Football fans might ridicule a player whose college is listed as Slippery Rock, but the Vikings could have a starting guard from that Division II school this season in Brandon Fusco.
Fusco lettered in just two seasons of high school football and wasn't offered any Division I scholarships. But Slippery Rock has a great history of developing offensive linemen, having produced five consecutive D-II All-Americans at center, with Fusco the fifth. He also was named the Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year his senior season.
Fusco said the Slippery Rock campus in Pennsylvania was a half-hour from his home, and when the coaches visited him there, it felt like the right move.
"The coaches came to my house and it felt like they were family," Fusco said.
His relative lack of size and experience at the time limited the scope of schools looking to offer him a scholarship.
"I think the biggest look I had was Youngstown State and Morehead State, two Division I-AA schools, but those were both walk-on jobs," Fusco said.
According to offensive line statistics released by the Vikings after draft night in 2011, over the course of his career at Slippery Rock, Fusco notched 332 knockdowns along with 42 touchdown-resulting blocks and 28 blocks down field.
Making an impression
Fusco was the first player from Slippery Rock to be invited to the Senior Bowl and he was invited to the NFL scouting combine. He ran the fourth-fastest 20-yard shuttle for offensive lineman at 4.43 seconds, and he was third in the three-cone drill at 7.29 seconds. The Vikings selected him early in the sixth round, 172nd overall.
There are currently two other Slippery Rock players in the NFL, cornerback Andre Freeman of the Steelers and receiver Devin Goda of the Ravens, both rookie free agents this season. Fusco remains only the fifth player drafted out of Slippery Rock, and the highest selection in school history.
Fusco admits he was surprised, but not shocked, when the Vikings drafted him.
"I was a good player at my college," he said. "I mean, it was obviously a good goal of mine and I thought I was a draftable player. I wasn't shocked. I know my game and I was confident. You know, there's some good players in Division II -- but not as good as Big Ten schools, but still, good competition. I obviously dominated to get here but I've seen some good players."
The lack of offers from bigger schools didn't hurt Fusco.
"I had a great offensive line coach [Joe Walton] at Slippery Rock. I wouldn't regret anything, I enjoyed my four years there. I don't regret it at all going to Slippery Rock," he said.
Fusco got in four games last year, but he said he was nervous the first time he entered a pro game.
"I was shaking when I saw Anthony [Herrera] go out. I believe my first game was the Packers. [I] came in, and like I said, I had butterflies that first play. I think I remember it was an outside zone to the left and I had to reach [linebacker] A.J. Hawk on the second level and I got him pretty good. I was feeling good after that."
It was a huge adjustment from Division II to the NFL.
"Oh it was a lot different, a lot faster, quicker, stronger guys. It took me a good half-a-year to get used to it, and I feel right now that I'm very confident and everything is slowing down for me," Fusco said.
Fusco has a confidence about him that the Vikings coaches like.
"I can't say I'm an experienced veteran, but I've got some games under my belt. I've improved a lot. I had a very good offseason lifting-wise, a good trainer back in Pittsburgh," he said. "These guys [at Winter Park], I came up here a couple weeks early, and these guys are working just as hard as back home. I'm excited about this year and had a really good offseason. I feel in real good shape, probably the best shape I've ever been in."
Fusco wants to keep playing for a long time and then perhaps coach, but he majored in health and safety management at college.
"I love the game, so I want to stick around as much as I can," he said. "I plan on coaching and if not use my major, become a safety manager for a company or something along those lines."
The fans might laugh when they announce a player from Slippery Rock at the draft, but ask the coaches, and they will tell you that Fusco can play.
The Gophers football team is reported to have its second commitment for 2013 in Alex Mayes, a 6-5, 280-pound offensive lineman from Van Alstyne, Texas. Mayes made his second visit at the Gophers football clinic last weekend, along with his brother Connor, a high school junior who is a 6-5, 338-pound tackle. Also, GopherIllustrated.com reported that the team got a third commitment in Beaver Dam, Wis., defensive end Owen Salzwedel.
• Nobody will be more excited than Lou and Francine Nanne if their grandson, Louie Nanne of Edina, is picked in the NHL draft. He is rated 188th, but those ratings man nothing.
• Recommended for attending is the Father/Son Basketball Camp put on by the Gophers coaching staff on June 29-30. I've watched Tubby Smith put it on, and it's worthwhile. Call the Gophers basketball office at 612-625-3085 for particulars.
• Willie Burton, the Gophers basketball great from 1986 to 1990 who went on to the NBA, is back at the U working on his degree 22 years after his collegiate career ended.
• Competing in the highly rated National Basketball Players Association camp last week were two local players: Kyle Washington, who spent three years at Benilde-St. Margaret's before transferring to the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, and Cooper star Rashad Vaughn, who is being recruited by as many colleges as Apple Valley's Tyus Jones, who made the USA U-17 team that will play in the World Tournament in Lithuania.
• Wally Ellenson, the Rice Lake, Wis., basketball player joining the Gophers this fall, is also a great high jumper, winning the Wisconsin Division 1 state championship with a leap of 7 feet, 1 inch, the highest high school mark in the country this year and just short of being an Olympics qualifier. "Tubby Smith is going to allow Wally to compete with our track team," Gophers track coach Steve Plasencia said. "There aren't five better high school high jumpers in the country." And Ellenson, who is competing in basketball this summer in the Howard Pulley League, has a high school freshman brother named Henry to whom Smith has already offered a scholarship.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org