LAWRENCE — By his senior year of high school, Marquel Combs was ready. He’d never played football before. Not in grade school. Not in junior high. Not in any of his first three years at Hamilton High in Memphis, Tenn.
“I just wasn’t really interested in football,” Combs said.
But finally, Combs’ uncle, Mashun Combs, sat his nephew down and offered a simple challenge. Combs was approaching 6 feet 3 and 300 pounds. And he was blessed with the gift of coordination and mobility. He was built like a Hemi-powered truck, but could move like a hare. Football could take him somewhere.
“Try it out,” Combs remembers his uncle saying. “See how you like it. If you do, stick with it. If you don’t, don’t do it.”
More than three years later, the accidental lineman is now the centerpiece of the most unlikely recruiting class in the Big 12. On Wednesday morning, Combs, a defensive tackle from Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif., officially signed his paperwork to play football at Kansas.
Combs, the top-rated junior college recruit according to ESPN’s scouting service, highlights a junior college haul that could be among the deepest in the country. When all the paperwork had been sent in on Wednesday, KU and coach Charlie Weis had officially landed 10 junior college players. Among the names: Former Rockhurst (Mo.) standout defensive back Dexter McDonald, who started his career at KU before leaving last winter and playing this past season at Butler Community College. Combs and his fellow signees will arrive in January and be able to take part in spring football.
The Jayhawks have 14 more verbal commitments, including seven juco players, that are expected to sign in the spring. According to Rivals.com, Kansas’ 2013 class now ranks fifth in the Big 12 and 32nd nationally. And the bulk of that rating comes from Weis’ ability to lure juco talents like Combs to Lawrence.
“It was just the point of fact that Kansas never had a true defensive tackle come through there, a big-name defensive tackle,” Combs said. “I want to set my name in the stone.”
In Combs’ case, the Jayhawks were recruiting a kid that split time at a prep school and Fort Scott Community College in Kansas in 2010-11 before landing at Pierce in 2011.
When Combs arrived in California, Pierce coach Efrain Martinez saw the physical tools. But it wasn’t until Combs’ first game during his freshman season that Martinez knew he’d stumbled onto something special.
“After the first game,” Martinez said, “I said, ‘holy smokes, well, this guy is gonna be phenomenal.’ The movement, the aggression. You could be playing for 10 or 15 years, but if you’re a nice guy, it’s like you haven’t been playing at all.
“But he has a ferociousness that is incredible.”
Combs played as a traditional defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme as a freshman before moving to nose guard in a 3-4 scheme this past season. He finished his sophomore season with 19 tackles, including 71/2 for loss, and two sacks.
Combs’ disruptive style, Martinez said, is close to that of former NFL All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. And just three years after first playing organized football, Combs had close to 50 scholarship offers.
KU and Weis, of course, faced some challenges on this front. While the KU staff put on the full-court press last fall, the Jayhawks were in the midst of a 1-11 season, the third straight year of at least nine losses in Lawrence. Weis attempted to spin the struggles as a positive, selling playing time.
Combs also visited KU alongside Pierce teammate, linebacker Marcus Jenkins-Moore, who would also commit to KU.
“When I went there, you could tell, a lot of kids was hungry,” Combs said. “So I saw that, and then I thought: All they need is a few pieces to at least start to win games. So I thought to myself, I think this is gonna be the spot for me.”
Weis, a savvy marketer himself, found an unlikely ally in Combs, who began to flood his phone contacts and Twitter followers with messages about what he and other juco recruits could build at Kansas. Combs called it the “Dream Team” — or in the world of Twitter and hashtags, #DreamTeam2013.
Soon, the Jayhawks had landed commitments from Garden City receiver Rodriguez Coleman, Fort Scott defensive back Kevin Short and Chris Martin, a four-star defensive end at the City College of San Francisco.
If it seems a little, well, unfitting, for a bunch of junior college recruits to refer to themselves as the Dream Team, maybe that made it all the more appealing to the recruits. At a place like Kansas, they could be the group to help remake a program.
“We’re gonna come in and compete,” Combs said. “That’s the first thing we’re doing. We’re trying to change the face of KU from being a basketball school to be a football school also.”