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A recruiting crossroads

This is the second of a two-part series on the behind-the-scenes recruiting trail for Detroit Lakes' senior quarterback Joe Mollberg.

The article will use excerpts (signified by an *) from Joe's father, Kent Mollberg, who wrote a "diary" of the recruiting trips and experiences the family went through.

It was a simple drop back during a meaningless play, but it had a big impact on Joe Mollberg's senior season -- and ultimately helped the highly recruited Detroit Lakes quarterback decide where to play college ball.

The play occurred on the very first snap of the Detroit Lakes scrimmage against Fergus Falls in late August, on the field named for his grandfather, Dell Mollberg.

*Before every contest I always said a quick prayer asking that Joe not get hurt, and that no one got hurt.

 On the day of the scrimmage I was sitting in the bleachers and said the traditional prayer.  

Five seconds later the scrimmage began and on the first play Joe was tackled from behind by a player from Fergus Falls and badly sprained his ankle.  

Needless to say, I was a little upset with the Big Man upstairs for a few minutes.  This injury hampered Joe the entire season.  

My prayers weren't answered at that time, but in the big picture of things, it has all worked out the way it was supposed to.*  

For good or bad, the injury ultimately was an important factor in Mollberg's college decision.

Leading up to that point, though, Mollberg was feeling the mounting pressure of modern college recruiting -- especially on the homestretch of the biggest decision of his life.

Hawkeyes in pursuit

With almost a three-year flirtation with the University of Minnesota dissipating, Mollberg's options were still strong with the University of Iowa, North Dakota State University and the surprising University of North Dakota.

That past summer, Mollberg and his parents -- Kent and Patty -- made several important college visits to help in the decision.

There definitely were plenty of interesting and fun trips for the family, from Northern Illinois to South Dakota State University.

Although the scholarship offers were not yet coming in, that time was nearing and when it came, it came as a sudden tidal wave.

"Iowa was interested in me coming as a walk-on," Mollberg said. "I was interested because it was Iowa, a traditionally great Big 10 team. There were many advantages of going there and experiencing that whole ride."

But Mollberg's priorities were not to go and play in the biggest city, either, as Kent pointed out.

"Joe was very grounded and playing in a big city was not important to him," Kent added. "He liked the small town atmosphere UND and NDSU offered. Academics were also very important, as well, so he paid close attention to those."

With Iowa being the big dog left in the recruiting race, the Mollbergs headed south for Joe's college visit.

*Friday, Joe got a call from the Iowa Hawkeye lead recruiter. He has been getting a letter a day from them for almost a year, but has never had personal contact with them.

He tells Joe, "We did our QB board and you are at the top. We have offered two other QBs but we list you ahead of them. I am driving all the way up to see you on May 11th. I am not coming to see anyone else, just you."

Monday night he gets a call from the Hawkeye OC. He leaves Joe a message asking that he call him. He says, "We have a QB board of 75 QBs across the nation. We have you in the top 5. We want to visit with you."*

Mollberg grew up watching Big 10 football and having the chance to tour one of the most famous campuses in the conference was pretty overwhelming for the DL quarterback.

"They gave the recruits a ton of Iowa gear, which was cool, and I was able to sit in their film room and meet with the offensive coordinator," Mollberg said. "That film room was huge."

The visit went well for the Mollbergs, who were able to see the type of atmosphere that typifies a traditional college powerhouse campus.

*We drove into Iowa City last night and drove around campus.  

Absolutely beautiful campus, and the stadium is like something out of a science fiction movie.  Monstrous! And incredible!  Twice the size of TCF in MPLS.

We arrived at the U of I football facility at 2 p.m. the next day.  By 2:10 p.m. the offensive coordinator had Joe and us in a coaches meeting room and had Joe up on a whiteboard diagramming plays for about 30 minutes.

After the mental grilling we were given about an hour- long tour of the football facility.  

When it was all over Joe was tired and stressed and ready for this all to be over.*

But it was far from over. Mollberg still had to be at the top of his game, even in June, when he started making his passing camp visits.

With UND and NDSU in the thick of things, Iowa was still being patient with any type of offer to Mollberg, who was basically competing for a spot with another Minnesota QB -- Lakeville South's Mitch Leidner.

As pretty much expected, Iowa can afford to wait.

With the Laker's season about to begin, Iowa was holding off on offering anything to their final three QB targets, making film of each during the fall season crucial.

But Mollberg ended up missing the season opener for DL because of his sprained ankle and didn't play until late in the second quarter in their road game in Pequot Lakes.

More importantly, he was not even close to 100-percent and film was not available to send off to Iowa.

Mollberg still had a strong season at QB, despite playing at about 70-80 percent for much of the season. He threw for 1,453 yards by going 77-132 and a solid 15-to-6 TD-to-interception ratio for a lofty QB rating of 115.499.

But because Mollberg missed some early action of his senior season, as well as late in the schedule, it became a big factor in Iowa's chase.

"I got a call from one of the Iowa coaches asking why I wasn't sending film and I told him I sprained my ankle and missed some time," Mollberg said. "Here the other QB's they were recruiting were sending them weekly film and I couldn't."

By the third week of the season, Iowa's interest waned, thus leaving two colleges left in the Mollberg Sweepstakes and they happened to be bitter rivals in NDSU and UND.

Decisions, decisions

Earlier in the process, NDSU became a front-runner for Mollberg, but UND made a surprising move and jumped right in, attempting to steal the DL product away from the Bison and head coach Craig Bohl.

But as has been proven with his top-notch recruiting, which eventually led to a National Championship, Bohl knows how to treat a potential future player, as Mollberg found out during his official visit to the Fargo campus.

*Probably the most impressive facilities we have seen other than TCF Stadium (U of M).

When we walk in, the secretary is waiting for us and knows us both by name. Very friendly.

A few players walk by and you can tell they are checking out Joe and know that he is a somewhat "high profile" recruit if he is sitting there on a cold day in March.

The QB room is very impressive. Big high backed chairs. Beautiful mahogany wood everywhere. Large video screen on front wall. Whiteboards all around the other walls with every offensive play. Stations for laptops.*

Not only are the NDSU facilities A-1, Mollberg loves what he sees from an emerging team like the Bison.

*Joe traveled to the Bison spring game last week.  He came home very impressed and feels real good about the direction the Bison are headed.  

It feels as if they are on the verge of being consistent national championship contenders at the FCS level.*

"After watching those NDSU guys practice, you could just tell they were going to win a national championship," Mollberg said. "NDSU did feel good for me and it was going to be one of the toughest choices I was going to have to make between them and UND."

But NDSU and Coach Bohl are heavy on other QB recruits' tails and the interest from the Bison subsides a little during the summer. Mollberg loves the thought of playing just down Highway 10 from his family, but also sees an influx of QB's being signed in Fargo.

*They were real aggressive up until about a month ago. Joe was real excited about this possibility.  

He went to 2 games and each time offensive coordinator Brent Vigen was all over Joe. Joe would be a real nice fit for their offense.  

He thought they would be his first offer, then they signed two freshman QBs and now will have 6 on the roster next year.  

The White Elephant in the room is that the Bison have 6 QBS on roster and brought in the ND player of the year Carson Wentz, a stud from Bismarck.

The QB situation is not brought up, as there will be plenty of time to do that down the road.*

And that road eventually was forked, one going south to NDSU, the other north to UND.

UND makes its pitch and lands a QB

Recruiting is about timing sometimes.

In the end, UND head coach Chris Mussman used perfect timing.

While Mollberg was under a blitzkrieg by coaches through mail, phone and social networking, Mussman and the UND coaching staff knelt in the weeds, after being relatively quiet for the first stages in the process.

*UND came out of nowhere. Joe had heard nothing from them, and then all of a sudden he gets a call from an assistant.  

A week later, the day after senior signing day, Joe is called into Flint Motschenbacher's (DL head coach) office.  Flint and Rob Nielsen (DL assistant coach) are in there on conference call with the UND head coach.  

The UND coach tells Joe they never do this, but offers him a free ride over the phone.  Junior day is in two weeks.  Joe will go.*

The interest picks up from UND, as they also set their sites on Mollberg's teammate Brian Labat, who is having an excellent offseason and looking to be a big part of the Lakers' plans at linebacker. (He commits to UND a little after Mollberg does). Labat also was pursued by NDSU, as well.

Throughout the summer and at a 7-on-7 camp, UND coaches keep on Mollberg, as do the Bison, thus setting up another recruiting battle between the in-state rivals.

*Coach Mussman puts no pressure on Joe, but tells him, "If you commit to UND we are done looking for a QB." He says. "If a big D1 school comes calling (like Iowa), I will not blame you one bit for jumping at the offer."

Joe leaves with the impression that were he to commit to UND, he would redshirt one year, sit one year and then be in line to play for three years. It is a very tempting offer. Probably the best one he has received thus far.*

Joe is very intrigued by the idea that he and Brian might play together on the same team. They have been teammates since 2nd grade and great friends.

The visit to UND goes very well, as players warmly welcome Mollberg, while Kent and Patty are treated like recruits themselves.

Mollberg and his parents meet the president of UND, Robert Kelley, in his office, but the people Mollberg was most impressed with were the players.

"The Big Sky Conference was a big selling point and he liked all the coaches from both schools," Kent Mollberg said. "But the biggest thing for Joe was he got to know the UND players well. They treated him like a teammate already."

Both NDSU and UND made all the right moves with Mollberg and the distance from home is right for both.

But in the end, Mollberg took the advice from his DL coaches, friends and family and chose the school he was most comfortable with -- UND.

*Last night Joe made probably the most difficult and adult phone call he has ever made. He called NDSU to tell them that at this time they are No. 3 on his list of schools. It was tough to do, but he handled it well. 

He truly likes NDSU and all they have done and offered but it just has not seemed the "right fit."

Saturday:  Joe traveled to UND where he attended the UND game honoring the 2001 National Championship team.  After the game Joe went into the locker room with the team and informed the coaches that he was making a "soft verbal" commitment to UND.

The coaches were ecstatic and there were hugs and high fives all around the locker room. Three of the coaches then came out to find Patty and myself and "welcome us to the UND family."  It was an exciting time for Joe and you could just see the months of indecision and torment fall from his shoulders.*

But Bohl still would make his final pitch that same evening, calling Mollberg and leaving a voice message, thus proving he is always the recruiter.

*At 6 p.m. on Saturday night, the NDSU Bison played the Gophers at TCF. Coach Bohl left a voice message saying, "Joe, this is Coach Bohl... I am standing on the 50-yard line at TCF...  etc... etc..."*

But for Mollberg, it was finally finished. Months and months of agonizing over where he was going to play college football were over.

"After my last two days visiting with the UND coaches and players, it just felt right," Mollberg explained his decision. "After watching NDSU win the National Championship, my dad asked me what I thought of that?

"I answered, I feel I'll have my chance for that at UND."

The experience Mollberg and his family went through turned out to be exhilarating, unique, but very stressful.

It was an experience Kent said made Joe grow from a boy into a man.

*If one thing can be said for this entire recruiting process, it is that it does more to help your child mature than anything I have seen.  

Three years ago, Joe was a 15-year-old kid.  After last night, I think I can pretty much say he is now an 18- year-old man.*

Mollberg knows the courting is over and he is just going to be another talented player working hard for playing time in the next four to five years.

From that first pass during the Gopher 7-on-7 camp his sophomore year, to finally committing to his future at UND, Mollberg learned much during his crazy recruiting ride.

But the growth he underwent during the process will be useful as he matures into a Division-I quarterback in the northern city of Grand Forks, N.D.

Brian Wierima
Detroit Lakes Newspapers Sports Editor for the last 15 years. St. Cloud State University graduate, who hails from Deer Creek, MN.