Will Johnson of Osseo and linebacker Nick Rallis of Edina.
But it's also becoming clear that the Gophers coaches don't rely on outside evaluations to narrow their focus. "They don't seem to care whether guys have other offers or not," O'Connell said. "They're not afraid to be the first team in on a guy, and that says something about their confidence in their ability to develop the players they like."
The NCAA strictly prohibits coaches from publicly commenting on recruits until after they have signed letters of intent, so Kill could offer no details about his haul. But "we certainly feel good about where we are now," he said earlier this month. "I like our approach. I think it's going well. We've worked very hard at it."
Part of that work paid off right away when Nelson met assistant coaches Pat Poore, Jim Zebrowski and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who made it clear how impressed they were with the 17-year-old quarterback. "They told me right off the bat that I'm their No. 1 guy, that I'm the future at quarterback," said Nelson, who led Mankato West to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the state quarterfinals last fall.
Yet it was Kill's honesty about what would be expected of him that really sold the teenager, who had already paid informal visits to Iowa, Iowa State and Wisconsin. "He said they're going to bring in other guys, too, and that they're going to make me work really hard" to win the starting job, Nelson said, and sure enough, Mitch Leidner of Lakeville South made a verbal commitment in June. "There's something about the new staff. They didn't guarantee anything, but they just seemed way more interested, more friendly and honest."
Nelson attended a few spring workouts to watch Kill and his assistants at work -- he'll graduate a semester early, so he plans to enroll and take part in those practices next March --and spoke to several other Minnesota recruits who have been similarly impressed.
"I could see why all these kids are excited to stay home now," Nelson said. "It reminds me of Iowa, my No. 2 choice -- they have a stable coaching staff and keep most of their in-state kids at home. There's a bright future with this staff."