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August 21, 2003

The Big O: Omaha bursting with talent

OMAHA, Neb. - Omaha is undergoing a facelift, both on the football field and off of it. Off the field, there is a new multi-purpose downtown arena and a re-developed riverfront with millions of dollars in new investments pouring in. On the gridiron, storied programs like Omaha Central are getting new football facilities and college coaches are starting to realize that there is more talent in the city than meets the eye.

A tour of the Rivals.com recruiting database shows that there are at least 15 players in the Omaha metro area that could end up signing Division I scholarships.

Quite a few of them already have landed scholarships and several of them - including three star prospects Andy Christensen of Bennington and Seth Olsen of Millard North - have already pledged to their favorite schools.

Rivals.com national recruiting editor Jeremy Crabtree and HuskersIllustrated.com reporter Sean Callahan toured Omaha on Tuesday and there is no question that the area is loaded with some impressive prospects. A trip to Omaha would not be complete without a visit first to storied Omaha Central - better known as I-Back High.

The pictures on the walls inside the high school speak for themselves. There is an amazing tradition of sending running back prospects to the college ranks from Central, including Ahman Green, but this season Eagles coach Joe McMenamin is blessed with some major talent all the way across the board.

Star athlete, check.

Star running back, check.

Star tight end, check.

Star cornerback, check.

But it's star athlete Courtney Grixby that gets McMenamin most excited. Well, almost as excited as he is about Central's new on-site facility that is about to begin construction.

"In all my years here at Central, we've never, and I mean never, had such a talented athlete as Courtney," McMenamin said.

"I think the only words that properly describe him are rare and special. He's the best athlete that we've ever had here at Central. Every single team that we've sent film to has offered him a scholarship."

Watching film with McMenamin, Grixby, who is a solid 5-foot-9 and 160-plus pounds, lines up at quarterback for Central and directs a diverse attack, which includes counters, options, rolls out passes and controlled throws.

McMenamin said the Eagles plan to run an offense much like what Kansas State does with Ell Roberson, what Pittsburgh does with Rod Rutherford, which means defenses can expect more quarterback draws, quarterback isolation plays, quarterback sweeps and more of the option attack.

"When you have an athlete like Courtney back there, you have to let him do his thing," McMenamin said.

But with all of this talk about him tearing it up on the offensive side of things - Grixby had more than 1,900 yards of total offense as a junior - it's his ability to be a play-making cover corner in college that has the scouts really excited. McMenamin said Grixby will be an amazing corner in college and has the ability to also contribute as a special teams' star.

And don't even begin to talk about his talent on the basketball court.

"I saw him play in Orlando with the Omaha Rebels and he was as quick as a hiccup," Rivals.com basketball recruiting analyst Tim Watts said. "He's a legitimate Division-I basketball prospect because he's so quick and such a good ball-handler."

It's that combination that has created one of the top two-sport stars in the nation.

"The kid can jump through the roof and he's really strong and physical for his size," McMenamin said. "Basketball will be a factor, but he knows that his future is football and he's being smart about it."

Grixby is one of the most reserved kids that you'll talk to. He said that he's going to take his time with the recruiting process and is hoping to take all five of his official visits before he makes a decision.

"I'm really enjoying the recruiting attention and the process itself," Grixby said. "The plan is for me to take my time, take my visits and listen to what the coaches have to say."

This includes the wild and crazy recruiting pitches. Grixby, who attended Nebraska's scrimmage last weekend and is expected to attend Kansas State's season-opener this weekend at Arrowhead, said several teams have talked to him about coming in on third down or in special situations to play quarterback.

"I liked hearing that," he chuckled. "They're telling me about a few special formations that I could come in and run."

Grixby's backfield running mate Brandon Gunn is also an elite prospect. He's ranked as a high-three star prospect and the nation's No. 19 running back. On film review, McMenamin agrees that a 5.7 Rivals Rating appears to be around right, but after Rivals.com saw more tape, there is an excellent chance that he could be a four-star prospect by the time he completes his senior season.

"Brandon is such a fluid runner," McMenamin said. "He also has amazing vision. He sees things in full stride and is able to quickly cut back and make people miss. I've sent out about 25-30 tapes on him and the only people that haven't offered him that we've sent it to is Michigan and Notre Dame."

Gunn, who is a very solid 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, agrees with his coach's description of his playing style.

"I'm more of a power runner, I break tackles and I see the field really well," Gunn said. "I gain a lot of yards after contact. But before playing in college I would like to work on my ability to cut, to stop and go. I also want to get stronger so I can take on more hits."

This season could get interesting for Gunn because he's going to get a chance to show his diversity. McMenamin said he's been told that he's crazy for making this move, but he's going to work Gunn into the rotation at receiver, hoping that teams won't just be able to put eight or nine guys in the box to defend the run.

"We're going to make people defend us more honestly," McMenamin said. "And Brandon is such a versatile athlete that he could be a successful receiver, too."

Moving around is nothing new for Gunn. He played fullback as a sophomore, racking up 790 yards and seven touchdowns. He played running back and corner as a junior, picking up 980 yards, 15 scores, 15 tackles and two interceptions.

Once Grixby and Gunn move on to college, the cupboard won't exactly be bare for McMenamin and the Eagles.

Next in line as national level recruits are tight end Nate Prater, who is a 6-foot-4, 250-pound monster that could bulk up and easily be an offensive guard or a strongside defensive end, and cornerback Robert Wesley, who will rack up a ton of yards at running back this season.

"Nate is also a great basketball player, and everybody will offer him and recruit him," McMenamin said. "Nebraska asked me when they came by this May if they should go ahead and offer him. I told them that he's a guy that is probably good enough for an early offer but he might need a little more time to develop and grow into his frame.

"Robert (5-10, 177) will open a lot of eyes this season. He's going to be in the backfield with Brandon and Courtney this season and is kind of like our third weapon that we could use. We love to use him on our counter series and he's really quick and explodes through the hole. He could be a really good cornerback or an all-purpose type running back for somebody. He'll be highly recruited, too."

The next stop on the tour of Omaha was Elkhorn - home to three-star outside linebacker Clayton Sievers and two-star offensive tackle Jacob Lonowski.

Lonowski has been kind of an unknown prospect on the recruiting front, even though he made an early commitment to Georgia Tech.

He looks he has the frame of a Division I offensive lineman and should be able to easily bulk up in the weight room in Atlanta, but it's hard to judge how talented he is.

His coach and people around the program think his best football is ahead of him and he has a good upside.

"I'm still excited about Georgia Tech," Lonowski said.

"You bet, that's where I'm going. What better place?"

Maybe Iowa or Nebraska?

Well if you asked Sievers that would be what the answer would be. Sievers, who said he's whittled his list to the Huskers and Hawkeyes, said he's still thinking things over in his head and might have a decision some time soon after visiting Lincoln and Iowa City for games early in September.

But if you were to put a guess on his decision, it'd be easy to call him a Cornhusker, especially when you look at the fact that his older brother, Chad, plays for Nebraska. Sievers was also decked out in a Nebraska basketball shirt before he trotted out to practice on Tuesday.

When asked if that meant he was a future Husker, Sievers laughed.

"Not yet," he said with a big smile. "It's still Nebraska and Iowa for now."

Sievers definitely passed the eyeball test with a long, lean frame that should easily support another 20 pounds in college and might eventually cause him to move to defensive end in college.

In defensive drills on Tuesday, he looked fluid and was able to carry out his reads quite well.

"Clay's a natural," his coach Mark Wortman said.

Up the road from Elkhorn was the last stop of the day - Bennington, Neb., which is home to three-star defensive tackle and future Husker Andy Christensen.

Christensen, which plays for a Class C-2 team, looked like a man among boys on Tuesday. Playing for a smaller school and with a 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, Christensen stands out like a sore thumb.

On film he was impressive and watching him work out on special teams and then in defensive drills proved him worthy of his lofty 5.7 rating.

Christensen, who had offers from Colorado State, Iowa and Iowa State before he committed to Nebraska, said he is ready for the season to get rolling.

"It's only our second day," he said. "But I'm already ready to get started. I'm also ready to get to watch Nebraska play. I'm going to every home game. I know a lot of people up here are talking about how they might struggle this season. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when the beat Oklahoma State. It should be a great game."

Just like Christensen has all of the tools to be a great college defensive tackle.

He has the frame that you want from your tackles - big, bulky and with a low center of gravity. But on film and in drills, he has a sense of explosion in him, which explains why he was clocked at 4.98-seconds in the 40-yard dash. The Huskers definitely landed themselves a good one in Christensen.

Even though, Rivals.com couldn't make it over to Millard North, a story about Omaha's prospects without mentioning the stars there would be incomplete.

Millard North battles Central in the second week of the season in a game which should be loaded with tons of D-I stars. Along with the group at Central, North already has two players that have made oral commitments and plenty more that are getting attention.

Three-star offensive guard Seth Olsen has the tools to be a very talented offensive guard for Nebraska, where he committed to over an offer from Minnesota back on July 23. Adam Shada is a cornerback that looks good on the hoof with his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame and is heading to Iowa. Others that are getting attention from recruits at North include, two-star safety Jake Galusha, two-star offensive guard Adam Schroeder and fullback Keith Lloyd.

Just like Omaha's skyline is getting a facelift, it's becoming more and more apparent that college coaches are respecting the talent in the area more and more. It definitely looks Omaha is primed and ready to become a hit with tourists and college coaches.


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