JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge
If you suppose that the discord between Ohio State and Michigan is limited to an all-out slugfest that takes place once each year on a rectangular patch of green on a late November Saturday, that's just not so.
These two rivals go at it year-round, competing for everything from endorsement deals to staff members. But the most crucial engagements between the Wolverines and Buckeyes, other than their annual meeting out on the football field, are those fought with handshakes, text messages, sales pitches and wining and dining - without the wine.
It's when they match wits in the courting of recruits that the head-to-head competitions are ultimately won, and one of the most coveted trophies on that recruiting battlefront is Whitmer's Kevin Koger.
He is widely considered this fall's top high school senior in this area. Ohio State wants him. Michigan wants him. And they both want him bad.
"This is a classic recruiting battle between these two longtime rivals," said Steve Helwagen, managing editor for Bucknuts Media Network, which closely tracks the Buckeyes' fortunes in the recruiting world.
Koger is a 6-4, 225-pound tight end/defensive end who coaches from both Big Ten powerhouses are certain is still growing and developing. They are enamored with his speed, athletic ability and versatility. So a spirited tug-o-war over his services has been going on for months - a conflict that Koger expects to end very soon when he chooses to outfit himself in either scarlet and gray, or maize and blue.
"I want to make my choice sometime in July," Koger said Friday. "Every day I get people telling me 'you got to go here' or 'you got to go there,' but I just try and not have that affect me. I want to end up where I feel most comfortable, and I'm still considering both of them."
NCAA guidelines prohibit Ohio State and Michigan's coaches from officially commenting on any recruiting prospect before they sign a formal letter indicating their intent to play at that school. But off the record they are saying what Whitmer coach Joe Palka already knows.
"There's a lot of things to like about Kevin," Palka said, "but I think what makes him unique on the football field, and so appealing to the very best football programs like Ohio State and Michigan, is that he is a big guy who is very athletic, and he has soft hands.
"You just can't find big guys like him that move so well, and can run and catch the ball like he does."
Koger's athleticism and multiple talents make him a bit of a wild card, since he has demonstrated the ability to play at a high level on both sides of the line of scrimmage. He was named All-City League first team as a junior at both tight end and defensive end.
"Koger is an intriguing athlete who could play a lot of positions," Helwagen said. "He could be a pass-catching tight end, or he could also be a pass rusher as a defensive end. I think his best football is in front of him. He has the size and athletic ability to be a pretty good college football player."
St. John's coach Doug Pearson had to face Koger and Whitmer last season, and gives a similar assessment of a rare player who excels going both ways at the Division I high school level.
"He's got a tremendous frame, he's so fast for his size - he's really got wide receiver speed in a tight end's body," Pearson said. "He's built like Atlas, too, and for a guy who never leaves the field, he battles every play. The kid is a great competitor, and he's tough to cover when he's running pass routes, and tougher to block when he's coming at you on defense."
Koger has had offers from most of the Big Ten schools, Boston College, and others on the mid-major level, but he wants to stay relatively close to home, and Ohio State and Michigan offer him that luxury, along with all the rich tradition that comes with their prestigious programs.
"They're both great schools, and I've been to camps at both places, and since they're both pretty close, location is not a factor," Koger said. "I just want to get to know both staffs a little better, and end up at the place that is best for me."
Palka said the bonus in the deal with Koger is that he comes from "a great family, with a great work ethic and a great attitude, and he's a good student.
"Not all kids at that level are going to have that, so those things just make him all the more attractive," Palka said. "And when you throw in the fact that he can legitimately play on both sides of the ball, you're talking about a very special kind of player. It's nice to have a kid like Kevin who has the whole package."
Koger, who caught a 24-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give Whitmer a historic 14-10 win over legendary state powerhouse Massillon Washington in last year's Division I playoffs, said he is willing to play wherever he is needed, but sees himself eventually as a full-time tight end in college.
Helwagen said that as the highest-profile teams with national recruiting approaches collect more and more of the top-level players into the fold, the pressure on a player like Koger to make his college choice just intensifies.
"And, obviously, he's keeping everybody on the edge of their seat with this decision between Ohio State and Michigan," Helwagen said.
Koger said he is attempting to ignore the flood of phone calls, text messages and in-person casual conversations where everyone offers their advice or tries to influence him to head north or turn south.
"I hear it, every day, but I just don't let that influence me," Koger said. "It's my decision, and I'll decide as soon as I am ready."
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