CEDAR RAPIDS — Gabe Burkle realizes the importance of this football season.
Junior campaigns are crucial to make a lasting impression on NCAA Division I suitors. He wants to cash in while his stock remains high after garnering three FCS scholarship offers and interest from Power-5 programs before he was an upperclassman.
“Junior season is always a big one for recruiting,” Cedar Rapids Prairie’s 6-foot-7, 235-pound tight end said. “By your senior year, I think colleges have an idea who they’re going for. I just want to have a great season. I want to play my butt off and have fun.”
A successful campaign would have big implications on his personal status and the Hawks’ aspirations. Prairie’s strong numbers and experience include 11 starters and 16 letterwinners back from a district runner-up team that went 6-4 a year ago.
The Hawks face Cedar Rapids Kennedy in the home opener Aug. 28, kicking off a challenging early slate.
“Our first three games are against a state semifinalist, a state playoff team and a state quarterfinalist,” Prairie Coach Mark Bliss said about games with the Cougars, Dubuque Senior and Cedar Falls. “It will be interesting. Our first three games are against some pretty good teams. We do have a pretty good nucleus of kids from last year.”
Burkle is one of those key pieces. As a sophomore, he had 126 receiving yards on six receptions, tying for the team lead in touchdown catches. He plans to increase those stats this year, serving a more prominent role in an attack that also features all-state running back Nick Pearson, who rushed for 1,788 yards and 27 TDs.
“This season I might be more of a pass threat,” Burkle said. “I still see myself blocking. We run our single wing and that is what we’re known for. We’re a great running team. We have a good strong line. We pass it a few times out of that.”
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The numbers out of the single-wing system aren’t staggering, but his physical measurements are attractive to college coaches from the Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern Conference.
Iowa State was the first FBS team to extend a scholarship offer in April. Michigan State followed and then Buffalo. Bliss said Kansas State, Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have expressed interest.
The recruiting floodgates burst open after the Cyclones’ initial move and Burkle handled it in stride.
“A month after that it was pretty heavy,” Burkle said. “A lot of schools were calling me. Coaches were telling me things. I got two more offers. It was pretty intense. I was great. I was so thankful for all of it.”
According to Bliss, Burkle also runs a 4.8 40-yard dash in addition to a large frame. Burkle also is noted for good footwork, which may be aided by playing basketball.
“There’s no doubt he’s worthy of being a D-I type kid just because of his size and range,” said Bliss, who has coached eight high school All-Americans, 24 D-I athletes and at least one NFL player. “He has a ton of upside with his ability as an athlete. He can jump and run. He’s got good hands.
“I know whoever he winds up going to play for will utilize his talent. He’s a special kid. He’s one of those kids we need to make sure is a focal point in our game plan going into the season and finding ways to get him the ball.”
Burkle is anchored by his love for football, following in the footsteps of his father, Cory, who was a tight end and defensive end for Northern Iowa. The two have engaged in some good-natured banter around the dinner table.
“He’s telling me about what he did in college,” Burkle said. “I throw it back at him. It’s pretty funny.”
Burkle has worked with former Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt at Hard Drive Elite in downtown Cedar Rapids. He has also picked up some things from his dad.
“He definitely taught me a lot of things,” Burkle said. “We go out and work on the field. He showed me a few tricks to help me.”
Burkle couldn’t recall when he started exactly, but remembered he jumped at the first chance to play flag football as a youth. He enjoyed it from the start, playing receiver then.
When he transitioned to Metro Youth Football Association, the weight limits prevented him from being a ball carrier. He moved to the trenches and honed his blocking skills before moving back to tight end. It has allowed him to be a more complete player.
“He’s a very good blocker,” Bliss said. “To be a Division I tight end, you have to be a good blocker. You have to be the total package.”
Bliss was pleased with the team’s progress in the preseason, but the effects of last week’s storm wiped out practice. They are back to work, trying to catch up and prepare for the first game.
“Two weeks ago, we were on pace to where we wanted to be by Week 1,” Bliss said. “We had to take the whole week off because of the storm that came. Now, we’re behind the 8-ball and we have a lot of stuff we have to get done to get things in place. We have some work to do and hopefully the kids are conducive to it and excited.”
Cedar Rapids Prairie, at a glance
Coach: Mark Bliss (6th year at Prairie, 193-74 career record)
Last year: 6-4, Class 4A playoff qualifier
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Top returners: DE Baxter Bohr, P Sam Braksiek, TE Gabe Burkle, DE Moses Each, DB Nick Fetters, WR Colton Forslund, OL Bodie Haddenfeldt, DE Isaiah Harrison, RB Adam Longwell, DB Mason Mahoney, RB Nick Pearson, DT Josue Ramirez, DB Colin Rickertson, LB Clayton Scott, LB Samual Tokpa, K A.J. Walter
Aug. 28 — Cedar Rapids Kennedy
Sept. 4 — at Dubuque Senior
Sept. 11 — Cedar Falls
Sept. 18 — at Iowa City High
Sept. 25 — Linn-Mar
Oct. 2 — at Iowa City Liberty
Oct. 9 — Cedar Rapids Washington
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