Since Bubba Schweigert and his coaching staff arrived at the University of North Dakota three years ago, the Fighting Hawks have steadily improved their win total by two games every season. The program’s recruiting classes have followed the same trajectory, improving as some of the best Minnesota high school football recruits are choosing to play in Grand Forks.
North Dakota is expected to receive a National Letter of Intent from eight Minnesota preps on Wednesday, including five ranked in the Top 30 of Northstar Football News Class of 2017 prospect rankings.
“Minnesota’s the cornerstone within our recruiting footprint,” said North Dakota recruiting coordinator/running backs coach Kevin Maurice. “Historically we’ve done a great job. If you reference some of UND’s best teams from years past, they are laced with Minnesotans.”
This will be the first recruiting cycle since the staff’s arrival that North Dakota signed more top-30 prospects than its proximate Football Championship Subdivision rivals North Dakota State, South Dakota State, South Dakota and Northern Iowa.
NDSU still landed three of the state’s top-15 prospects, however, most of any school except the University of Minnesota.
The gap between NDSU and the other FCS schools — at least in recruiting — seems to be closing. UND began narrowing the difference in 2016, when they tied South Dakota with two top-30 players, one shy of the Bison, which signed three.
Six of the eight UND commitments played in the Minnesota high school all-star game in December. The highest-rated player is Caledonia’s Ezekiel Ott.
Ott, a 230-pound defensive end, was ranked No. 4 in NFN’s final list. He had significant Football Bowl Subdivision interest during his junior season, but a late-season knee injury ultimately prevented him from participating in the camp and combine circuit before his senior season.
Ott was offered by UND over the summer and committed after visiting Grand Forks in October. Ott told the La Crosse Tribune after the visit he thought the program was “on track to do big things.”
Three UND recruits signing Wednesday said the Fighting Hawks made inroads with them because of the genuineness of the coaching staff.
Waconia offensive lineman Connor Kruse, one of the first players to commit to North Dakota last summer, said the staff took a personal interest from the first day he was recruited.
“They care about what you’re doing and what’s going on in your life other than football,” Kruse said.
Edina’s Brock Boltmann was another player who committed before his senior season. He said North Dakota was on his radar since accompanying his father, Reed, to a coaching clinic when he was in junior high. It wasn’t until he visited the Grand Forks campus, however, that his interest peaked.
“When I got on campus, the coaches were the same,” Boltmann said. “Other places I visited, I didn’t feel like they treated me the same as their top guys. UND treated me the same as everyone else. They still treat me the same.”
Triton defensive back Leif Bungum, along with Woodbury defensive lineman Jalen Morrison, are two other NFN Top-30 preps planning to sign with North Dakota.
Morrison, who worked out for UND coaches last spring in Woodbury, said he wasn’t originally excited about attending individual camp in Grand Forks. The day after the camp, though, Morrison was offered a scholarship. He later committed after visiting and experiencing what it was like to attend school at the university.
“It really just felt like home,” Morrison said. “The education felt right, seeing how I’d fit in with my major [sports medicine]. It all fell into place.”
As recently as two years ago, NDSU was dominating FCS-level recruiting in Minnesota. The Bison signed nine top-30 players compared to only one each for the Fighting Hawks and Northern Iowa.
The one UND signee was former St. Francis running back John Santiago, who is a two-time All-Big Sky Conference selection and was the Big Sky Co-Freshman of the Year in 2015.
Fighting Hawks special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Shawn Kostich said Santiago’s early success helped validate the coaching staff’s evaluation process in their first full recruiting class.
“Just because someone has a bunch of offers, doesn’t mean he’s a great fit for North Dakota,” Kostich said. “Our staff trusts each other’s evaluation, we like working with each other and I think that pays off.”
Maurice said the staff also makes sure they are accessible to recruits from their first interaction to the last. He said that includes multiple UND coaches, including Schweigert, interacting with a player’s family and high school coach.
“You want a kid that wants to be here,” Maurice said. “It’s a unique atmosphere, a great community, but it is a little bit of a fishbowl. You’re wearing that ND at all times.”
Mahtomedi’s Graham DeVore, NFN No. 41 in 2017, is also a scholarship player for the Fighting Hawks. Moorhead kicker Brady Leach and Kittson County Central linebacker Bryden Swanson complete the Minnesota contingent.