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Eye on the Midwest: The Back Roads


49ers college scout Ethan Waugh has been busy the last few weeks. Catch up with him in this latest Eye on the Midwest blog.

It has been a long time since my last blog - I had just been to Ohio State following their loss to USC. I have covered a great deal of territory since then, so I will try to retrace my steps.

From Columbus, I headed south to go home to South Carolina, but I first stopped off at the University of Kentucky. I had seen them play against Louisville in the season opener, but it was my first actual visit to watch practice and tape. Because of class conflicts, Kentucky practices first thing in the morning. I really like this format, because it gives scouts a chance to evaluate a player's body and how he moves before you watch tape. You really get a good feel for a player's physical abilities and can quickly see if his play measures up.

Kentucky has a number of solid prospects in this year's senior class. One is Myron Pryor, who you might have seen on ESPN highlights. He's a 310 pound defensive lineman who returned a fumble 72 yards for a touchdown against Louisville. They also have a crafty receiver named Dicky Lyons, Jr. His father was a great player at Kentucky and went on to play for the New Orleans Saints, and from the day he stepped on campus, Dicky has been a productive receiver and returner in his own right.

Earlier in the week I had heard that linebacker Willie Williams had transferred from Glenville State (a Division II school in West Virginia) to Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. I checked the map and saw that Union was right off I-75 on my way home. I called the coach and they were practicing late that afternoon, so I was able to zip down there and see him live.

Some of you may remember Williams. He was a very high profile recruit who originally signed with the University of Miami. He ended up transferring to a junior college in California and then to Louisville, and then again to Glenville before winding up at Union College. I spoke with the head coach and one of the assistants (a former graduate assistant of mine) at length, and then also with Willie and went over his background in detail. He seemed truly grateful for the chance to finish up his career at Union. He had only been on campus for a few days prior to their first game but was productive enough to be named the national defensive player of the week.

I made it home around midnight and was able to spend a few days with my family over the weekend – but not without fitting in a little scouting. On Saturday night, I slipped out of the house and drove to see the North Greenville College – Kentucky Wesleyan game to check up on some of the players I had seen on my first day on the road this fall. Night games in the South always have a great atmosphere, and this one was no different as the Crusaders cruised to a 44-14 victory.

On Monday, I made the drive to the University of Louisville. I saw them come up short in the season opener against Kentucky, but they have improved a great deal since. The Cardinals have an interesting senior quarterback prospect in Hunter Cantwell – a good sized player with a strong arm. He has really had an interesting career. He enrolled as a walk-on and backed up Brian Brohm of the Green Bay Packers for his first four years. Prior to 2008, he only played when Brohm was injured. He always performed well in relief duty, and was actually the MVP of the Gator Bowl after the 2005 season.

From there I went to Indiana University for my first actual school visit, after seeing them play the season opener against Western Kentucky. It's a beautiful drive from the interstate to the campus. Indiana is not normally noted for its scenery, but Brown County is really beautiful, particularly in the fall. I spent the day at Indiana evaluating their strong senior class, particularly their kicker Austin Starr. He was a finalist for the Lou Groza award in 2007 and a folk hero in Indiana due to his 49 yard game winning field goal against Purdue in last year's season finale. It not only won the game, and the Old Oaken Bucket trophy, but also put the Hoosiers in their first bowl game in 14 years.

The indoor practice facility at Indiana is one of the neatest aspects of the visit – It is named for a well known supporter of Hoosier athletics – singer/songwriter John Mellencamp.

From Bloomington, I took the back roads to West Lafayette to visit Purdue. Purdue is an interesting situation – their current head coach, Joe Tiller, the all-time winningest coach in school history is retiring next year, and they've already named his replacement in current assistant Danny Hope. Purdue had great success with a similar transition in their basketball program, and I look for the similar results in football. The players will already have a comfort level with Coach Hope and should be able to quickly adjust to his system.

The Boilermakers have a large senior class, and are led by quarterback Curtis Painter. He's a really talented guy, a four-year starter with great production in Purdue's wide open offense. They also have a very productive running back in Kory Sheets, who takes advantage of the space that is created by the passing game to find positive yards on the ground. Alex Magee is an interesting defensive lineman as well – he is very versatile with the speed and agility to play defensive end and the size to play tackle.

It was also good to see a familiar face on the practice field at Purdue – former 49er assistant equipment manager Kyle Gergely is now back at his alma mater and working with the Boilermakers.

After wrapping things up in West Lafayette, my next primary stop was South Bend for the Purdue/Notre Dame game. Finding a hotel room for a reasonable rate on a foot ball weekend is impossible, but fortunately, my parents live nearby and I was able to stay with them. Saturday would be another three-game day, starting with St. Francis vs. St. Ambrose game. Both teams were ranked in the top 10 in the NAIA, but USF jumped out to an early lead and I sped off to Notre Dame. This was my first game at Notre Dame and it is something that every college football fan should experience. The atmosphere was electric, with 80,000 fans in the stadium and thousands more tailgating outside. It was truly a privilege to see the field where so many great players and coaches have competed.

Right after the game I jumped in my car and drove north to Holland, Michigan where I watched Hope College play Wheaton College. Wheaton is most famous for being the alma mater of Billy Graham, but they have an excellent football program as well. Those of you who follow the draft closely might know that Wheaton had a player drafted by the Eagles last year in Andy Studebaker. This year, they have another legitimate prospect in defensive back Pete Ittersagen. It is really uncommon for a Division III school to have such a wealth of NFL-caliber talent, and it goes to show what a great job head coach Mike Swider and his staff have done.

From Holland I drove to Champaign, Illinois, and stayed there Sunday night prior to my Monday morning visit to see the Fighting Illini. I had seen them practice during two-a-days, but this was my first time to watch them on tape in 2008. They have an excellent senior class. Head coach Ron Zook is well known for his recruiting prowess and has accumulated a great deal of talent. They have two strong linemen on each side of the ball. On offense, tackle Xavier Fulton is really turning heads. He began his career on defense, and has the retained the kind of athleticism that you would expect from a defensive lineman – he can really move. On the defensive side, Will Davis is an interesting story. He enrolled as a receiver, but has grown into a defensive end. Will does an excellent job pressuring quarterbacks. After watching tape all day, I stayed for practice that afternoon. The Illini were coming off a tough road loss to Penn State, but showed great character by practicing with great tempo.

Leaving Champaign, I drove to DeKalb to visit the Huskies of Northern Illinois University. They have a solid defensive end prospect in Larry English. He puts a great deal of pressure on the quarterback, including two and a half sacks against Tennessee. I also saw former 49er receiver PJ Fleck, the Huskies' receiver coach and recruiting coordinator. He approaches coaching much the way he played – with great intensity and energy. Although a long way from San Francisco, he still follows the 49ers and wanted to hear all about his old teammates.

From DeKalb, I made the short trip to Evanston to see one of the great stories of the year, the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats. They are a very efficient football team and rarely make mistakes. Northwestern is a very rigorous academic school and many of their players have labs in the afternoon, so, like Kentucky, they practice in the morning. The only other scout there that day was Kent McCloughan, Scot and Dave's dad. I had met him a few times before, but it was the first time I had ever been in a working environment with him - it was a great opportunity to learn from a guy who has such a wealth of experience.

From Evanston, I fought the toll way to Madison, Wisconsin. The Badgers have a deep senior class with a number of NFL prospects. As you would expect, they are very strong up front on both sides of the ball, with three legitimate seniors on each side. However, they also have a great deal of speed, with two very fast linebackers and an extremely athletic tight end. Wisconsin's head coach, Brett Bielema, is one of the younger head coaches in the country, starting his career with an incredible 23-5 record. Coach Bielema is very accommodating of scouts – he and his staff do a great job of providing us with the information we need to evaluate their seniors.

On Saturday, I went to the Wisconsin – Ohio State game. Similar to Notre Dame, it was an awesome environment. The stadium was sold out and truly a sea of red. The student body at Wisconsin is as energetic as any I have ever seen, and they enjoyed a great game. This was one of the most physical football games I have ever seen. Two big, powerful teams butted heads for four quarters, with Ohio State narrowly coming out on top.

One of the most difficult things about attending a game in Madison is finding a place to park – after circling the stadium area and finding all of the public lots filled, I finally found a guy who was charging twenty dollars to park in his front yard. I gladly paid him and joined half a dozen other cars in the yard – not a bad part time job! On the way into the stadium, I walked by a group of tailgaters, one of whom looked really familiar – after a double-take, I realized who it was - Jared from the Subway commercials.

On Sunday I drove from Madison to Notre Dame and watched tape all day – I have now seen them practice during two-a-days, play a game, and have seen the bulk of their season on tape. I really feel good about how well I know their prospects.

The rest of the week I will be heading to Bowling Green, Toledo and Michigan.

My wife is going to bring our two boys up here this weekend instead of me driving all the way home – I cannot wait to see my family. This is my third week on the road, and I'll actually stay out until the end of the month. It's a long stretch, but this is the heart of the season and I want to get as much accomplished as possible.

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