Bob Nielson turned heads with the way he turned Minnesota-Duluth into a Div. II power, enough so that Western Illinois hired him as their head football coach Dec. 19.
Now Nielson, who went 100-26 in his 10 seasons as head coach including two national championships, is turning heads in the Chicagoland area as seniors Devin O'Hara (Prospect), Colin Olson (Prospect) and Josh Baldus (Palatine) all signed national letters of intent on Wednesday morning to play for the Leathernecks next season.
"He knows what he's doing," O'Hara said. "He's a very honest guy and seems like he's bringing in a great batch of guys. We're really excited, and I think we're going to be very successful."
O'Hara received an offer from the old coaching staff at Western Illinois back in June to play wide receiver. But after O'Hara made the switch to quarterback last fall and totaled 1,390 yards through the air and 1,334 yards on the ground with 30 touchdowns, Nielson and his staff decided to sign the 6-foot-5 O'Hara as a quarterback.
"I've been a quarterback my whole life," O'Hara said. "That's definitely what I've always wanted to be."
Joining O'Hara in Macomb will be his high school teammate and best friend since eighth grade, Olson. The two plan to room together.
"It's a new start with a new coaching staff," Olson said of the program that went 3-8 in 2012 and competes in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. "More opportunities to play and everything. He did a good job at Duluth developing them into a national championship program. It's just the right timing."
Baldus is unique in that Leathernecks feel he can fit on both sides of the ball as he's big enough to play on the offensive line and athletic enough to play the defensive line.
"That's kind of what I like about them," Baldus said. "They like me on both sides of the ball. We'll see where I end up."
Baldus' newest conference rival is hard-hitting safety and high school teammate Jesse Bobbit, who signed with South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits went 9-4 last season and were second in the MVFC.
Schaumburg's Cole Reyes and Palatine's Cam Kuksa are part of a 22-player class at North Dakota, 9 of which are from Illinois. Both players will be playing safety and working with secondary coach Benny Boyd, who coached with Schaumburg basketball coach Matt Walsh while they were at Conant.
"They play two high safeties so hopefully we can both get a position," Reyes said. "It's a big passing conference so with my height, they like me at safety."
Two players who verbally committed over the summer, Rolling Meadows quarterback Jack Milas and Barrington offensive lineman Jackson Keeler, both followed through with their schools. Milas signed with Ball State and despite former Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema taking the Arkansas job, Keeler inked his letter of intent with the Badgers.
"He obviously still feels very comfortable," said Barrington coach Joe Sanchez of Keeler. "He loves the school and that was the number one reason why he committed there. He needed to make sure that after meeting the new coaches that he still felt the same way, and he did. He's very excited about that."
Other area players to sign on at Div. I schools include Barrington's Mason Darrow (Princeton), Prospect's Mike Houghton (Army), Elk Grove's Mikey Maize (Drake) and Kishan Patel (San Diego) and St. Viator's Hugh Masterson (Georgetown) and Harry McCollum (Georgetown).
One of the area's top all-around players, Conant's Tim Manczko, did not sign with a school. According to coach Bill Modelski, Manczko is still mulling over an opportunity with Valparaiso or a preferred walk-on spot at Ball State.
Here are football players from the area who committed to playing college football on Wednesday:
Player Pos. High school College
Akeel Abdelhadi OL Barrington Minnesota St. Moorhead
Josh Baldus OL-DL Palatine Western Illinois
Jesse Bobbit DB Palatine South Dakota State
Ben Calamari DL Barrington NW Missouri St.
Mason Darrow OL Barrington Princeton
Shola George DL Prospect Minnesota St. Mankato
Mike Houghton DL Prospect Army
Jackson Keeler OL Barrington Wisconsin
Cam Kuksa DB Palatine North Dakota
Mikey Maize LB Elk Grove Drake
Hugh Masterson DL St. Viator Georgetown
Harry McCollum P St. Viator Georgetown
Jack Milas QB Meadows Ball State
Devin O'Hara QB Prospect Western Illinois
Colin Olson DL Prospect Western Illinois
Kishan Patel DB Elk Grove San Diego
Cole Reyes DB Schaumburg North Dakota
Michael Smith OL Conant Grand Valley State