Coming out of Brainerd High School in 2011, offensive tackle Joe Haeg had zero Division I college football scholarship offers.
At 6 feet 6 and a lean 235 pounds, Haeg took a preferred walk-on spot at North Dakota State. He became a four-year starter and helped the Bison win four Football Championship Subdivision national titles.
Now up to 305 pounds, Haeg is projected to be a middle-round pick in the NFL draft in late April.
“Joe Haeg is one of those late Day 2 players who will start for eight years,” NFL draft analyst Matt Miller tweeted in February.
“It’s going to be nuts,” said Haeg, who will watch the draft at home in Nisswa, Minn. “I’m excited to find out where I’m going to play. It’s been an awesome experience, and I’m trying to enjoy it and get ready for this next season.”
Meanwhile, the Gophers will make it a 10-year drought since an offensive lineman was selected to play in the NFL. In 2006, Mark Setterstrom was taken by the St. Louis Rams and Greg Eslinger went to the Denver Broncos.
During Haeg’s senior season in Brainerd in 2010, the Gophers were in upheaval. Coach Tim Brewster was fired at midseason, and Jeff Horton was the interim coach for the remaining five games. Successor Jerry Kill was hired in December, when recruiting ground work already had been laid.
“I never heard anything from the Gophers,” Haeg said. “I probably would have been interested, if they recruited me. But it just never came about.”
Then again, no one really wanted Haeg. Two weeks before national signing day in 2011, his best offer, a partial scholarship from North Dakota, was rescinded due to a coaching change.
“The new guy liked (players) that were already in the 300-pound range compared to a guy that could develop from a lighter weight,” Haeg said.
After getting his weight up to 280 pounds, Haeg felt like he could get NFL attention as a redshirt freshman starter in 2012. He points out a few other Minnesotans and previous Bison players recently have made it to the league.
Paul Cornick of Orono went undrafted in 2012 but played 12 games for the Broncos in 2014. Billy Turner of Mounds View was the 67th pick by the Miami Dolphins in the 2014 draft and started 12 games last season.
New Gophers offensive line coach Bart Miller wants to keep a specific kind of player at home in Minnesota and attract them from across the Midwest because “this is O-Line country,” he said.
“Just because a kid’s in-state and he doesn’t fit what we do, that’s one thing, but we are looking for physical, tough, mean guys that love the weight room. that love to work,” Miller added. “I don’t really care how fast you run a 40(-yard dash). I want to know if you can move people in a short distance, in a phone booth.”
Back to Haeg. He had partial offers from Division II schools Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Bemidji State. But he wanted to play at a higher level and liked what the Bison offered.
He thrived in Fargo and estimates he has allowed five sacks in his entire football career. At NDSU, he protected quarterback Carson Wentz, a projected first-round selection in this year’s draft.
While Wentz and Haeg were the only two Bison at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, their pro day last week felt like a repeat affair because most NFL teams were in attendance.
“Our pro day was insane,” Haeg said. “It was almost a combine atmosphere there.”
With the spotlight on Wentz, Haeg has benefited. “Whenever you get a guy like that that drives so much attention, (NFL personnel) are going to watch your film,” Haeg said. “They are also going to notice other guys, not only just me.”
Haeg declined to disclose which NFL teams have showed interest but said he has “had a lot of great interviews and a lot of great private workouts.”
Way before he won FCS national titles and the NFL came calling, Haeg was a 5-10, 160-pound player on the Brainerd ninth-grade B team. That’s right: B team. He grew to 6-3 and 180 pounds his sophomore year and played with the junior varsity. After he sprouted to 6-5 and 215 pounds his junior year, he became the starter at right tackle for the varsity squad.
“He bought in in the strength room,” said Ron Stolski, Brainerd’s longtime coach. “We’re very proud of him and hold him up as an example of how you can be great.”