#ValpoFuture continued to take shape on Wednesday as the Valparaiso University football program added 29 incoming student-athletes to its recruiting class. The class, which also features six early signees who were introduced in December, will join the program for the 2021-22 academic and athletic year.
“We’re always looking for players who fit the profile of Valparaiso University,” head coach Landon Fox said. “That means we’re looking for good students, and most importantly, good people. It says a lot about this recruiting class that 23 of them were captains of their high school team. We brought in student-athletes who are great leaders within their programs and communities. The cumulative GPA of this group was above a 3.5. We can’t wait to see them continue their academic and athletic success at Valpo.”
Jahni Clarke, 5-8, 195, RB (Norcross, Ga. / Norcross High School)
Three-year varsity letter winner… intends to major in computer science… Son of Lynette and Sam Clarke… Has three brothers – Jahsaun, Rayquan and Duvaughn… Helped his team to a 14-1 record by rushing for over 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior… Rushed for 216 yards and three touchdowns in a game against Rosewell… Hobbies include playing “Warzone” and “NBA 2K.”
Coach Fox on Clarke: “Jahni is a big back who has the ability to make defenders miss. He’s strong and breaks a lot of tackles after contact. He comes from a really good football program and was high school teammates with fellow Valpo signee Mason Kaplan.”
Ryan Merklinger, 6-5, 295, OL (Savannah, Ga. / Calvary Day)
Four-year varsity letter winner… Son of Kim and Jeremy Merklinger… Has one brother, Jake… First Team All-Region and All-State… Two-time Preseason All-State… Helped his team to a 9-4 record and final four appearance as a senior… Also competed in four years of high school basketball and three years of track & field… Team captain on the gridiron in 2020 while serving as an offensive line captain in both 2019 and 2020… Away from the field, enjoys fish tanks, playing ping pong and going to aquariums… Earned honor roll all four years of high school and received a Geometry Award and an English Award.
Coach Fox on Merklinger: “Ryan has good size and moves well with good feet. He’s a basketball player and has a toughness to him that you can see on film. He’s a great student who will fit well at our University.”
Ryan Hawk, 5-11, 160, K (Columbus, Ohio / Bishop Hartley)
Intends to major in business… Son of Jill and Robert… Has an older brother, Ben… Three-year varsity letter winner… 2020 all-district honoree… Also played soccer all four years of high school… Received honor roll every quarter and was inducted into National Honor Society… Is a certified advanced scuba diver… Hobbies include skiing, soccer and golf.
Coach Fox on Hawk: “Ryan has a strong leg for both kickoffs and field goals. He comes from a winning program and is another great student who we’re excited to welcome to our University and program.”
Trent Pennington, 6-3, 185, WR (Gilbert, Arizona / Basha)
Plans to major in engineering… Son of Jennia and Chuck Pennington… Has a brother, Travis, and a sister, Taylor… Four-year varsity letter winner… First Team All-Region after leading his team to a 6-2 record as a senior… Had seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown in the 2020 regional championship game vs. Mountain View… Also competed in track & field all four years… Achieved honor roll every year… Has lived in Arizona his whole life… Enjoys camping, golfing and gaming.
Coach Fox on Pennington: “Trent is a tall receiver who has the ability to stretch the field and go deep. He has a great ability to make contested catches that helped him stand out to our coaching staff.”
Myles Parker, 5-8, 175, WR (Allen, Texas / John Paul II)
Plans to major in communication… Son of Anika and Anthony and has a younger brother, Kyle… Three-year varsity letter winner… Second Team All-State and First Team All-District honoree… Had 121 receiving yards and three touchdowns against Nolan Catholic during the 2019-2020 season… Also played high school basketball as a freshman and sophomore… Served as a team captain in both 2019-20 and 2020-21… Member of his school’s honor roll, Cardinal Scholar and Red Cross Award Winner… Enjoys watching movies, playing basketball and listening to music in his spare time.
Coach Fox on Parker: “Myles is a very versatile athlete who can play multiple positions, from running back to wide receiver to defensive back. He is tough and runs well. We’re excited about the explosiveness he brings to the table.”
Jaedon Orr, 5-10, 180, RB (Dallas, Texas / Independence)
Intends to major in kinesiology with a desire to pursue physical therapy… Son of Pam and Dwayne Orr… Has two sisters, Sydney and Secily… Uncle Terry Orr was a two-time Super Bowl Champion with the Washington Football Team, cousin Chris Orr currently plays for the Carolina Panthers, cousin Zach Orr played with the Baltimore Ravens, cousin Nick played with the Chicago Bears and cousin Terrance played at Texas State… Two-year varsity letter winner… All-District choice at running back… Also competed in track & field all four years of high school… Hobbies include video games and working out.
Coach Fox on Orr: “Jaedon is an explosive running back with good speed. He has the ability to score from anywhere on the field. He averaged over 10 yards per carry in high school, so we’re excited to see what he can accomplish with our program.”
Michael Momber, 6-2, 290, DT (Hudsonville, Mich. / Hudsonville)
Majoring in psychology… Son of Michele Rutter and James Momber… Has two brothers, Mathew and Austin Momber… Austin played four years of soccer at Moody Bible College… Two-year varsity letter winner… Helped his team to a 5-3 record this year… Had 23 tackles including 10 solos and 5 TFL in a single high school game… Also competed in wrestling as a freshman and senior… Hobbies including snowmobiling, fishing, lifting and listening to music… Member of his high school’s choir.
Coach Fox on Momber: “Michael is another big-body defensive tackle. He is a run stopper who has the ability to create havoc in the run game. He can also get a vertical push versus the pass.
Mason Kaplan, 6-2, 210, QB (Peachtree Corners, Ga. / Norcross)
Intends to major in psychology… Son of Lisa and Michael Kaplan… Has an older sister, Skylar… Four-year varsity letter winner… Helped his team post a 13-1 record and finish the season ranked 28th nationally… Offensive MVP, multi-time Georgia Public Broadcasting Player of the Week, Scholar-Athlete Award from WSB-TV, First Team All-Region and First Team All-County… Went 13-of-15 passing for 303 yards and five touchdowns in a playoff win over South Forsyth as a senior. He also had five carries for 25 yards in that game… Served as a team captain as a sophomore, junior and senior… Loves karaoke and enjoys reading, chess and volunteering with the Best Buddies program… Member of National Honor Society, top 4 percent of his senior class, super honor roll all four years, selected as his school’s representative at the IDEALS Leadership School.
Coach Fox on Kaplan: “Mason is a good all-around quarterback who throws well and runs well. More importantly, he was a great leader on a nationally-ranked high school team. He’s an awesome young man and we’re excited to have him be a part of what we’re trying to build here.”
Barret Labus, 6-0, 190, WR (Wadsworth, Ohio / Wadsworth)
Plans to major in marketing… Son of Shirley and Eric… Has two older sisters, Bayley and Jordan… Three-year varsity letter winner… Two-time all-state and three-time all-district, all-league and all-county honoree… Had 22 carries for 250 yards as a junior vs. Nordonia… Team captain in 2020… Enjoys lifting weights, playing video games and hanging out with friends… Member of his school’s honor roll.
Coach Fox on Labus: “Barret is a strong, physical wide receiver who runs well. He’s very good after the catch and can make defenders miss to extend plays.”
Bennett Meyers, 6-2, 275, OL/DL (Edwardsburg, Mich. / Edwardsburg)
Plans to major in business… Son of Karen and Joel Meyers… Has two brothers, Greyson and Donovan, and a sister, Mackenzie… Cousin Jaci played four years of volleyball at Wisconsin Whitewater… Three-year varsity letter winner… All-conference offensive lineman in both 2019 and 2020… Named Most Improved Player in 2019… Helped his team to a 10-1 record as a senior… Posted 11 tackles and two sacks in 2019 vs. St. Joseph… Also competed in three years apiece of track & field and powerlifting… Served as a team captain as a senior… Enjoys collecting sneakers… Hobbies include cooking, video games and volunteer work… Member of Academic All-State team, earned scholar-athlete award and received academic excellence award.
Coach Fox on Meyers: “Bennett plays at a good pad level and finishes blocks well. He plays multiple positions on the offensive line and did play on the defensive side of the ball in high school as well.”
Brett Gray, 6-4, 275, LT (Vancouver, Wash. / Skyview)
Intends to major in marketing… Son of Marta and Darren Gray… Has a twin sister, Olivia… Three-year varsity letter winner… Served as a captain as a senior… Also played high school basketball… Was a trumpet soloist for Skyview and enjoys producing hip-hop beats… Also enjoys mountain biking, reading and playing chess.
Coach Fox on Gray: “Brett is an offensive lineman with good athletic ability. He played both sides of the ball in high school and will play offensive tackle for us. He has a big frame and the ability to get bigger.”
Noa Toketa, 6-2, 225, DE (Pleasant Grove, Utah / Pleasant Grove)
Plans to pursue engineering/structural engineering… Son of Rina and Mani Toketa… Has two younger brothers, Pop and Niko, and a younger sister, Tui… Cousin Fua Leilua played two years of football at Utah State… Three-year varsity letter winner… Had a 14-tackle game with nine solos and two TFL vs. Wasatch during the 2020 season… Enjoys drawing, video games and art… High honor roll all four years of high school and earned academic all-state in 2020-21.
Coach Fox on Toketa: “Noa is physical to the point of attack. He’s very technically sound with a high football IQ. He’s another player who comes from a very good football program.
George Dristiliaris, 6-3, 230, DE (Lowell, Mass. / Lowell)
Plans to major in sport management… Son of Megan and John Dristiliaris… Has two sisters, Olivia and Chloe… Four-year varsity letter winner… All-conference honoree, Gridiron Honorable Mention and 12-player award winner… Led team in sacks and defensive line tackles in 2019… Also played club rugby in high school… Football team captain as a senior… High honor student with a 4.0 GPA.
Coach Fox on Dristiliaris: “George is another two-way player who played defensive end and tight end in high school. He has the ability to get to the quarterback as an edge rusher on defense. George runs extremely well.”
Johnny Fairbank, 6-0, 185, LB/Slot (New Port Richey, Fla. / JW Mitchell)
Plans to major in business… Son of Deborah and Bill Fairbank… Has two brothers, including his twin Nicholas and older brother William… Has one sister, Abby… Mother Debbie was an NFL cheerleader for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1980s… Three-year varsity letter winner… Florida All-State Class 7A First Team, Team MVP, all-conference first team offense and defense, Pasco County Defensive Player of the Year, Pasco FCA most touchdowns in a season… Set program records for career receiving yards and career receiving TDs… Helped his team to an 11-1 mark as a senior, reaching the state regional finals… Had five catches for 96 yards and two scores on Nov. 27, 2020 vs. Wekiva… Also played four years of varsity basketball and two years of varsity weightlifting, where he set the school record in the bench press for his weight class… Team captain in football and basketball…. Has an electric taste in music that includes Frank Sinatra and Frankie Valli… Enjoys boating, hiking, bowling and working out.
Coach Fox on Fairbank: “Johnny is a versatile athlete who plays both defensive back and wide receiver. He has a good frame and runs well. He’s explosive and has good tackling ability.”
Jacob Ford, 6-2, 270, C/LS (Tarpon Springs, Fla. / Calvary Christian)
Intends to major in mechanical engineering… Son of Tara and Josh Ford… Has three brothers, Clayton, Nathaniel and Joshua… Four-year varsity letter winner… Helped his team to a 7-1 record as a senior… Went 25-of-25 on long snaps and 39-of-39 on short snaps as a senior… Also competed in two years of track & field… Served as a football team captain during his senior season… Hobbies include fishing, hunting and outdoor activities… Member of his school’s honor roll.
Coach Fox on Ford: “Jacob was a center his junior year and moved to offensive tackle out of necessity. He fits the center position very well. He has good feet, can snap and is very intelligent. He has the potential to be a good leader for our offensive line.”
Mikey Appel, 6-3, 210, QB (Springboro, Ohio / Springboro)
Plans to pursue computer engineering… Son of Melanie and Mike Appel… Has a younger brother, Matthew and a younger sister, Lauren… Has two family members who played football at Morehead State University – father Mike (1993-1997) and uncle Jim (1989-1992)… The Morehead State annual academic award is named after his father and uncle as both were Academic All-Americans at MSU… Three-year varsity letter winner… Springboro Offensive Back of the Year, Springboro Scholar-Athlete Award (highest GPA), conference special mention, conference all-academic team, member of first Springboro football team to win an OHSAA Division-I home playoff game… Went 29-of-37 for 344 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions on Oct. 24, 2020 vs. Miamisburg… Also played baseball all four years of high school… Enjoys playing Call of Duty and outdoor recreational games including frisbee, cornhole, can jam, bottle bash and ladder golf… Principal’s List (honor roll) every quarter of high school… Member of National Honor Society.
Coach Fox on Appel: “Mikey throws a very catchable ball with a nice smooth release. He throws for a high completion percentage, has good size and is a very smart football player.”
Evan Jernegan, 6-2, 205, TE/WR (Altadena, Calif. / St. Francis)
Majoring in communication… Son of Allison and Christopher Jernegan… Mother Allison played basketball at UC Riverside… Three-year varsity letter winner… All-league selection while helping his team to an 8-3 record as a junior… Had a 30-yard TD reception and blocked a field goal to help his team to a victory over Mira Costa in Week 1of the 2019 season… Also played basketball all four years… Served as a football team captain in 2020-21… Interests include Star Wars, Legos and sports broadcasts… Has built out the biggest Lego set, the UCS Millennium Falcon… two-year honor roll member, two-year scholar roll member and two-year National Honor Society Member.
Coach Fox on Jernegan: “Evan is a good all-around tight end. He has the ability to block in the run game and catch in the pass game. He’s a really smart football player and good student.”
Jamauri Jackson, 6-9, 170, DB (San Diego, Calif. / Monterey Trail)
Plans to major in kinesiology… Son of Dwaynitta Parker and Jimmy Jackson… Has a younger brother (Jimmy II) and two younger sisters (Daybrielle and Daylasia)… Father played baseball at Patrick Henry College and mother played basketball at Patrick Henry… Four-year varsity letter winner… All-Metro DB, tied for the most interceptions in the league… Played one year of high school soccer and competed in two years of track & field… Three-year team captain… Enjoys writing songs and creating music off his phone… Loves listening to all types of music… Multiple-time honor roll selection.
Coach Fox on Jackson: “Jamauri plays with really good technique and runs well. He’s fast and has good feet. He is a playmaker who finds a way to get to the ball.”
Kanen Rossi, 6-3, 280, OL (Portland, Ore. / Sunset)
Plans to major in business finance… Son of Sarah Centrella and Rick Rossi… Has twin sisters, Mira and Izzy… Three-year varsity letter winner… Second Team All-Metro OL as a junior… Voted Second Team All-State OL in 2020… Played four opponents in the top 10 in 2019… Also competed in track & field, where he had the sixth-best shot put by a freshman in school history… Served as a team captain in 2019… Enjoys travel, stocks and reading… Has been to six countries… All-Metro Academic 2019, Sunset High Scholar-Athlete in 2018 and 2019.
Coach Fox on Rossi: “Kanen is a polished offensive lineman. He is good in the running game and is a good run blocker. He has the ability to play multiple positions on the offensive line and is a good leader.
Kevin Spelman, 6-5, 250, DE/LS (New Lenox, Ill. / Providence Catholic)
Son of Kathleen and Lawrence Spelman… Has two older brothers, Ryan and Brad… Three-year varsity letter winner… all-conference choice… Had six tackles, two TFL and two sacks in a game against Newark… Served as a team captain as a junior… Enjoys fishing, ping pong, chopping wood, bowling, lifting and cheering for the Green Bay Packers… Received secondary academic honors.
Coach Fox on Spelman: “Kevin was under recruited as he moved from New Albany in Ohio to Providence Catholic and never got the chance to play his senior year. He’s very impressive physically and his best football is ahead of him.”
Caleb Rao, 5-11, WR (Liberty Township, Ohio / Lakota West)
Plans to major in mechanical engineering… Son of Sheryl and Jay Rao… Has two sisters, Jailyn and Braelynn… Two-year varsity letter winner… Helped his team go 6-0 in the regular season and finish as a regional runner-up as a senior… Passed for 77 yards and rushed for 127 in a game against Centerville as a junior… Also competed in one year of basketball and three years of track & field… Interests including lifting, fishing and music… Earned honor roll every year of high school.
Coach Fox on Rao: “Caleb is a playmaker who plays wide receiver but can also be used as a wildcat quarterback. He’s athletic with good hands and runs well. He also ran track, so we’re thrilled to add his speed.”
Cole Adams, 6-0, 190, S (Oak Ridge, Tenn. / Oak Ridge)
Plans to major in business… Son of Ryan Overton and Paul Adams… Has a brother, Jacob, and two sisters, Abi and Augustine… Four-year varsity letter winner… received all-state, all-region, academic all-state and top GPA for his class… Helped his team to a 10-4 record and state runner-up finish as a senior… Had a 10-yard receiving touchdown, 10 tackles and an interception in a game against Powell during his senior year… Team captain as a senior… Also competed in one year apiece of basketball, track & field and baseball… Interests include golf and bowling.
Coach Fox on Adams: “Cole has a really good understanding of the game. He is a physical but smooth athlete who runs well.”
Max Franco, 5-9, 175, DB (La Habra, Calif. / La Habra)
Son of Maria and Mike Franco… Has an older sister, Maya… Four-year varsity letter winner… Named a skill player of the year and all-league team member after helping his team to a 10-3 record as a senior… Had a team-high 13 tackles in a state semifinal game during his junior season… Team captain… Enjoys being outdoors and spending time with family and friends… Is undefeated in NBA 2K… Academic honors include Heritage Program and Honor Roll.
Coach Fox on Franco: “Max is hard-nosed and aggressive. He has good feet and is a confident player on film.”
Breydan Ford, 6-1, 290, DT (Batavia, Ill. / Batavia)
Plans to major in computer science… Son of Mary and Courtney Ford… Has a brother, Brendyn, and a sister, Chloe… Three-year varsity letter winner… all-conference honorable mention while helping his team to a 9-3 record in 2019… Became the starting nose guard on the Batavia defense after spending most of his career on the offensive line… Helped his team to the best rushing defense in program history… Competed in track & field from seventh grade to his senior year… Academic all-conference and scholar-athlete honoree… Built a computer from scratch.
Coach Fox on Ford: “Breydan is big, strong and physical at the point of attack. He’s going to be hard to move. He comes to us from a very strong high school program.”
Brandon Crawford, 6-1, 250, DE (Colon, Mich. / Colon)
Plans to pursue engineering… Son of Amy Waldron and George Crawford… Has one brother, Corey, and four sisters: Braeona, Emily, Fibi and Aryann… Four-year varsity letter winner… Three-time all-state defensive lineman, one-time all-state running back and three-time all-league at both positions… Rushed for 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2019… Served as a team captain as a senior… Also competed in baseball (four years), basketball (two years) and wrestling (one year)… Interested in video gaming and lifting… His hometown is the magic capital of the world… Achieved honor roll every semester.
Coach Fox on Crawford: “Brandon has played defensive tackle and also has the ability to play an h-back spot. He’s physical in the run game and is used to winning. He understands how to win, and that’s something we look for.”
DJ Pallan, 6-0, 200, DB (West Covina, Calif. / St. Paul)
Intends to major in psychology… Son of Josie and Daniel Pallan… Four brothers (Roman, Ruben, Danny and Daniel) and two sisters (Karissa and Brittany)… Four-year varsity letter winner… Also competed in track & field… Team captain in football… His first sport was karate at age 4… Member of his school’s honor roll.
Coach Fox on Pallan: “DJ is a really good athlete. He plays hybrid nickel safety and can do a variety of things. He defends the run game and has an ability to rush the passer. He can play in coverage and is a good leader.”
James Keighley, 6-3, 225, DE (Dayton, Ohio / Archbishop Alter)
Plans to major in business… Son of Heather and Jay… Has two brothers, Jack and John… Three-year varsity letter winner… Second team all-state honoree… Helped his team to a 9-3 record as a senior… Had 90 tackles during his senior season… Played basketball as a freshman and sophomore and swimming as a junior and senior… Team captain in football.
Coach Fox on Keighley: “James is a great student and a good edge rusher. He is a good pass rusher who is physical in the run game. He’s used to winning and understands how to do it.”
Dominic Grguric, 6-0, 165, WR (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio / Walsh Jesuit)
Plans to major in business… Son of Laura and Mike Grguric… Has a brother, Rocco, and a sister, Camille… Father played football at Baldwin Wallace (1988-89) and Akron (1989-1991)… Two-year varsity letter winner… Finished fourth in school history for career receiving yards, fourth in single-season receptions and second for most blocked PATs and field goals in a season… Also ranked seventh in school history for single-season receiving yards and led the team in yards, receptions and touchdowns as both a junior and senior… Two-time all-district selection… Had 10 catches, 141 yards and three touchdowns in a single game against Padura as a senior… Also competed in basketball (four years), baseball (two years) and track & field (three years)… Football captain as a senior… Interested in fishing, Cleveland sports and water sports… Member of National Honor Society, Honor Roll and junior class president.
Coach Fox on Grguric: “Dom is a gym rat who really works at it and strives for constant improvement. He was very instrumental in turning his high school’s program around. He can create separation and is good with the ball in his hands.”
Jalen McBride, 5-10, 180, CB (Berkeley, Ill. / Montini Catholic)
Plans to major in business… Son of Monique Jones… Three-year varsity letter winner… Team captain… MVP of a 7-on-7 tournament… Also played three years of basketball… Hobbies include listening to music… Part-time comedian.
Coach Fox on McBride: “Jalen played both sides of the ball in high school and will be a corner here. He has good feet and we’re amped to add his play-making ability to our team.”
In addition, Fox has announced that defensive lineman George Trojanek (Carpentersville, Ill. / IMG Academy), safety Jacob Cleaver (Gaylord, Mich. / Gaylord) and tight end Seth Broussard (La Verne, Calif. / Damien) have joined the program as midyear additions and will participate this spring.