Added ‘leg work’ helped Gophers’ Fleck land four-star running back
By ANDY GREDER | email@example.com | Pioneer Press
PUBLISHED: May 13, 2020 at 12:33 p.m. | UPDATED: May 13, 2020 at 3:14 p.m.
Hillcrest High School football announcer Don Houston has a simple touchdown call for when Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving scores during home games in suburban Chicago.
“BUCKY FOR THE TOUCHDOWN!”
For how concise and traditional Houston describes it on Friday nights, his words somehow have been used against him in his English classroom on Monday mornings. His students — the fans, cheerleaders and players hearing him on the loudspeaker — say the call has become a bit of a broken record.
“Some of my students would tease me,” Houston said. “A lot of students … say all they would hear me say is ‘Bucky this’ and ‘Bucky that.’ ”
“Well, someone else has to do something!” Houston said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “Eventually those guys did step up and the rest of the teammates played really well, also.”
But Irving wore out Houston’s touchdown call last season. In 12 games, Irving scored 28 touchdowns — 22 rushing, four receiving, one passing and one on a punt return. That prolific total helped make Irving one of the top prospects in Illinois and receive scholarship offers from 10 Big Ten programs.
With that stiff competition, Irving pledged to the Gophers on Saturday, becoming the U’s fifth prospect in the 2021 class with a four-star rating, according to 247sports.com. His final four college choices were Minnesota, Purdue, Utah and Texas Christian.
“Purdue really recruited him hard,” Hillcrest football coach Morgan Weaver said. “I would say that Minnesota was harder on him early on, so I think the difference is (Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck) put in a lot more leg work.”
Fleck and Purdue coach Jeff Brohm have established a rivalry that includes an icy and brisk postgame handshake between them after Minnesota’s 38-31 win in West Lafayette, Ind., last September. Irving could serve as an added layer to that feud for years to come.
While Irving, who couldn’t be reached for this story, kept details about his recruiting process under wraps, Weaver said he often heard how much he liked Fleck.
“He had nothing but great things to say about him,” Weaver said. “You could see that the Minnesota program is projecting upward. It’s a special place up there, and P.J. has things going in the right direction. I’m sure that is what helped attract him to Minnesota.”
As a high school sophomore, Irving beat out a senior for the starting running back role at Hillcrest, a Class 5A school within Illinois’ eight-class system. In a homecoming matchup against rival Lemont, he rushed for a stunning 303 yards and scored all of the Hawks’ touchdowns in a 27-7 win.
“After that game is when I really, really knew that this kid is going to be special,” Weaver said.
As a junior, the 5-foot-10 and 185-pound back rushed for 302 yards against Lemont, running for two touchdowns and passing for another in a 32-26 win.
But it was Irving’s interception while covering Lemont’s 6-foot-2 star receiver Anthony Sambucci that most impressed Houston in the press box. Sambucci, now a player at Western Michigan, had beat Irving on a double move, but the pass was slightly underthrown.
“(Irving) had just made a spectacular play on offense, then he comes and guards Lemont’s best player on defense and he got a pick,” Houston recalled. “He was dead tired but he almost ran it in. … That was one of the bigger plays that I’ve seen him make.”
Bucky this, Bucky that.
“I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a lot of good players come through Hillcrest and he is probably the most electric player I’ve ever seen,” said Houston, who has been at Hillcrest for 20 years. “Some of the things he’s done is insane.”
Houston also is Hillcrest’s boys basketball coach, and Irving led the team in scoring with 16 points a game as a junior. Four players, including Irving, have received recruiting interest from mid-major programs. They have state championship aspirations this winter.
“He brings the football mentality to the basketball court, and a lot of kids can’t deal with that mentality and that toughness,” Houston said.
Irving was a basketball player first, transferring from powerhouse Morgan Park during his freshman year. When Irving was a sophomore, Hillcrest’s football team went 12-1 and advanced to the Class 5A semifinals in 2018; in his junior year, the team finished 10-2 after a trip to the state quarterfinals.
Central Michigan was the first school to offer Irving a scholarship, and Wisconsin was his first Big Ten offer, Weaver said.
“Then everything just skyrocketed from there for him, which I expected,” Weaver said. “He didn’t really believe me when I told him it was going to happen. He didn’t really know too much.”
Michigan, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Indiana, Maryland and Illinois also offered scholarships. The Gophers had an added boost with Naperville, Ill., four-star athlete Sam Jackson, a childhood friend with Irving, already in the U’s class for next year.
As for origins of the “Bucky” nickname, Irving has had since before he came to Hillcrest. Weaver heard a story about how it might have been because Irving had buck teeth as a kid, which, if true, would fit seamlessly with Goldy’s toothy smile.
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