Iowa and Nebraska are consensus preseason top 15 teams entering this season. They are predicted to compete for conference championships and, at the very least, secure bowl berths.
Kansas is coming off a 5-7 season in which just about everything went wrong. It has a new coach, a new group of assistants and a new strength and conditioning staff. There is no proof that success is on the horizon.
So last weekend when KU coach Turner Gill nabbed oral commitments from Mesquite (Texas) wide receiver JaCorey Shepherd, formerly committed to the Hawkeyes, and Blue Valley West offensive guard Dylan Admire, formerly committed to the Cornhuskers, it signified much more than a good recruiting day.
"That's the single biggest day of the year," said Jon Kirby, who covers KU football recruiting for Rivals.com. "These guys are committed to Iowa and Nebraska, who have a foundation set in their program. Yet these players decide to switch their commitment to Kansas, who hasn't done a lot of those things yet."
When Gill was hired, he made it clear that recruiting was going to be one of his top priorities, and KU athletic director Lew Perkins said he thought Gill could find his way into any recruit's home. With Shepherd and Admire on board, Gill already has 15 commitments for the Class of 2011.
"It's rare to see this because these kids are committing basically based on what they've been sold by the staff," Kirby said. "KU's yet to play a game. They've yet to take a snap on offense. They haven't shown what they're going to do defensively. Recruits like to see that before they commit somewhere."
To give Gill all of the credit for an impressive start in recruiting would be a great disservice to the staff that he's put together. Gill hired notable recruiters Darrell Wyatt and Reggie Mitchell to coach wide receivers and running backs, respectively, and the names Chuck Long (KU's offensive coordinator) and Carl Torbush (defensive coordinator) mean a lot to high-school coaches all over the country.
Gill has set Wyatt, formerly the offensive coordinator at Southern Mississippi, loose on the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Wyatt was the lead recruiter for Shepherd, a three-star prospect rated the No. 64 receiver in the country by Rivals.com.
"We pretty much have every college in the country come through here, and (Wyatt) is one of the most impressive _ if not the most impressive _ recruiter that comes through," said Rodney Webb, Shepherd's coach at Mesquite Horn High, "just in terms of the way he conducts himself, the way he handles himself around coaches and kids. I would want to play for him."
Gill may not have any proven track record at Kansas, but his effort to build a program at Buffalo has resonated.
"Fairly remarkable," Webb said. "That was a program that nobody ever even heard of. I couldn't have told you if Buffalo had a football team before he got there. Getting them to the level he got them, I was excited when Kansas hired him as their next head coach."
Shepherd said that he preferred playing in the Big 12 to the Big Ten so that his family could see him play more often. Conference affiliation was even more of a factor for Admire, who thought he was going to play in the Big 12 at Nebraska and soon found out that he would be playing conference games in outposts like State College, Pa., and East Lansing, Mich., after the Huskers bolted for the Big Ten.
"I've lived in KC since I was 6, lived in Missouri before that. I've always been a Big 12 person," Admire said. "I want my friends and family to be able to come watch me. I was definitely a little upset when that happened."
In the days after Admire committed to KU, he suddenly had an influx of new Facebook friends. They just happened to be fellow future Jayhawks like himself.
"They found me on Facebook," Admire said, "and I sent them friend requests, too. I want to get acquainted with them as soon as possible. They're all so excited. They all love the coaches, how genuine they are. They just love the program and where it's going."