Darrian Miller is a Kansas football player now, living away from his family for the first time as an early signee in Lawrence and enjoying what college life has to offer. But it was only a few months ago that Miller, a standout running back at Blue Springs High, was listening to what other schools had to offer.
Miller, Rivals.com's No. 1 overall recruit in Missouri and a four-star prospect, originally committed to KU in March of 2010 during his junior year. But in June, he decommitted from the Jayhawks because he wanted to make sure he didn't rush his decision. That led to months of flirtation with big-time football schools like Oklahoma, Iowa and Wisconsin, and the scoop he was hearing about Kansas wasn't flattering — especially after the Jayhawks finished 3-9.
Miller says schools tried to use KU's struggles in Turner Gill's first season as a reason for him to go elsewhere.
"That happened a couple of times," Miller said with a chuckle. "But when I was talking to (KU running backs) coach (Reggie) Mitchell, he said he knew that some schools would say stuff like that. He said, 'Hey, if a school wants to talk bad about Kansas, obviously they're not selling you on the positives about their school.’æ”
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Miller's relationship with Mitchell and Gill continued to strengthen, and Miller followed through on his original decision to sign with Kansas and enroll for the spring semester. Today, on National Signing Day, Miller and fellow early signees Brock Berglund (quarterback out of Highlands Ranch, Colo.) and Dylan Admire (offensive lineman out of Blue Valley West) will be joined by 23 other prospects who will join them in June as Gill's first full recruiting class at KU.
As of Tuesday night, KU's 2011 class was ranked 33rd nationally and fifth in the Big 12 by Rivals.com. Gill vowed that he was going to recruit at a high level, and pulling in a respectable class after a disastrous 2010 season appears to be a key step.
"It's a great class for being 3-9," said Jon Kirby, who covers KU football recruiting for Rivals.com. "It's also a good class for someone who's 8-4 or 9-3. If you look at the overall national rankings, there are a lot of teams that went to bowl games that are actually behind them. I think that's as much as you could have ever hoped for a class coming off those circumstances."
So how did Gill and his staff do it? Kirby says that parents have bought into Gill's positive coaching philosophy and his greater vision to help develop young men into good citizens.
But those ideals didn't stop Kansas from plundering other schools' recruiting classes. Mesquite (Texas) wide receiver JaCorey Shepherd was a one-time Iowa commitment, and Berglund, who is expected to compete right away for the starting quarterback spot, was all set to sign with Colorado until former CU coach Dan Hawkins was fired.
"Berglund was a true steal," Kirby said.
From the sound of it, Gill was heavily involved in putting this class together. Kirby says that Gill visited every player who committed to Kansas at the kid's home or school.
In the case of La Mirada (Calif.) offensive lineman Bryan Peters, who was also offered by Florida State, Gill stopped by to see him in December. Peters had given his pledge to Kansas long ago at that point, but Gill still took the time to go to a steakhouse with Peters and his family.
"That was a lot of fun," Peters said. "To come all the way out and see a committed recruit, not a guy that you're trying to woo to come to your school, that showed a lot."
Gill snagged Arlington (Texas) offensive lineman Damon Martin — one of six much-needed KU commitments at that position — with the same method. Martin chose Kansas over Utah and Arizona, among others.
"He seemed to be a really caring person," Martin said. "Other coaches seemed to care about the program. He seemed to care more about the people, the players."
Gill's program may have stumbled out of the gate, but he's convinced KU's class of 2011 that they will be headed for prominence as Jayhawks.
"That was the basic motive behind it," Miller said. "Just kind of hopping in, wanting to be another piece of the puzzle, trying to turn it back around. I feel like that's where we're going."