At one point last year, I asked Mack Brown to talk about the differences in recruiting profiles between Texas and Kansas State. He declined to comment on it, instead stating "I think we both get great players." His statement is undoubtedly true, though I think it's pretty interesting to look at how each team's specific sausage is made. The process of getting said great players is different at Texas than it is at Kansas State, so much so that they could be considered opposites.
Kansas State's process is one that Brown knows fairly well. While he currently sits in the driver's seat of one of America's most powerful recruiting universities — some have suggested Texas's current class is a "down" one, and it's currently ranked third nationally per Scout.com — Brown served as an assistant at Iowa State for three years, and he's spent time in the past talking about how difficult it was to recruit to Ames.
Now, look at Kansas State, a program that, when Snyder took over, was considered the worst in all of FBS. That seems like a stretch now, but in Snyder's first year, 1989, Sports Illustrated published a piece called "Futility U," describing the Wildcats' plight at the bottom of football. When Snyder accepted that head coaching job, the Wildcats had been to just one bowl game in its history, and had just two winning seasons in the previous 34 years. Looking for conference titles? K-State had last won one in 1934. Looking for a win, period? At the time of Snyder's hiring, K-State was 0-26-1 in its previous 27 games.
In stepped Snyder with his 16 Goals For Success, something that has become such a major part of Kansas State culture that the goals are linked to on the Wildcats' website. Perhaps the most driving was No. 11 — "Don't accept losing" — but Snyder's "Consistency" comment comes straight from Goal No. 14. And No. 4, "Improve," speaks to the Wildcats mining everywhere, and I mean everywhere, for talent.
Last season, Kansas State had one of the Big 12's top defenses, despite not having a traditional access point for talent. The state of Kansas only produces 10-15 FBS kids annually, with many of the top players going out-of-state, and the rest split between schools like Kansas, K-State and Missouri. Where Kansas DOES produce big-time talent is in the JUCO system. Some of the best JUCO ball in the country is played in the state of Kansas, with schools like Butler County Community College has played for four JUCO national titles since 2007. Fort Scott played for another, and Garden City and Coffeyville, among others, are known for churning out BCS level players.
Those were some of the ties that Snyder exploited his first go-round, but they became more difficult as more schools became aware of the great talent on the Great Plains. Jason Pierre-Paul might have been a Wildcat 10 years earlier. In fact, the Wildcats earned his final visit. But Pierre-Paul also had offers from Arizona, Florida, LSU and Nebraska, and he chose South Florida, becoming a first-round NFL Draft pick after his time with the Bulls. Fort Scott teammate Lavonte David picked Nebraska over Kansas State and went on to become a tackling machine.
That's not to say that Kansas State can't recruit the in-state JUCOs. A quick look at the commitment list shows that four-star JUCO linebacker Dvonta Derricott is committed to the Wildcats, from Garden City. And last year's star defensive ends, Meshak Williams and Adam Davis came via Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, combining for 27.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks, the most of any Big 12 duo.
But Kansas State did have to widen its search to bring in top talent. The Wildcats became a haven for transfer players like Chris Harper and Arthur Brown, while the JUCO search included more stops way off the beaten path. Ever heard of Mount San Antonio College? Here's a hint … it's not in Texas. It's actually in Walnut, Calif., and it's where the Wildcats went to find last year's starting defensive tackle Vai Lutui, a key part of the Wildcats' run defense. In fact, as Kansas State's need to stretch recruiting has grown, the Wildcats have combed the Texas and California junior colleges, while sliding into Iowa for their current quarterback, Jake Waters. The Wildcats' fullback, Glenn Gronkowski, the brother of Patriots star Rob, came from Williamsville, N.Y., hardly a hotbed of recruiting talent, and hardly an area of serious recruiting prowess for Kansas State.
They hit the JUCO ranks very hard, and they do a really good job of evaluating talent in-state that others wouldn't," said Scout.com National Recruiting Analyst Greg Powers. "Many times, those guys turn out to be decent players. They do a very thorough jobs of fitting those guys into their schemes, and they get that leg up when it comes to coaching. They get them in and coach them up."
Powers's point about taking unwanted, and under-scouted, players and making them fit is well-taken. Collin Klein was actually a Ron Prince recruit, but he emerged after finding a very specific role under Snyder. Current All-Big 12 safety Ty Zimmerman was a grayshirt candidate at quarterback before moving over. All-Big 12 offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas didn't have any other BCS offers. And that's just one example. Especially in his second go-round, Snyder has excelled with lightly recruited players, imperfect gems that he was able to find a role for.
"I think it's important to get that right fit, with the JUCO guys they recruit most specifically, because you don't have as much time with them in your program," Powers said. "You need them to come in and fit what you want them to do and play how you want them to play. You can't take a 3-4 end when you run a 4-3. You need somebody who can plug right in and make an immediate impact.
"They need those guys to come in and bolster their roster right away," Powers said. "You can't afford to have as many misses as Kansas State as you could have at other places."
And don't forget about the Wildcats' walk-on program. When Kansas State beat Texas in Austin in 2007, they did so with three former walk-ons playing major roles — current NFL wideout Jordy Nelson, All-Big 12 pass-rusher Ian Campbell and safety Marcus Watts. This year's Kansas State defense enters Austin with four starters who began their careers as walk-ons, while All-Big 12 candidate B.J. Finney, Kansas State's center, was a non-scholarship player.
A coaching friend once said that at the big-time recruiting powers, coaches can find, and land, that 240-pound linebacker who runs 4.65 seconds. When you're at a place like Kansas State? "You have to choose," he said. Do you want the guy who is 240 pounds who can knock heads against the run? Or do you want the guy who can run 4.65? True, Kansas State can find some of the big-time talents via the JUCO system. But more often, they have to choose, and must — to quote 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' — "choose wisely."
Obviously, things are different at Texas. Recruiting comes quite a bit easier with a Longhorn on your coaches' polo shirts, and it certainly comes easier with a location right smack-dab in the middle of a brilliant hotbed of talent, one in which many kids grew up "wanting to be Longhorns." It's a totally different situation.
"Texas kind of gets to pick and choose a lot of the time who they want," Powers said. "They can dictate what their recruiting profile is year-to-year, and they can pick off a lot of the best athletes in the state and go from there.
"I think that Texas is always going to be a recruiting power," Powers said. "A lot of kids dream about playing for Texas or Texas A&M, and it's natural for them to stay at home and represent one of those two schools. That's always a recruiting advantage, no matter who the coach is. They're smack dab in the middle of a state full of talent, and they're in a city that people love to be in, in Austin, which is a neat town and a young town. There are a lot of recruiting draws for Texas, which is why they're perennially near the top of the recruiting rankings."
Not that Texas's position doesn't come with challenges as well. Getting first pick, especially when it comes to 16-or-17-year-olds, isn't always all that it's cracked up to be.
Take the class of 2011. The top receiver in the state was Trey Metoyer, who chose Oklahoma. The No. 2 wide receiver was Jaxon Shipley. It's hard to fault the Longhorns for getting Shipley, who has most certainly been a hit during his time in Austin. But way, way down the food chain in that recruiting class was Mike Evans, a player that Scout.com ranked as the No. 194 wideout nationally. If re-ranking that trio right now, Evans would probably be No. 1, with Shipley No. 2 and Metoyer No. 3. That's the point: the Aggies got third choice — ask Mike Sherman which of the three he would have taken out of high school with first choice, and no way it's Evans — and wound up with the likely best player.
For its part, Texas passed on Metoyer, but took Shipley. And again, it's not like Shipley's a bust. But when you have first choice, you're expected to land the best player. If you pick first, and get the second, or third-best player, people are always going to spend their time focusing on "the one you missed on." David Ash vs. Johnny Manziel is another example. Texas could have had either, and picked Ash. And the Longhorn quarterback had a pretty strong second year on campus, finishing in the top 25 in passing efficiency. But at the same time, Manziel lit the college football world on fire and won the Heisman Trophy in his second season.
Does it really matter, at this point, if Ash is a hit? At least from a perception standpoint, Texas "missed" on Manziel. Even if Ash becomes an All-Big 12 player, he'll still be measured against every other in-state quarterback in that class, and that includes Manziel, a Heisman winner and an All-American. The point, again, is that even when Texas makes a great evaluation, it doesn't matter. The Longhorns must make THE RIGHT evaluation, and that means landing the best player, period. And as we've seen with Manziel, among others, often that just isn't as clear-cut as we'd like it to be.
Kansas State is freed from that kind of pressure. Snyder doesn't constantly have to look over his shoulder, or answer questions about why he passed on one player and took another. It's a different kind of evaluation pressure. Sure, Texas may have a chance at a more talented pool of players. But Snyder can carry out his recruiting in relative peace.
That also speaks to the competition they face for recruits. Yes, Texas has an increased chance to land four-and-five-star kids. But the Longhorns must go to battle with some of the strongest regional and national recruiting powers to get those players. Shoot … look at the SLEEPERS in Texas's current class. Jason Hall had offers from Nebraska and Oklahoma. Dorian Leonard was a tough pull from the Sooners. And Jermaine Roberts had offers from Alabama, LSU and Michigan, among others. Those are for the supposed bottom players in the Texas class.
To his credit, Brown has shown a willingness to adjust. I remember at one press conference in 2010, the week after Texas Tech defensive end Scott Smith had a huge game against the Longhorns, making six tackles, three for loss, two sacks, forcing a fumble and picking off a pass. Brown asked the throng of reporters where Smith came from, and when one of the reporters mentioned that he was a JUCO player, Brown somewhat dismissed it out of hand, like that was a market the Longhorns wouldn't tap into.
Fast forward a year, and with Brown's new staff, and its connections to the junior college ranks, he was able to bring in two immediate impact JUCO transfers in Donald Hawkins and Brandon Moore. A year later came Desmond Harrison and Geoff Swaim, and Texas has a commitment from JUCO tight end John Thomas for 2014. While Texas will never mine the JUCOs the way that Kansas State does, Brown appears to have found the value in cherry-picking the junior colleges to fill gaps. That's a strategy that other so-called powers (with the exception of schools like Stanford and Notre Dame) have exploited, previously. And while many schools have drastic hit/miss rates with junior college players, every junior college player Texas has landed in the past few classes has been a contributor.
And while the Longhorns were later to the player personnel department party than several other schools, it's worth noting how inspired Brown's selection of director Patrick Suddes was. Thanks in large part to Suddes and a re-channeled recruiting effort, the Longhorns sit in an enticing spot for many top 2015 recruits, with Texas already landing one of the top five in-state players in that class, along with eight 2015 commitments total.
That, too, stands in direct contrast to Snyder's typical strategy of waiting longer in the process to extend offers, allowing for more evaluation time.
"I know this isn't totally the case, but I can tell you that Texas probably has almost as many commitments (8) in 2015 as Kansas State has in 2014 (14)," Powers said. "So to say that Kansas State and Texas are different is a huge understatement. You could probably call them polar opposites.
"Kansas State is so focused on who can fit into its schemes, and Texas is able to work ahead so much further," Powers said. "It's just a completely different beast. Texas wants to get the best athletes, and they don't necessarily worry as much about fit, whereas Kansas State goes after the more college-ready kind of guys. They really are complete opposites."