DeKALB – The thought of playing football at Northern Illinois hadn't crossed Andrew Ness' mind two months ago.
Former coach Jerry Kill never recruited the Christian Brothers College center from O'Fallon, Mo. Ness gave an early verbal commitment to Mid-American Conference competitor Ball State, a decision he admitted Wednesday he was unsure about at the time. Less than 48 hours into NIU coach Dave Doeren's tenure, Ness said, he had a scholarship offer from the Huskies.
"The reason behind that was just that I got to be around the people at NIU," Ness said. "I felt extremely comfortable with that. And I liked the school a lot better than Ball State.
"Coach Doeren was partially the reason I committed (to NIU). It was more about getting around the players on my official visit. The players are really what matters, because in the business of college football you can't just commit for a coach."
Ness is one of 22 players NIU welcomed to its program during Wednesday's national signing day. He'll have two teammates next season he's known for several years.
Along with tight end Devonte' Majors and offensive tackle Matt Killian, Ness is part of an O'Fallon trio who make part of the Huskies' 2011 recruiting class. All three have been graded as three-star prospects by a major recruiting site.
Ness played with Killian on the same little league football team. He competed against Majors' Fort Zumwalt West team in high school. The three also competed with each other on some high school all-star teams.
Doeren said he hopes the trio's familiarity will help make for a smooth transition to college football.
"I think early on it might make their freshman experience a little easier," Doeren said. "They won't be as homesick, maybe, as a guy who doesn't know anyone walking in the door. But once you get here, everyone becomes your family. By the time you're a sophomore, it won't matter where you're from."
Majors was the first of the three to verbally commit, and he quickly started talking to Ness and Killian about joining him at NIU. Doeren said Majors made it easier to recruit the other two. Ness said the tight end basically became another assistant coach.
"I feel like I was a huge part with all three of the guys’ recruitment," Majors said, adding St. Louis native, friend and now NIU linebacker Jason Maheen to the list. "I was texting them almost every day and telling them it’s a good situation for all of us."
Majors said he's known Killian since his freshman year of high school, and the two hang out every other weekend. He met Ness in junior high, and they've been teammates in all-star games.
"It’s really rare to get that many kids from the same area to commit to the same program," Majors said. "There’s a lot of kids who end up going to a program a couple thousand miles away, and they don’t know anybody. I’m fortunate enough to go in knowing these guys."
The three might become part of a larger family, but it's unlikely their bond will diminish. Majors said they already have discussed being roommates at NIU, and how excited they are to begin their college lives together.
"I feel very comfortable going into the same program with them," Ness said. "They’re great friends."
NIU'S 2011 FOOTBALL SIGNEES
DE, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds
Hamilton High, Milwaukee, Wis.
Quick take: An athletic, speed-rushing defensive end, Clinton-Earl is one of the few players to verbally commit while Jerry Kill was at NIU.
RG, 6-foot-3, 290 pounds
Homewood-Flossmoor High, Flossmoor
Quick take: Doeren called Conlon a “violent blocker,” and his highlight film drew some oohs and ahhs Wednesday.
DT, 6-foot-3, 297 pounds
Urban Prep, Chicago
Quick take: Fuller has a nice blend of size and athleticism.
S, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds
St. Thomas Aquinas High, Deerfield Beach Fla.
Quick take: Garland won a national championship with St. Thomas Aquinas two season ago.
CB, 5-foot-10, 175 pounds
Rock Bridge High, Columbia, Mo.
Quick take: A testament to his athleticism, Doeren said he’s seen Logan do back flips on the practice field.
TE, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds
Fort Zumwalt West, O’Fallon, Mo.
Quick take: Majors was first-team all-state in Missouri as a receiver as a junior and a tight end last season. He’ll play exclusively at TE for NIU.
CB, 5-foot-10, 170 pounds
Ellsworth Community College, Iowa Falls, Iowa
Quick take: A good corner, Faustin also blocked two kicks last season and should be able to contribute to special teams.
LT, 6-foot-6, 300 pounds
Francis Howell High, O’Fallon, Mo.
Quick take: Killian, rated a three-star prospect by Scouts.com, is part of a quality trio from O’Fallon.
S, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds
Proviso West, Chicago
Quick take: Lemon is a physical safety and was 38-6 as a wrestler during his junior season.
WR, 5-foot-8, 185 pounds
Dwyer High, West Palm Beach, Fla.
Quick take: Lewis is one of the fastest recruits in this class and could compete for a starting job as a returner.
P/K, 6-foot, 180 pounds
McFarland High, McFarland, Wis.
Quick take: Wedel is rated as one of the top 30 punters in the country and drew late recruiting interest from Nebraska.
DS/LB, 6-foot-1, 225 pounds
Eudora High, Eudora Kan.
Quick take: As one of the best long snappers in the country, Mays will be used primarily on special teams.
QB, 6-foot-2, 185 pounds
Reitz High, Evansville, Ind.
Quick take: A dual-threat quarterback, McIntosh led Reitz to a state championship in Class 4A during his junior season.
LB, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds
Webster Grove High, St. Louis, Mo.
Quick take: Meehan had 177 tackles, five interceptions and two touchdowns as a senior and helped his team win a state title as a junior.
S, 5-foot-11, 196 pounds
Wayne High, Dayton, Ohio
Quick take: Moore was highly recruited before an injury decreased teams’ interest. He had 100 tackles despite missing half of his senior season.
CB, 5-foot-10, 175 pounds
Ely High, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Quick take: Doeren said Neal was one of the better students in this class.
LB, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds
Staley High, Kansas City, Mo.
Quick take: Had 178 tackles, 16.5 sacks, four pass deflections and a forced fumble as a senior.
C, 6-foot-4, 290 pounds
Christian Brothers College, O’Fallon, Mo.
Quick take: Ness has imposing size for a senior, but CBR coach Scott Pingel said it’s his intelligence that makes him a great player.
WR, 6-foot-1, 190 pounds
North Boward Prep, Coconut Creek, Fla.
Quick take: He has excellent route running skills and finished his senior season with 60 catches for 1,110 yards and 16 receiving touchdowns.
RB, 5-foot-10, 190 pounds
Fresno City Community College, Fresno, Calif.
Quick take: Settle’s father, John, worked as Wisconsin’s running backs coach while Doeren was the Badgers’ defensive coordinator.
RB, 5-foot-11, 235 pounds
Hutchinson Community College, Newton, Kan.
Quick take: Womble was ranked as the No. 13 running back in the country as a high school senior before grades made him ineligible at North Carolina. He spent the past two season at Hutchinson and was the No. 4 community college running back.
TE, 6-foot-5, 225 pounds
Buffalo Grove, Buffalo Grove
Quick take: Tennenbaum will walk on to the Huskies’ football team.