As in many walks of life, the path to college football recruiting success starts from the inside.
Before a program can land big-name recruits from far-away destinations, it must first sign the best players from its own state.
It’s a challenge Kansas and Kansas State have faced for years. Sure, the Sunflower State will never be on par with Texas in terms of overall prospects, but coaches say signing the Division I scholarship players that come out of local high schools each year is pivotal for both programs.
Thing is, they aren’t the only two teams that view the Sunflower State as home recruiting ground anymore. In recent years, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have repeatedly looked to Kansas. Though KU and K-State still land the bulk of local talent, they face more competition than ever to sign the state’s top ranked players.
“Most of our success has come from Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, because of all the numbers,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said last week at Big 12 Media Days. “We have tried going to Atlanta some, too, but those are our main areas. Kansas, and Wichita in particular, is important. Your Kansas schools comb the state. Very rarely do they overlook somebody good. But nationally, there are great players who are overlooked in Kansas.”
According to the Rivals.com national recruiting database, the Sunflower State has produced 74 scholarship Division I players since 2008. During that span, K-State has signed 23 of them out of high school, more than any other program, and gained four more via transfer. Kansas is second with 18 signees and one more via transfer. It drops off significantly after that. Oklahoma is next with six, while Oklahoma State has signed four. But when the Sooners and Cowboys land Kansas high school recruits, they are usually big names.
Thirteen in-state recruits have carried elite rankings of four stars or higher over the past five years. Oklahoma snagged four of them, including Bishop Carroll standout Blake Bell, who is the favorite to start at quarterback this season. Oklahoma State signed two, including Wichita native Joseph Randle, a former four-star recruit who just finished a stellar three-year run at Oklahoma State and is now a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
K-State has signed two out of high school – reserve running back DeMarcus Robinson and freshman Tanner Wood – but gained three more via transfer. Former five-star standouts Arthur Brown and Bryce Brown chose Miami and Tennessee, respectively, before transferring to K-State and moving on to the NFL. Chris Harper, a former four-star recruit, transferred in from Oregon.
McPherson’s Tyler Matthews ended up at TCU. Gardner’s Bubba Starling committed to Nebraska, but chose baseball and signed a lucrative contract with the Kansas City Royals instead.
Kansas hasn’t signed any top-rated recruits from its own state since 2008, but will welcome receiver Justin McCay to the field this season. McCay was a four-star recruit at Bishop Miege who transferred from Oklahoma.
Big things are expected of McCay this season, but KU coach Charlie Weis wishes he had more players of McCay’s caliber on the roster. At Big 12 Media Days, Weis said he needed to upgrade talent levels and depth at every position other than running back.
Last year, he tried doing that with a record number of junior-college transfers. Now, he wants to focus on high school seniors, and the search starts close to home. Weis is tired of watching in-state recruits go elsewhere. He wants to start winning the Sunflower State. Getting a commitment from Gardner running back Traevohn Wrench, a four-star target, was a nice start.
“We have some early commitments for next year from in-state and within the area. That is much better than where we were last year,” Weis said. “I think it is imperative to be able to get the home-grown talent to want to play for your school, because they are going to have the most pride.
“When your program has been downtrodden and not winning, one of the best things is getting guys who want to prove everyone wrong. Whether it is bringing in the junior college guys or some local kids who want to say, ‘Hey, we can play some football, too.’ It’s a good place to start.”
Weis has tried to boost in-state recruiting since arriving on campus.
“One thing you have to do is be visible,” Weis said. “One thing I did last January was go into as many high schools as I could get into, even the ones that didn’t have players, because the coaches have to feel like you want to recruit the local guys and see that you’re not going to run down to Texas without taking care of players in your own state.”
K-State has long succeeded with players from its home state. Not just scholarship players, either. The Wildcats have won with walk-ons such as Jordy Nelson, Jon McGraw, Joe Bob Clements and current center B.J. Finney.
K-State coach Bill Snyder wants to win the battles for high-profile prospects and discover overlooked talent.
“It is very meaningful to me,” Snyder said. “There is probably not a day that goes by that I don’t address that very issue in staff meetings. What have you done today in regards to being able to find those people like B.J. Finney or Jon McGraw or Jordy Nelson? All those guys were out there. What have you done to find those guys?
“Now, it’s harder today. So much of it is out in cyberspace. You have all the recruiting deals. There aren’t any hidden guys. That doesn’t mean there aren’t guys out there that we see and have the qualities that we want when other programs don’t. That makes them more attractive to us.”
Snyder thinks Kansas high school practice restrictions mean the Sunflower State produces football players capable of making the jump from unsung high school player to college star. In certain states, high school athletes can participate in some form of organized football nearly year-round. That is not the case in Kansas.
When given extra time to improve with deferred enrollment or a redshirt year, Snyder has found difference-making talent in his own backyard.
“Some of their development might be a little bit delayed,” Snyder said. “Coming out of high school they might have had 200 days of practice and been on a steady incline of improvement. With 500 more days of improvement they are going to stay on that incline and you are going to like the end result. But you have to have the right young guys who want to do that and can make sacrifices to do that.”
Whether you’re trying to find an under-recruited gem or a land a hyped prospect, recruiting in the state of Kansas is only getting harder.
Peyton Newell, a three-star defensive end from Hiawatha, received nearly 40 offers and is choosing between Nebraska, South Carolina, Kansas and K-State. Deandre Goolsby, a four-star tight end out of Derby, has attracted the attention of Ohio State, Florida and Oregon to go along with nearby schools Oklahoma, Kansas and K-State. Alabama has offered Braden Smith, a four-star offensive lineman from Olathe South.
“It’s not easy to get (to Kansas),” Gundy said. “You fly into Kansas City and you are in Missouri. There is no other airport. Wichita isn’t as big. You don’t get the same amount of traffic, because it is hard to get in and out of. But there are plenty of good players there.”
More and more coaches are looking past the state’s population and location to see the talented football players who reside within. National programs are adding competition. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State want to bring the best players south.
All while Kansas and K-State fight to succeed from the inside, and keep those players close to home.