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Heinrich Haarberg thought about putting together a PowerPoint presentation. Instead he walked into a school board meeting last summer and spoke from the heart.
The Kearney Catholic student had considered graduating early so he could enroll in college sooner ever since he started getting attention from Division I programs as a Class of 2021 quarterback prospect after his junior football season. Might as well start working to be bigger, faster and stronger he thought.
Those convictions grew stronger when Haarberg committed to Nebraska last May. Husker coaches supported whatever he wanted to do, but reminded that the scholarship quarterback in each of their previous three classes had arrived early in Lincoln to prepare and compete.
There was a complication. Kearney Catholic officials told him no one had graduated early in the 60-year history of the school as part of its general policy. He would have to take his case to the board for approval.
“It’s a small school,” Haarberg said. “They all know me and I know most of them. So I just kind of told them the situation.”
Ultimately, the board deemed Haarberg’s circumstance and opportunity worthy of an exception. He will report to Nebraska on Tuesday before classes begin Jan. 25.
Haarberg isn’t alone. He’s one of 12 high school Husker scholarship signees enrolling at Nebraska this month. That number of early arrivals is easily the largest in Nebraska history, up from seven in each of the past two classes. Those 2021 members will be part of winter conditioning and spring practices with the aim of having a leg up for next season and beyond.
The Husker dozen reflect a rising trend of prospects nationally finishing high school sooner. Totals have especially spiked since the NCAA introduced the option for players to sign in December — not just February — beginning with the 2018 class. Blended with the uncertainty of a pandemic, even more future college players were ready to start something new this year.
“The way high schools are right now in COVID, I might be ready to get out of there, too,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said on signing day last month. “... But there’s just more and more of that happening, too. Kids are ready to take the next step and move on. I think kids that do early enroll get a chance to go through spring ball, get accustomed to college, get accustomed to the team. That gives them a better opportunity, probably, to play early than if they showed up in June or July.”
Nebraska recruits will be arriving from all over the country. They are running back Gabe Ervin (Buford, Georgia); receiver Latrell Neville (Missouri City, Texas); defensive back Marques Buford (Cedar Hill, Texas); defensive lineman Ru’Quan Buckley (Grand Rapids, Michigan); linebackers Randolph Kpai (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and Seth Malcom (Fremont-Mills); tight ends Thomas Fidone (Council Bluffs Lewis Central) and James Carnie (Norris); offensive linemen Henry Lutovsky (Mount Pleasant, Iowa), Teddy Prochazka (Elkhorn South) and Branson Yager (Grantsville, Utah); and Haarberg.
Factor in three transfers — linebacker Chris Kolarevic (Northern Iowa), running back Markese Stepp (USC) and receiver Samori Touré (Montana) — and Nebraska is adding 15 total players to the fray for the semester. And while their general motivation for coming early to Lincoln is the same — getting a head start on adjusting and competing — the paths NU signees took vary as much as their skill sets.
Buckley has played in an all-star game in Florida since graduating in December and will be on campus next week. The 6-foot-5, 280-pound defender made up his mind he would leave early for college back in the spring, when the COVID-19 outbreak canceled high school football in Michigan (it was later delayed and reinstated). He wanted a full senior year, but had no interest in spring football.
A couple of extra fall classes were all Buckley needed to satisfy credit requirements. He would have had straight A’s in his eight courses if not for a pesky B-plus in science. He plans to return for his school’s graduation ceremony in May.
“I was kind of stressing out,” Buckley said. “I was kind of scared I wasn’t going to finish all these classes in time.”
Buckley’s mother will make the move to Nebraska with him in a couple of years after his brother, a prep sophomore, graduates. “I think that’s amazing,” Buckley said. “If I’m homesick, that’ll go away.”
Ervin, a running back recruited by programs around the country, took a couple of extra classes in the summer and only needed a few this fall. He has been resolute in his decision to enroll early since his first scholarship offers began arriving 18 months ago. His turnaround will be shorter than most considering he played for a Georgia state championship Dec. 29.
“I feel really good,” Ervin said. “Coming off winning a title, it sets the tone when I get there. Coming from a winning school and knowing how to win. I’m just going to go in there humble and do me — everything else will just fall into place.”
Meanwhile in southwest Iowa, Malcom took a heavy course load as a junior and decided during the summer to get to college sooner so he could begin transitioning from eight-man football to the 11-player game. He added one extra English class this fall.
But giving up half of his senior year wasn’t easy. He grew up playing just about everything at Fremont-Mills and knows almost everyone in the building. His parents, Alex and Tracy, had been solemnly counting down the days until their second of four sons leaves home and life changes forever.
“It’s been tough,” said Alex.
Added Tracy: “You’ll get me crying again.”
For Malcom, starting his college adventure will mean living outside Tabor (population: 1,257) for the first time.
“Me and my friends are very close,” Malcom said. “Even kids that are younger than me, we hang out all the time. I weighed it out, getting to be in other sports and getting to be around them more — because you’re only in high school once. But I had to do what’s best for me and my future.”
That split feeling is familiar to Haarberg. Along with leaving friends and family behind, he is giving up a chance at Kearney Catholic and state track records. As a sophomore he tied the school mark in the high jump, broke the 200-meter time and narrowly missed the top performance in the 100.
COVID wiped out his junior track season. He often looks at the record board now and imagines where his name should be up there.
“I knew there were some times that would really put the state and the Midwest on notice if I got to run this year and jump,” Haarberg said. “Obviously I decided to sacrifice that for the opportunity to go compete at Nebraska.”
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Haarberg said he didn’t need many classes for his senior year but took a standard load anyway, including an online religion class and foundations of modern politics. The more he got to know other Nebraska 2021 commits through gatherings and their group chat, the more he felt comfortable that he wouldn’t be a 17-year-old college student who only knew NU coaches.
Soon enough he’ll be in Lincoln, rooming with Fidone and Ervin and Buford. He will start working toward new goals like learning the playbook and tweaking some throwing mechanics with Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco.
In the end, the more attractive choice in an unstable year was becoming a Husker sooner than later.
“There’s no promise I get a prom or a track season if I stay,” Haarberg said. “But even if I had those things, I think I still would have early enrolled. To be honest, I’m kind of glad I don’t have to walk with the whole gown thing. I wasn’t really interested in that.”
Ahead of the game
Nebraska has reflected the rising national trend of FBS scholarship prospects graduating early to enroll in college. Here is how the totals have played out for the Huskers in the Big Ten era.
* Other recent midyear additions are transfers Nouredin Nouili (Colorado State, 2020) and Darrion Daniels (Oklahoma State, 2019). Such players in the 2021 class are Chris Kolarevic (Northern Iowa), Markese Stepp (USC) and Samori Touré (Montana).