MANHATTAN — Ask Elijah Lee to explain why he committed to Kansas State and he responds with a long answer.
He talks about the strong engineering program. He mentions Bill Snyder. He points to the football team’s recent bowl trips and Big 12 championship. He brings up the facilities. And he says he feels like part of a family when he steps on campus.
Lee had his choice of regional colleges, receiving interest from Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois and Iowa. But K-State felt like a perfect fit, so he gave the Wildcats an oral commitment in March. Just like that, the 20th-ranked weakside defensive end, according to Rivals.com, had unofficially ended his recruitment. It all seemed so natural.
Still, K-State might have missed out on Lee if not for a new proactive recruiting approach. The Wildcats were one of the first three schools to offer Lee a scholarship. That made all the difference.
"I knew I wanted to make a decision before the summer started, because I wanted to focus on my senior season at Blue Springs (Mo.)," Lee said. "We won state last year. I think we have a pretty good chance of winning state again. I’m confident we can do that.
"That’s kind of why I wanted to get my commitment out of the way, so I can be a big team leader and help my high school do something that has never been done before in football."
In past years, K-State would have likely waited until Lee’s senior year began to make a recruiting push.
Snyder has long valued patience on the recruiting trail, asking his assistant coaches to recommend prospects to coordinators and then personally evaluating each player they approve before deciding on scholarship offers. Often times, he will take a player’s senior season into consideration. Seeing how a recruit develops and handles pressure as a team leader are important factors to Snyder.
That’s why the Wildcats usually have two or three commitments this time of the year.
Now, they have six. With Lee, running back Dalvin Warmack, linebacker Sam Sizelove and offensive lineman Dalton Risner all ranking in Rivals.com’s top 30 at their positions, K-State has the makings of a strong class. Even after Robert Casteneda, a three-star lineman from Round Rock, Texas, switched his commitment to Texas Tech last week.
K-State is clearly taking its new recruiting approach seriously. It has already offered close to 100 scholarships, according to Rivals.com.
“They have a lot of offers out there that they usually don’t have. It’s a significant change,” said Rob Cassidy, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “There are guys in California that have had a K-State offer for four months. They don’t usually offerer that early, but they are hitting it hard early now and the results are showing. They have some good kids.”
When asked his thoughts on K-State’s early commitments, ESPN.com recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree said the Wildcats were “dramatically ahead” of past years, adding they have a “solid early group helping set the stage for a fall run.”
Cassidy thinks Risner, the No. 3-ranked center, is “the jewel of the class so far.” But Lee and Warmack aren’t far behind. Both are considered top players in the Kansas City area.
Snyder doesn’t necessarily like the faster method, but he thinks it is necessary.
"It’s kind of the process," Snyder said last week. "Things have changed so dramatically over the years. Everybody is way ahead of themselves. Young people are making decisions quicker, so consequently they are deciding, some of them, right after or during their junior seasons. It has just turned it upside down.
"There has always kind of been a season for each thing that you do and certain things you do in recruiting kind of come by the season. That has moved ahead six months. It puts everybody where you have to move more rapidly. If you wait until their senior season to see how productive they are, so many of them are gone."
Indeed, several teams are already closing in on 20 commitments. In the Big 12, four teams have 11 or more commitments lined up. Texas and Baylor lead the way with 19 apiece, Texas Tech is next with 14 and Oklahoma State has 11. K-State ranks seventh, along with TCU, with six. Kansas has five.
“They are just now catching up to everyone else,” Cassidy said. “This might be unusual for K-State, but it’s the norm of college football.”
Snyder likes K-State’s progress, but wishes things could be different.
"You have to be awful careful, because when you start taking a lot of guys who haven’t played their senior year you are running a risk," Snyder said. "I don’t like it this way. I don’t think it is fair for the youngsters. I don’t think it is fair for anybody.
"I think it is important to see guys play their senior year, but it’s even more important to be able to get to know each other. The way it is now, you don’t get to know young people and their families as much as you would like and they don’t get to know you as much as they would like."
Of course, early recruiting success eases pressure on coaches as signing day approaches. K-State missed out on targets and lost commits to other school late in the 2013 process, and its recruiting class ranked last in the Big 12, according to most recruiting websites.
The Wildcats were trying to recruit without their top two recruiters – Joe Bob Clements left for Oklahoma State and Michael Smith is now at Arkansas – at that time. They have a full staff now, and are using a more modern approach behind recruiting coordinator Taylor Braet and young assistants Andre Coleman and Blake Seiler that emphasizes social media and a quicker timetable.
Warmack, a Blue Springs running back, says he regularly exchanges Twitter messages with K-State coaches and chats with them on Facebook. He built relationships with them quickly.
He has been a K-State fan for years, and says he can’t wait to play alongside Lee, and, possibly, another high school teammate. K-State coaches have also shown interest in Blue Springs defensive back Kaleb Prewett.
Warmack liked that K-State recruited him early, and he was impressed by the program’s recent success, but Warmack wasn’t sold until he met Snyder and realized he was the type of coach who genuinely wanted Warmack to succeed as a high school senior before becoming a college freshman. It was a refreshing combination of modern and traditional recruiting styles.
"Coach Snyder is a legend and one of the best to ever coach the game," Warmack said. "He’s a brilliant man, and it’s obvious his whole entire staff really cares about what they do. Coach Snyder wanted to get to know me. He wanted to know about my family. A lot of coaches don’t take the time to ask those questions. He did. I really respect that."