Jonah Pirsig and Isaac Hayes, both hulking offensive linemen, are two of the pillars of the Gophers' football recruiting class for 2012. They had plenty of college options but chose to stay home.
A photographer slid a wooden box across the floor, intending to elevate the camera view of two hulking football players.
"Thought that was for you," Jonah Pirsig, a 6-9, 290-pound offensive tackle, quipped to his 6-3, 280-pound counterpart, Isaac Hayes.
Strangers a year ago, Pirsig and Hayes have bonded since showing up on the same December weekend for their official recruiting visits to the University of Minnesota. Their collective size and ability, as members of Gophers coach Jerry Kill's 2012 football recruiting class, is expected to help fill out an offensive line that will be key to the program moving forward.
More importantly for Kill's rebuilding program and the future of long-maligned Gophers football, it shows talented Minnesota players staying home.
The linemen, plus Hopkins wide receiver Andre McDonald and prized quarterback Philip Nelson of Mankato West highlight the 2012 Super Preps class, the Star Tribune's annual look at the state's blue-chip college football prospects.
"From what I can remember, [former coach Tim] Brewster couldn't keep the good players in the state," Pirsig said. "And, for having all the Division I players going to the U now except two I think, that's saying something."
Bad times part of the draw
Both Pirsig and Hayes chose to stay close to home despite strong pulls from top programs elsewhere.
Among the 10 schools that offered Hayes a scholarship were Boise State, Virginia Tech and Purdue. Pirsig had offers from eight Big Ten schools in addition to 2010 national champion Auburn.
Hayes' older brother, Anthony, was a redshirt freshman at Stanford last fall. While the Cardinal did not make Isaac an offer, it might not have mattered if it had.
"It's the hometown team and it's on the rise," Hayes said of the Gophers. "I get the opportunity to hopefully make it a better team."
The Gophers' run of lean years "was part of the draw," Hayes said. "I like a challenge."
Those close to Hayes have heard similar sentiments. Chad Abbott, offensive line coach at St. Thomas Academy, said Kill "sold [Hayes] and the others on what it could look like if Minnesota kids stayed home."
Hayes' mother, Julie Scharber, said her son is "proud of this freshman class. He keeps saying, 'We're going to be so good.'"
Where in line will they play?
While Nelson ranks as the centerpiece of Kill's recruiting class, the development of players such as Hayes and Pirsig will be likewise critical.
Hayes could get especially close to Nelson. Primarily a left guard at St. Thomas Academy, Hayes said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover projects him playing center.
Hayes last snapped the ball in seventh grade. Abbott said his nimble feet and fast hands will translate.
At St. Thomas, Hayes exploded out of his stance and drove overmatched defenders downfield, sometimes farther than the Cadets' ball carriers would travel.
"I don't remember a high school offensive lineman who gets to the second level as quick as Isaac," Abbott said. "He stays compact and strong and plays through the whistle."
Pirsig, meanwhile, is a prototypical left tackle. He said he would welcome playing time on either side of center. He played right tackle at the high school All-American Bowl in Dallas in late December.
"Coach Kill makes average players into players that are great," he said. "[Kill] can't promise me I'll make it to the NFL, but he said he can promise me that I will come away with a degree and hopefully be a better person. That sealed the deal for my whole family, me included."
Hayes as swimmer, sprinter
Hayes kept an edge on the field through unorthodox methods. He spent the past three winters swimming for the Cadets' junior varsity team. Spring afternoons found him training with sprinters on the track team.
"He's an athlete in a 6-3, 280-pound body," Abbott said.
Academics also led Hayes to select Minnesota. He plans to major in engineering, a rigorous pursuit frowned upon by some football coaches.
"Some schools say you can choose any major," Scharber said. "Then you get to campus and they tell you what degrees you have time for."
Scharber believes her son, whom she called "one of the hardest working people I know," can manage the dual work load. It's the same reason she expects him to play a large role in Minnesota's resurgence under Kill.
"It's just his personality," Scharber said. "He's tenacious. He doesn't give up."
Pirsig loses, regains weight
Gophers coaches strongly hinted to Pirsig that he would benefit from enrolling at Minnesota this winter. But Pirsig harkened back to something former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said on the recruiting trail.
"He told me to not forget my high school and to enjoy my senior year as much as I can," Pirsig recalled. "I knew I had to stay home. I've heard a lot of things from coaches, but that stuck out."
Pirsig works out on his own three days a week, and with a personal trainer in nearby Fairmont two other days. That work ethic stood out in Dallas, where coaches told him to "keep getting stronger and quicker,'' Pirsig said.
After Blue Earth lost in the Class 2A state quarterfinals this fall, Pirsig upped his workout routine. He was surprised to step on the scale and see that he lost about 15 pounds.
"I knew I had a little fat on me," he said, grinning after he tackled a full-sized sub from an on-campus sandwich shop. "But I always thought I was pretty lean. I guess last summer I didn't eat the best. I'm better at that now."
Though he proudly boasts he does more than his share to help the family eat "a roast beef a week" Pirsig noted that he got back to his playing weight by adding pounds "the right way."
That included by working out and, he admitted, extra helpings of potatoes and a half-gallon of milk per night.
Perfect time to shine?
The two linemen made a point of being at the Metrodome last fall to watch fellow in-state recruit Nelson in the state high school football tournament.
"The time that we're being recruited is perfect," Pirsig said. "New coach with one year under his belt. Making improvements. I'm glad I'm part of this class because people are really looking forward to winning football with the Gophers, and I really think that this class is going to do that for them.
"Everyone has that sense of not wanting to fail, and I know I will have that feeling. I don't want to let my community down. I want everyone to know I'll be doing my best to keep Philip off his back."