Culver football's Mack Little signs with Western Oregon University
Since Mack Little's freshmen year, when he and his Culver teammates would make the three-and-a-half hour drive each summer to Western Oregon University's football camp in Monmouth, the program left a strong impression on him.
"I liked the coaches, I liked their intensity, I liked how they ran their programs and their camps," said Little, now a senior. "It just felt right there. I liked all the coaches and the players who were running it."
Little first went to the camp as an undersized freshman, somewhere in the range of 140 pounds, he remembers. But, as he returned to Monmouth in the summers that followed, he continued to show development that got the attention of coaches.
Following the end of his senior football season last fall, in which he earned first-team all-Columbia Basin Conference honors at both middle linebacker and offensive guard, Little had few doubts where he wanted to play college football. On Wednesday, Feb. 1, known around the country as National Signing Day, his father and football coach, Shea, mother, Naomi, and younger brothers, Cole and Brody, gathered in Culver's gymnasium as Little signed his National Letter of Intent with the Wolves.
The summer camps give players like Little a good taste of the program. They also allow the team to get a better look at potential recruits. WOU linebackers coach Tom Rude, who's been on the coaching staff for the last two seasons, estimates that some 50 percent of the 31 players who make up the Wolves' 2017 recruiting class were attendees of prior WOU summer football camps. Realistically, a Division II school such as Western Oregon doesn't have the resources for coaches to travel around the West Coast and watch all of its recruits in person. They can glean a lot from watching a player's highlight tape, but can learn a lot more from those camps, such as how they interact with fellow players and how hard they push in drills and scrimmages.
Little developed a reputation at those summer camps as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense football player, which fell closely in line with the program's culture established by head coach Arne Ferguson and his staff.
"Very serious, very businesslike," Rude said of Little's demeanor. "You don't see him crack a smile too often. He takes things very seriously."
Conversely, Little took a liking to how disciplined the players were.
"Right when I got there, I knew (the players) were very disciplined," Little said. "They hustled on the field, they hustled off the field. They were very respectful to the coaches. They knew that whatever coach says, you do it."
Little had the benefit of guidance through the recruiting process from family members as well. His older sister, Shealene, was an accomplished high school volleyball player and went on to play collegiately at Tennessee Tech. Shea played football at Eastern Oregon University in the 1990s, before a brief professional career that included a stint with the St. Louis Rams. But this wasn't a case of a kid feeling pressure to follow in an older sibling's or parent's footsteps, by any means.
"They said that you really want to have to do it," Little said of his family's advice. "My dad said, 'Just because I played, doesn't mean you need to. But if it's something you're passionate about and you want to do, go for it and we'll help you every step of the way.'"
The Wolves recruited Little as a middle linebacker, putting him in a class with five other linebackers committed to WOU, including fellow in-state recruits Jake Blackburn (Burns), Chad Estrella (Elmira), Jaxsen Johnson (Tillamook) and Kyle Otis (Toledo).
The WOU current linebacker group lost only one player from last season, Tafatolu Tafai, and while the remaining core is pretty young, it's one that has some quality combined experience, Rude said. The Wolves run a base 4-3 defense, but show plenty of odd fronts, which requires their linebackers to be versatile.
"We expect our backers to get in and out of situations pretty quickly," Rude said. "That's why we don't see too many true freshmen linebackers starting right away."
Little, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 229 pounds on the WOU football's website, will continue to develop his body and work his way up in hopes of earning playing time. Although his desired position is on defense where he can hit people, he wouldn't hesitate to take on a different role.
"I like the defensive side of the ball a little better," he said. "But if they need me anywhere, I'll go wherever I can get playing time."
The Culver senior plans to major in fire sciences in college.
Follow him on Twitter @WillCDenner