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Kuemper Catholic defensive end Blaise Gunnerson says he's focusing on Iowa State and Nebraska, although he's considering Iowa, as well. Matthew Bain, mbain@dmreg.com

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NORTH LIBERTY, Ia. — Blaise Gunnerson thinks about it every night.

About his year away from football. About how healthy he feels now. About how his heart will pound when he suits up again next fall for Kuemper Catholic.

"I love football. This is what I live off of," he told the Register on Sunday, his shirt soaked with sweat after one-on-one workouts at The Strength U in North Liberty. "I love hitting the quarterback, and I’m excited to actually hit that instead of a dummy."

Gunnerson is a 6-foot-5, three-star defensive end from Carroll, Iowa. He is a violent pass-rusher and the state's top remaining 2020 football prospect. Iowa State will host him for an official visit June 21-23, and Iowa is working hard to get him on campus, too.

The thing is: He hasn't played a football game in over a year.

After earning summer camp offers from Iowa State and Iowa following his sophomore year, Gunnerson missed his entire junior season with a torn labrum in his hip. And he still hauled in additional offers from Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas State and Yale.

Now, healthier and hungrier than ever, Gunnerson is poised for a big senior season. And yes, he's getting closer to ending his under-the-microscope recruitment, too.

Here's more from our conversation.

Staying sane away from football

For a competitor like Gunnerson, who also competes in basketball and track and field, missing a whole season was painful.

"It’s hard to describe the feeling. It’s kind of demoralizing," he said. "You’ve been grinding all this time. When you lose something, you realize how much you love it."

So, to stay sane, he poured his soul into perfecting himself off the field.

Every day, before school and after school, Gunnerson was in the weight room working on his upper body. Then, at night, he'd pull up his film and study what he did well or not so well. He wanted to be physically and mentally prepared so, when doctors cleared him to play, he could hit the ground running.

"I didn’t let go of my athletic drive," Gunnerson said. "That helped me a lot."

The injury also came with a silver lining.

Gunnerson had some extra bone growth on his hip, which was limiting his mobility. During surgery on the torn labrum, doctors shaved off the extra bone, allowing him to move more fluidly.

"It’s awesome," said Gunnerson, who added that he notices a difference in his hip flexibility. "When you’re a defensive end, and you’re using your hips so much to get by that tackle, it helps a lot at my position."

An unusual recruiting process

A prospect's junior season is critical for recruiting. Colleges will often decide whether or not to offer a player based on his junior year film.

Well ... Gunnerson doesn't have that.

So, many conversations with coaches have dealt with his sophomore film, which was impressive; he had 25.5 tackles, six solo tackles for loss and four solo sacks that year. Add that to his three-sport athleticism and his physical maturity, and you've got a legit Power 5 target — and a homegrown star both in-state schools are working hard to land.

"(Iowa State) said my sophomore year film was a lot better than a lot of the juniors," Gunnerson said. "All the coaching staffs have been really supportive. Iowa State, Nebraska, Iowa — the list goes on."

Notre Dame and Michigan State have also shown interest in Gunnerson and hosted him for unofficial visits, but they haven't offered.

"I feel like I could have gotten recruited a lot harder by out-of-Midwest schools if I wasn’t injured my junior year," Gunnerson said. "But it helped a lot having those two camp tapes (from Iowa and Iowa State).

"As far as recruitment goes, every kid handles it differently. I’m just trying to block out the noise and focus on what’s going to be the best spot for me for the next 4-5 years."

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Where his recruitment stands

As mentioned earlier, Gunnerson will officially visit Iowa State June 21-23. He also has an official visit to Nebraska June 14-16. He said he's focusing on those two schools.

But he also said he's still interested in Iowa and is discussing a potential visit there, too. Reese Morgan was Gunnerson's main recruiter, so his retirement was a bump in the road for the Hawkeyes here.

On Iowa State, Gunnerson said: "I have a great relationship with Matt Campbell and (defensive line coach Eli) Rasheed up there. They’re really genuine guys toward me. They’re awesome. Their program is heading in the right direction and it’s nice how it’s just an hour from home. I love it there."

On Nebraska: "Scott Frost, he’s the man. Also (defensive coordinator) Erik Chinander, he does a really good job. I went up there this last weekend; we had a really good defensive line meeting. I learned a lot about positioning and reading the tackle’s knees and stuff like that. So that was awesome. Their facilities and stuff for sure impressed. Lincoln is a great place to be."

On Iowa: "Coach (Kirk) Ferentz, he’s the most genuine guy you’ll meet. When Reese Morgan left, it was a little question mark. But then I have a really good relationship with (defensive line coach Kelvin) Bell, so that’s been great and I’ve been talking to him. Iowa is awesome. You know you have a great shot at going to the pros there. (Strength coach Chris) Doyle will train you up for sure, and Kinnick is a great place to be."

What will impact his decision?

Gunnerson is good friends with Greene County offensive lineman Tyler Miller, an Iowa State recruit, and Cedar Rapids Xavier offensive lineman Josh Volk, an Iowa recruit.

You'd better believe both are trying to get their friend to join them.

Iowa State has been thought to be positioned well for Gunnerson. He lives 15 minutes away from Miller and the two work out together often; they drove together to the North Liberty workout. Ames is about an hour away from Carroll. And Gunnerson's brother, Gage, is a walk-on with the Cyclones.

Still, Blaise has kept things close to the vest.

Any guesses as to where he'll commit are just that — guesses.

"My No. 1 reason (for choosing a school) is having a genuine relationship with the coaching staff," Gunnerson said. "That is very important to me, because when you’re away from home, everybody is a human — you need people around you who are going to support you and not just drill you with football all the time. I’m still a person."

Matthew Bain covers recruiting, Iowa/Iowa State athletics and Drake basketball for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at mbain@dmreg.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.

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