Bison senior Jake Schlager has made a commitment to join the Colorado State University football program. Schlager and his family announced recently that he plans to accept the NCAA Division I full-ride scholarship offer from the Rams.
The 6-foot-1, 193-pound Schlager was one of the top defensive players in the state's high school ranks this past fall. The linebacker earned all-state honors from the Associated Press, Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star, including a spot on the Omaha newspaper's Super State first team.
The first day current recruits can sign national letters of intent will be Feb. 6, 2013. Commitments for Division I full-ride scholarship offers are not binding until recruits sign those letters of intent, but Schlager said he won't change his mind.
"I'm committed. I'm not the kind of guy that backs out of something I'm committed to," he said. "CSU it is."
COLORADO is the Schlager family's home away from home. Jake was born in Denver, and he moved with his parents, Russ and Bev, to McCook the day he got out of kindergarten. So it's probably not a surprise to see him decide to take his football talents back to the Centennial State.
"It's just always been there for me -- being from Colorado, I've kind of always wanted to go back to Colorado," Jake said. "That's just where I saw me going to college, where it best fit me. Just the proximity of how close it is to home, I know that's going to help out the family a lot and anybody that wants to watch me play. Plus I feel Coach Mac (head coach Jim McElwain) and Coach (Marty) English and the rest of the staff is going to do something really special in the next couple years. They're in that rebuilding process."
The Rams finished the 2012 season with a 4-8 overall record, including three wins in CSU's final five games. English is the Rams' co-defensive coordinator.
The CSU campus in Fort Collins is approximately 250 miles west of McCook, a fairly short trip for the Schlager family and friends to go watch Jake compete in the coming years.
"Colorado's been near and dear to Jake, because he was born there and lived his early childhood there," McCook head coach Jeff Gross said. "They have a cabin there, they frequent the Rocky Mountains quite a bit. It's their second home."
Schlager projects to be a safety in college, and possibly an outside linebacker if he adds a few more pounds in the coming years. Crushing tackles and blazing speed are some of Jake's defensive assets. Schlager said Bison coaches have timed him in the 4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash, and he has recorded electronically timed 40's around 4.5 seconds. He also has ran a McCook High School Top-10 track and field time of 10.8 seconds in the 100-meter dash.
JAKE SCHLAGER has been exposed to football most of his life. Russ Schlager played college football at Fort Lewis College in Durango, and dad has been the defensive coordinator for the McCook High School football program for many years. Jake's younger brothers, Joe and Zach, also are heavily involved in the sport, promising more Schlagers suiting up for the Bison in the coming years.
Jake said he got his start on the gridiron playing flag football before graduating to the McCook Football League youth program, then junior high football and the Bison varsity. He served as a Bison student manager in his younger days -- probably a foregone conclusion with papa on the McCook coaching staff -- and dreamed of getting his chance one day to run through the McCook helmet and onto Weiland Field as a Bison. He also said playing college football at the Division I level was a dream hatched at an early age.
"I remember my first time walking out on Weiland Field, running through that (helmet) -- as a little manager ever since the second grade, that was one of my biggest dreams was running through that helmet with everybody screaming," Jake said. "Right now I can kind of imagine myself doing that same thing at the next level (in college). It gives me goose bumps and jitters just thinking about it. It's going to go by (college football) just as fast as my (high school career) did. I'm just going to soak it up and live it to the fullest.
"That has always been my dream. Ever since I can remember I've always wanted to play football. Watching everybody on TV. Watching Rex Burkhead, watching those guys on TV, that's something that I've always wanted to do. I worked my butt off, just never gave up on that."
SCHLAGER will add his name to the list of former Bison standouts who will play football at the NCAA Division I level. Tyrone Sellers was the last McCook player to play at that level. The 2009 McCook graduate started his college career at Kansas University before transferring to the University of Nebraska-Kearney last year. Former Bison Josh Cherry and Tony Pervis also played at Kansas State several years ago.
Coach Gross said Schlager has worked hard for many years to help realize his college football dream.
"Jake has poured his heart and soul into football, and he's made a lot of sacrifices along the way," Gross said. "He chose at a very young age to put his eggs in the basket in football. He made sacrifices along the way, throughout his high school career, throughout the summer, going to camps all over the country. He's given up some other sports and some other things to try to make that realization and dream of becoming a division I football player. That transpired for him.
"In a case like Jake's, that's why you're so happy because he did sacrifice a lot. Time in the weight room, time at camps, a lot of money spent traveling all over the country to get looked at and get noticed at camps and combines and all those different things. That's not cheap, and it's time-consuming and hard work. He put all that effort into that, and in the end it paid off for him."
Schlager was McCook's leading defensive player last fall as the Bison finished with a 7-3 record after losing to Norris in the first round of the Class B state playoffs.In addition to his defensive skills, Schlager also led McCook rushers with more than 800 yards and an average of 6.26 yards per carry. He also was a leader on Bison special teams with 272 return yards and several blocked punts and kicks.
JAKE SAID the defensive side of the football is his favorite -- perhaps a by-product of having dad as his defensive coach.
"Always groaning up around the defensive side of the ball, I've always had that motto, 'Be the hitter instead of the hitter.' That's what I want to live by," he said.
There's probably been slightly more than a few nights in recent years at the Schlager household with football as the main topic. Jake said he enjoyed his unique experience of having his dad coach him in high school.
"It was definitely unique. Growing up he's always coached me, from flag football, all the way up to last year in high school," Jake said. "It's something that I've always been used to. It's something that not every kid has -- they don't get that time with their dad.
"He definitely put me in a position for me to succeed, and what was best for the team. I look up to him and I hope to follow in his footsteps some day. It was really a memorable experience, the four years of high school. I wouldn't change a thing about it."
SCHLAGER was asked about the possibility of seeing playing time for Colorado State as a freshman next fall?
"They said that I could be playing as early as next year, but that all depends on me," Jake said. "It depends on how much work I put into it and it depends if i want to redshirt, if I don't want to redshirt. If I study film and do everything I need to, I could see some fairly good playing time next year."
Coach Gross said Schlager has the ability to make an impact early in his college career, especially on special teams.
"The thing that Jake will have going for him to play early in his career, he has the ability to be a special teams warrior," Gross said. "He can go in and instantly play on kickoff teams and kick return, punt and punt returns. He has the speed to be a gunner and a cover guy -- that gives him an advantage over some guys at other positions because he is an athlete.
"As long as you're willing to play specials and do those things, that's your quickest ticket to the field. Realistically, most kids going into a program like that, you kind of expect that you want to redshirt and you want to take a year to get a little more mature and get stronger and faster and all those things.
In Jake's case, if he's good enough to play early on, that's what I see it being. Safely or outside backer, in a couple years, he'll be playing."
CSU recently announced a two-game series with Alabama, starting next season with the first game at Bama scheduled Sept. 21, and the second game at Alabama either in 2015 or 2017.
The Rams compete in the Mountain West Conference, and Jake may get a chance to go to Hawaii when CSU plays there next season.
ONE NEGATIVE in Schlager's prep career has been injuries. He suffered a broken leg on a fluke play in the 2011 regular-season finale at Holdrege in his junior season. He also was sidelined for McCook's playoff loss to Norris last fall.
Schlager looks at the injuries he has suffered as a test of his character.
"I've definitely had some obstacle in my life, in my football career," he said. "Going back, I don't think I'd take a single thing back. With breaking my leg my junior year against Holdrege, it was kind of a freak thing. It caught everyone off-guard. But it also kind of put me under the radar, I believe.
"Without that, I don't think I would have nearly the work ethic I have now. It definitely made me a harder worker, definitely made me work harder for what I wanted. It just made me realize that so many things can be taken away from you in such a quick time."
JAKE CREDITS the Bison coaching staff and his McCook teammates for helping him succeed on the gridiron and to help him achieve his lifelong dream.
"I want to credit the rest of the team and everybody that I've ever played with, because if it weren't for them I wouldn't be in the position I'm in right now.
"I want to say how thankful I am for have the chance to play with all my high school teammates and working with all the coaching staff."
HAVING TALENTED players like Jake Schlager and having a successful high school football program like McCook has enjoyed in recent years go hand-in-hand.
"We are a successful program, but we're successful because we have kids with talent," Coach Gross said. "We've had kids that understand the game of football. It's a two-edged sword. Our kids get Division I looks because we're successful, but we're successful because of the kids."
Put Jake Schlager's name right at the top of that Bison list.