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Jakob Herres: The fish that almost got away from VMI

VMI AthleticsScott Wachenheim understands why a high school football player looking to play D1 football would look at JMU and VMI and think, OK, seriously?

“They’ve got a great product to recruit to James Madison,” Wachenheim concedes. “Location is awesome. Their facilities are the best in FCS that I’ve seen. There’s a lot of things about that campus that make it very attractive for an 18- to 22-year-old young man to go to school there.”

The hard part for Wachenheim: “When we go head-to-head against them in recruiting, we don’t win, and even kids we offer full scholarships will turn us down to be a preferred walk-on at JMU.”

That hurts – just as it hurt when VMI lost top receiver Kris Thornton, who hauled in 87 receptions for 1,003 yards for the Keydets in 2018, then decided to transfer to JMU, where he has emerged as the Dukes’ leading receiver this season.

And then it almost happened again this past offseason, when 6’4” wideout Jakob Herres, who had 72 catches and 1,091 yards in 2019, told Wachenheim that he was entering the transfer portal.

“I said, I understand Jake, so, how long do you need to be in the portal? And he says, you know, probably two weeks to a month, and I said, OK,” said Wachenheim, who devised an interesting strategy to try to keep from losing another top talent.

“I went to Coach Cosh (offensive coordinator Billy Cosh) and our offensive staff and said, let’s re-recruit him like he’s not ours,” Wachenheim said. “And so we started texting him every day, we started calling him every day, and we could, because he was on scholarship here at VMI. We did everything we could, and then over break, you know, (starting quarterback) Reece Udinski went up and threw with him a couple times, and, you know, I know he was offered some opportunities, but he wasn’t offered the opportunity that he thought was better than VMI.”

Herres returned for 2021, and has had a monster season – 67 catches in seven games, 807 yards, seven touchdowns, absolutely bonkers numbers.

“When he called me and said he was coming back, we welcomed him with open arms,” Wachenheim said. “I understand that, you know, sometimes you need to look around, and sometimes you look around and find a place that’s better. But sometimes you realize there’s no place like home.”

It’s the presence of Herres, maybe the biggest matchup nightmare in FCS, that makes the VMI offense click.

The Keydets run a version of the Air Raid, spreading the field with four and sometimes five wide receivers, which makes it hard for opposing defensive coordinators to scheme to take Herres away, because Cosh will use him in the slot, at flanker and split end, sometimes lining him up alone on one side of the formation to either draw a double team that forces single coverage on the other side, or puts his corner on an island one-on-one.

“He’s a tremendous competitor,” Wachenheim said. “I coached Chris Cooley with the Washington Football Team, and Chris Cooley was the most competitive receiver I’ve ever seen. He wanted to win every single one-on-one rep. He got it as a route runner, and Jake Harris brings that same attitude, and just thrilled to have Jake on our team. I think he’s, you know, he’s faster than people think. He’s got great hands, runs great routes, and he’s a competitive football player.”

And he’s the fish that almost got away.

With VMI making its first-ever FCS playoff appearance, maybe it becomes a little easier for Wachenheim and his staff in the future to attract and retain players like Herres and Thornton.

“We play Division 1 football in the Southern Conference, which is arguably one of the top three conferences and all Division 1 FCS football. We have a top 50 academic education program with 14 majors to choose from, and small class sizes that have only 11 students in the class. We have an unbelievable opportunity to learn military leadership. And military leadership is really what sets VMI apart from all the other schools. And because of that, you have postgraduate success, and VMI is in the top 1 percent of earnings power over a lifetime,” Wachenheim told reporters in a Zoom call this week, and you can imagine this is the pitch he gives to kids, and to mamas and papas, in their living rooms.

“The only difficult thing about VMI is in order to be a leader, the first lesson you learn, which I had to learn at the Air Force Academy, is you have to learn how to be a follower. And, you know, most of us don’t like that lesson of learning how to be a follower, and you have to look, you know, see the long game that, hey, I’m going to break out of this rat line, it’s only five months of time, and once I break out, school can actually be easier at VMI than it was at UVA,” Wachenheim said.

“My staff and I have learned to recruit better and find young men that can be successful here at VMI and want what VMI has to offer, because it is very attractive,” Wachenheim said. “You know, do you want to graduate make $60,000 a year when you’re 30 years old, or do you want to make $120,000 a year? Absolutely. Then come to VMI, and we can get that done. Plus now, you can play championship-level football, too.”

Success, basically, breeds success.

“I think winning football always is a great advertisement for the entire university,” Wachenheim said. “And if you look at schools, when the amount of people that want to go to the school goes way, way up, I think this has brought a lot of attention to our school in a positive way. And I think a lot of people are attracted to VMI and what it provides, and I also think that if you can be a part of a winning program, that just makes us even more attractive, so I relish the opportunity to share what VMI offers, and hope if it just gets us one football player that we normally wouldn’t get, what a bonus.”

Story by Chris Graham

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