Though his season ended in a surprising and forgettable fashion last Friday at the hands of powerhouse Bellevue in the Class 3A semifinals of the Washington state high school playoffs, Kellen Kiilsgaard has been an otherworldly performer for a dominant Auburn (Wash.) Senior High School program this year. To say that he has "done it all" in carrying the Trojans to their 12-1 record and 31-point average margin of victory is not an overstatement. The 6'2" uberathlete has passed, run, tackled, punted and kicked at an elite level, earning him a four-star rating by Scout.com and widespread praise as the best of the best in the Evergreen State this year.
Nobody appreciates and understands Stanford's newest commit better than Auburn Senior head coach Gordon Elliott, who had the pleasure and gathered a unique perspective coaching Kiilsgaard during his high school career. We caught up with the coach yesterday just before the news broke on Kiilsgaard's Cardinal commitment, while a snowstorm shut down schools in Auburn for a day.
"He's a big play high school performer and just had a great career with us," Elliott begins. "As a starting quarterback, our teams were 21-3. Two of those losses were playoff losses. In just the regular season, he's been hard to beat and just a great leader for us. He started, actually, three years for us at free safety and was at quarterback for two. He does a lot of things for us. He has been an all-league punter for us for three years. This year he had to take over the placekicking duties when another guy got hurt. He kicked close to 60 extra points for us this year and a field goal, though he had never done it before. He was our kickoff guy and sent several kickoffs into the endzone this season. He can do some good things."
Though he caught many recruiters' eyes as a safety prospect, with longer demonstrated ability at the position, Kiilsgaard this fall captured the imagination of observers in-state for his dual-threat quarterbacking feats.
"In our offense, we are not set up to be a great passing team," Elliott explains. "We throw the ball, and he was really successful throwing the ball, but we're not a 'drop back and throw 25 or 30 times a game' team like some people. His passing statistics don't sound good, but he was very productive throwing the ball when we needed to over the last couple of years."
"Where he has really been effective has been running the football," the coach continues. "He has rushed really close to 1,000 yards each of the last two years, on not very many carries as a quarterback. But we have some plays designed for him to run the football, and he does a really good job. He scored 23 or 24 touchdowns this year and 16 or 17 last year, so he has scored quite a few touchdowns over the last couple years rushing. This year he averaged right around eight yards a carry, before that last game. That last game wasn't good for him or for our team. He has had several good runs for us. He's just a really good overall offensive player and obviously one of the best athletes in our state."
Kiilsgaard singlehandedly took over games in his senior season at quarterback, as a veritable one-man show. The question on the minds of Cardinal fans today, though, is how he projects playing under center at the next level in the Pac-10.
"Today in college football, everybody would like to have a mobile quarterback. That really puts pressure on defenses," Elliott offers. "He is obviously a very mobile quarterback. With his size at 217 pounds, he's also physical enough to withstand some of running that a quarterback would have to do in college. The four schools he had narrowed to were all recruiting him at quarterback first. I think they all think he has the skills to be a quarterback."
But the initial allure of Kiilsgaard as a playmaking safety on defense has not gone away, despite those offensive feats.
"In any program at quarterback, one guy is the guy. It's not like other positions. And [college coaches] all know that it's a win-win situation because if he is good enough to be their quarterback, then that's great and he has those skills," Elliott says. "If for whatever reason, there are other quarterbacks in the system who were as good as Kellen or better, then he could probably immediately help the defensive side of the ball at any of those schools. That's probably the biggest recruiting benefit for Kellen to those programs: they know that he is going to play. It's just a matter of where he is going to help their program the most. He's not going to languish on the bench - he's going to be able to contribute somewhere with his athleticism."
The statistics and highlight video clips that have grabbed the imagination of fans up and down the Pac-10 this year are focused on the plays he makes on offense, running or throwing the ball. Kiilsgaard's size coupled with that special athleticism is what also makes him one of the best safety prospects in the nation this year.
"He's 217 pounds, which is pretty good size for a safety, and he can run. He runs a 4.5 40. Physically he has the skills that a safety needs," Elliott describes. "He's aggressive; he comes up and tackles. Sometimes people think of the free safety as the little guy who sits back in centerfield and doesn't get involved very much. In our system, our free safety is in on a lot of tackles, and we expect him to be a primary run defender also. He has to have the ability to diagnose quickly if it's pass or run, read keys and those types of things. Over the last three years, he has done a great job of that. He has been involved in a lot of tackles, plus he's been back to defend the pass. He can play the centerfield-type role, but he can also come up and be a physical presence on the line of scrimmage."
"Again, when you talk about college football today with what people are doing, you need safeties who can do both. You can't be just a deep guy, or just be a guy who defends the run but can't defend the pass because of all the spread offenses," Kiilsgaard's coach opines. "He is one of those hybrid kids who is big enough to be a linebacker but fast enough to play safety. In college defenses today, that kind of player is a premium type player."
With Kellen Kiilsgaard's senior season and prep career now closed, the next obvious question on the minds of coaches and fans alike on The Farm is how ready the Auburn athlete might be to play next fall as a true freshman. It is well known the holes and needs Stanford has at a number of positions - can Kiilsgaard step in and immediately help?
"I would think, just from pure physical size, strength and speed, he's ready," Elliott answers. "A lot of it will be determined, like any freshman, by who is already there in the program at his position. At quarterback, our system isn't a college-style passing system, so he's probably not ready to step right in as a quarterback. Although, rarely are kids even who have played in that type of system ready to play quarterback at that level. From a quarterback standpoint, he's like any good high school quarterback - it's going to be a couple-year process for him to really be ready to operate efficiently at that level as a quarterback. I think as a safety, though, physically he is probably ready right now, if there were a need in that program and that was the best position for him. Then, he probably could play early there."
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