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Californians Choose to Land in Lincoln

Nebraska recruiting nets 20 from state, who will see and be seen by loved ones at USC game.

September 15, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Start with a cliche. A young football player -- straight out of Inglewood by way of Compton Community College -- arrives in Nebraska and steps into a wintry landscape.

"My first time in snow," he says.

An even bigger surprise awaits him soon after, shopping at Wal-Mart.

"People walking up to me, hugging me," he says. "I didn't know those people. I hadn't done anything on the field, but they already knew everything about me, my high school and junior college stats."

The city of Lincoln might have seemed like Mars to Ola Dagunduro, but he wasn't exactly a stranger in a strange land.

Nebraska has a long history of recruiting in California. The tradition is such that when former coach Frank Solich ignored it, as part of what fans considered an overall recruiting shortfall, Solich was fired despite having won 75% of his games.

The man hired to replace him, Bill Callahan, has put an immediate emphasis on fresh talent and stocked the roster with 20 Californians.

When No. 19 Nebraska plays No. 4 USC at the Coliseum on Saturday, Dagunduro will start on the defensive line and Marlon Lucky, of North Hollywood, will lead the rotation at I-back. Maurice Purify, a highly touted junior college transfer from Eureka, is averaging almost 30 yards a reception this season.

"We've had a lot of success with athletes that have come from the state of California to play here and they've done exceedingly well," Callahan said. "And we're just trying to build on that."

So the game against USC is more than a homecoming. For Dagunduro and the other West Coast transplants, it is a chance to demonstrate why they were brought to Nebraska.

"To restore the order," Dagunduro said, "return Nebraska to the dominant state they were in."

Now in his second season with the vaunted "Blackshirt" defense, Dagunduro can laugh about how odd it seemed at first. The cold weather and feverish fans. Feeling a little homesick, he often called friends and family in those days.

"He told me it wasn't anything like the city," recalled Lawrence Jackson, a former high school teammate who plays defensive end for USC. "A lot of cornfields."

And another thing. Dagunduro told his mother: "The crime rate is very low."

He had grown up in Inglewood, the son of a Nigerian who always watched the Kansas City Chiefs and their running back, Christian Okoye, on television. Football was something to be played out front with brothers and cousins, a way to keep everyone as safe as possible in a dangerous neighborhood.

"I was very protective of my boys," his mother, April Williams, said. "I kept them close around me."

After a standout career at Inglewood High, Dagunduro spent two seasons at Compton, making all-conference and ranking among the top junior college tackles in the nation. Recruiters from Arizona and Colorado came calling, but Nebraska courted the 6-foot-2, 300-pound lineman the hardest.

"I knew from the get-go," he said. "They were showing me so much love."

His mother worried about him heading off for the Great Plains, especially because he had signed without so much as a visit. The coaches, he recalled, "told me California guys always come to Nebraska."

A list of previous Cornhuskers stars from California includes quarterback Vince Ferragamo in the 1970s and I-back Lawrence Phillips and cornerback Ralph Brown in the '90s. In 1997-98, when former coach Tom Osborne led his team to a national championship, the roster included eight Californians.

That number slipped to two or three after Solich took over in 1998. Solich's teams enjoyed success by most standards, winning about 10 games a season and reaching the national title game against Miami in January 2002, but fans wanted more.

"In terms of all-conference players or NFL draft choices, we were falling short," said Jim Rose, the team's play-by-play announcer. "People were saying, 'Nebraska is not getting the players needed.' "

The Cornhuskers cannot yet compete for Southern California's best high school talent because they are too far away and do not have the requisite winning percentage. Still, Callahan's staff has made its presence felt in the region -- especially in the junior college ranks -- and out-dueled USC in signing Lucky.

"They do a great job," USC recruiting coordinator Lane Kiffin said. "They're very thorough and we see them a lot out here."

Bill Busch, one of several Nebraska assistants assigned to recruit the state, says he stresses that Lincoln can offer a different kind of football experience, a true college game-day setting. He also talks about facilities. The Nebraska athletic department recently unveiled a multimillion-dollar upgrade, including a training complex that features a state-of-the-art weight room and a lobby with a 40-foot waterfall.

Those facilities provided another shock for Dagunduro, coming from Inglewood and Compton where, he says, "We didn't have anything." He recalled thinking, "I'm in football heaven."

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