Josh Aune's dream always has been to play college football at a Division I program. The St. Paul Highland Park junior believes he has the necessary skill set — size, speed, football instincts, ball skills — to be a safety at the highest level of the collegiate game.
The problem was getting noticed. Highland Park isn't necessarily a must-stop for big-time football recruiters.
So Aune the football player became Aune the self-promoter. He put together the requisite highlight video, traveled around the state and country attending junior camps and combines, and spent huge chunks of free time honing his football skills lest they become dull.
"My spring has been incredibly hectic," said Aune, who also plays baseball and competes in track and field. "I don't have much time for a social life."
Busy or not, it's working so far. North Dakota and Northern Iowa have made offers to the 6-1, 205-pound Aune, with more expected.
"I absolutely want to play football in college, but I didn't know it would be this rigorous," he said.
Years ago, springtime for potential college football players meant going out for track and field and lifting a barbell or two, with the expectation that recruiters would find them.
No more. The showcasing of high school football players has become big business. While other sports have offseason club programs and tournaments that help gauge talent, the small sample size of a high school football season often is not enough to tell a complete story. Combines and collegiate camps have proliferated over the past decade and have become must-do stops for most potential college football players.
"You pretty much have to go to them if you want to stand out," said Kyle Goblirsch, a Minnesota native who is a recruiting analyst for 24-7 Sports. "It's a platform to get noticed and go against some of the best competition."
Varied talent, one goal
On a recent Saturday, about 90 high school football players gathered at the Rockford Community Center gymnasium for the second annual Minnesota Football Coaches Association (MFCA) combine. From high school freshmen through juniors, they paid $50 each to have their athletic abilities measured and entered onto a website that, in turn, charges college coaches a fee to gain access to the database.
The concept is no different from dozens of other, more expensive combines that cater to more elite clientele. It attracted dozens of coaches, almost all from Division II and Division III schools.
The quality of attendees runs the gamut. There are potential Division I players such as Jevon Brekke, an athletic wide receiver/running back from DeLaSalle, and Lincoln Latimer, a 6-6, 275-pound offensive lineman from Bloomington Jefferson who clearly was the biggest player on the floor. And also Mound Westonka's Jarek Witczek, who started as a 240-pound offensive lineman for the White Hawks last season and was looking to see where he might fit in.
Their widely varying skill levels are bound by a common thread: to connect their names to a college program.
"This is the first combine I've been to," said Latimer, still breathing heavily after a drill. "My primary goal is to play Division I, but I just want to play football."
Jason Janu leaned against the wall of the gym, casually watching his son Carter going from station to station. A rock-solid 240-pound junior linebacker/running back, Carter missed most of his junior season at Zimmerman because of a leg injury. His father played football at Southwest Minnesota State in the early 1990s and noted how different things have become since he was a recruit.
"Back then, they maybe sent you a letter and talked to your coach," Janu said. "You'd go visit once and that was pretty much it. This is great for the kids. It gives them a lot more opportunities."
Chris Scotch works for PrepTree.com, the website that conducts the combine. Scotch said the difference between his combine and others, some of which charge entry fees well into the hundreds of dollars, is that the partnership with the MFCA ensures that kids will get fair representation and not a pie-in-the-sky sales pitch.
"The coaches association is with us because our goal is to help kids get recruited," Scotch said. "That's our priority. You need to be careful who you give your dollars to. A lot of people out there are just in it for the money."
Goblirsch, who has seen just about everything there is to see in the recruiting process, vouched for the MFCA combine. "The coaches association is legitimately trying to help kids get their names out there," he said. "They don't let recruiting and rating sites come watch."
He paused, then laughed. "They think we're evil."
Getting noticed in Chicago
At 6-4 ½ and 225 pounds, Woodbury junior defensive end David Alston has the kind of physique that college recruiters seek. Like Aune, Alston is spending time trying to create a national market for his services.
"Any exposure is good exposure," said Alston, whose father played football at Rice University and whose mother completed in discus and shot put for the University of Minnesota. "I did track last year. This year, I decided to take the spring to focus on football."
Like most of the top Minnesota recruits, Alston and Aune attended the Nike Chicago combine in early April. Both came away having opened a few eyes that otherwise might not have looked their way. Out of more than 200 athletes who took part, Aune was ranked No. 8 overall, Alston 33rd. Two other Minnesotans, running back Jefferson Lee of Marshall and wide receiver Brevyn Spann-Ford of St. Cloud Tech, were among the top 51 at the combine.
"People said they really liked my hands and my first step," Alston said. "Pass rushing is my best asset. I have the length and the speed to get around the corner."
Alston attended a similar combine sponsored by Under Armour, and the visibility has resulted in a steady stream of collegiate interest. He's up to 15 confirmed offers from such schools as Iowa State, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, North Dakota State and Utah, as well as six Ivy League schools.
The Nike and Under Armour combines are free to athletes, trading on the high visibility of the athletes who attend.
"The biggest cost is travel," Alston said.
Despite the interest generated, the showcasing is far from over. Next up are summertime camps conducted by colleges. Those camps usually are the most important time for a recruit because coaches can see up close the potential in a player. Both Aune and Alston plan to attend the camps at Minnesota and Iowa. Aune also is looking at South Dakota State and North Dakota. Alston has his sights set on Stanford, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
Both agree that it will all pay off when they sign that national letter of intent.
"I'm excited to see where it goes from here," Alston said. "I'm living my dream."