Hey y’all, I’m back to talk some football recruiting.
First off, things are obviously wonky with recruiting (and life in general) this year. Until campus opens back up, I expect it to be slow going for the Wildcats. Manhattan is a place you need to see, and I’m guessing not many people outside of the region can find it on a map (I know I couldn’t when we moved from Texas).
I see Manhattan as a plus in recruiting. It’s a nice town, and not as isolated or rural as some would have you believe, but to understand that, you kind of need to check it out. That means the staff is in a better position with players that have made it to campus already, than with guys they are offering now. That’s the way it’s going to be for most non-blueblood programs this year.
While things are somewhat on hold with high school recruiting, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at how the Klieman staff has utilized the transfer portal and junior college transfers to fill in holes in the roster while giving his young players a chance to mature, while at the same time, balancing class sizes and opening up scholarships for later recruiting classes.
Immediate roster needs are the first thing the staff had to identify. What positions need help right now? Where are the holes in the roster that need to be fortified immediately. For teams like K-State, these are positions you fill with JuCo players or carve out a roster spot for a graduate transfer.
Once you’ve built up your program, with your recruits, you should start to ween yourself off the JuCo and Grad Transfer quick fixes, because you’ve built a strong talent base in your program and you’ve developed your players. That usually happens when you’re four or five recruiting classes into a rebuild. The Wildcats aren’t at that point yet, and won’t be for another couple classes.
Another benefit of bringing in transfers and JuCo players is that in general, they are only a two-year scholarship commitment, as opposed to the five-year commitment most high school recruits will be for Kansas State. In theory, recruiting should improve incrementally. The 2020 class should be better than 2019 class, and the 2019 class was better than the 2018 class. When you bring in a large number of freshmen, you risk either eating up future scholarships for more talented players, or having to do significant roster culling in the future. I don’t like either of those options. Bringing in short term players keeps your freshmen classes manageable and frees up spots in future classes, where (in theory) you have the time to develop better relationships and recruit on the strength of a string of winning seasons.
The coaching staff did an excellent job in the inaugural 2019 class of filling some immediate roster needs. The staff went two-for-two at running back, as James Gilbert and Jordon Brown were both impact players in their only season.
Marcus Hayes, the transfer from New Mexico, was a miss, but it was worth the gamble. Hayes flashed as a kick returner and safety at New Mexico as a redshirt freshman, leading the NCAA in yards per punt return and turning in solid work in the back end of the defense. He is the type of high upside transfer that you look for. It didn’t work out with Marcus but it didn’t cost Kansas State anything to bring him into the fold.
I was a bit surprised the staff only brought in one Junior College transfer in the 2019 class, but the one player the brought in, Jonathan Alexander, was a solid pick up. He played in all 12 regular season games and provided solid depth in the secondary. He will be an important piece of the 2020 defense as well. That’s exactly what you’re looking for in a junior college transfer. He made an impact you weren’t going to get with a 3-star high school recruit.
One aspect the offense in 2019 desperately needed was a pass catching tight end. Nick Lenners was excellent in his role as H-back, but the lack of a true receiving threat at the tight end position was noticeable. Sammy Wheeler looked promising and played an important role in the upset of Oklahoma, but then blew out his knee against Kansas. Subsequently, an instant impact receiving tight end was needed immediately. Enter Briley Moore-McKinney.
Moore-McKinney, a native of Blue Springs, Missouri should be a crucial addition to the 2020 roster. As a recruit, he was a 6’3, 215 pound receiver, as a graduate transfer, he’s a 6’3, 250 pound receiving tight end, and was considered one of the best tight ends in the FCS. As a junior, he caught 39 passes for 536 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was considered one of the best NFL draft prospects in FCS in 2019, but suffered a season ending shoulder injury in the season opener against Iowa State. Northern Iowa’s loss was Kansas State’s gain. He took a red shirt, graduated, and has the potential to be one of the better tight ends in the Big 12 if his shoulder is right.
Another position the coaching staff needed to reinforce coming into the 2020 season was corner. The starters appear to be set with Wayne Jones, and AJ Parker at corner and Jahron McPherson at nickle. After those three, however, experienced drops off. Lance Robinson looks promising, but bringing in another guy with experience was vital with Parker coming off a season ending foot injury...foot injuries always make me nervous. The coaching staff found perfect player to fill that role with Kiondre Thomas.
Thomas, although not a full time starter for the Gophers, has played a ton of snaps over his 4 year (he redshirted as a freshman) career in Minneapolis. Over the last 3 seasons, he’s started 11 games, made 75 tackles, and snagged an interception. Last year he started 4 games for the Golden Gophers, made 22 tackles, defended 3 passes, and had an interception. I don’t think Thomas is a star, but he’s a solid player that should be able to provide the Wildcats with a 3rd option at corner. That helps in the short term, and should also help in the long term, because it gives 2020 recruits Tee Denson and TJ Smith the opportunity to redshirt and mature.
Finally, the 2020 class essentially picked up a free 3-star recruit with the transfer of safety Hunter Henry from Rice. I’m not sure I like Henry as a scholarship transfer addition, but I love him as a walk-on. He was a low 3-star coming out of Texas powerhouse Lake Travis High School when he signed with Rice. He took a redshirt last season at Rice and then made the move to Kansas State. He’ll sit out 2020 and be ready to contribute in 2021 as a Sophomore. He’ll get a year of practice squad duty to prove it on the field, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see him on scholarship sooner rather than later.
What the 2019 lacked in junior college reinforcements, the 2020 class made up for in spades.
The first spot that needed shoring up was defensive tackle. Drew Wiley was the only senior defensive tackle on the roster. Eli Huggins was the only junior defensive tackle on the roster. Jaylen Pickle was the only sophomore defensive tackle on the roster. The defensive front was in desperate need of help at the 3-technique defensive tackle position, and the staff signed two junior college players to help fill that role.
I love the fact that the new coaching staff circled back and signed Derick Newton after he was originally a member of the K-State 2018 class, and redshirt his freshman season, but ended up at Butler CC for the 2019 season after struggles with the previous coaching staff caused an early departure from Manhattan. Newton is an intriguing prospect as a defensive tackle. First off, I have no idea how much he weights. When he signed with K-State he was listed at 280, but the official spring roster has him listed at 6’1, 265. Either way, he projects as an active 3-technique defensive tackle in the defensive scheme. He’ll line up next to a larger nose tackle and look to penetrate the offensive line and create chaos in the backfield. He was a tackling and sack machine at Coffee High school, finishing his senior season with 93 tackles and 11 sacks. He also excelled as a wrestler in high school, finishing 3rd in the state as a Junior. That’s a perfect mix for a 3 tech defensive tackle. As an added bonus, Newton comes with Sophomore eligibility, giving him 3 years of eligibility.
In addition to Newton, the staff signed Robert Hentz, a 6’1, 270 defensive tackle out of Northwest Mississippi CC. Hentz was considered one of the top junior college defensive tackle prospects in the country after putting up 44 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks in 2019. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hentz start at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot next to Drew Wiley. Jordan Mittie picked up 5.5 tackles for loss last season and I think you’ll see Hentz pick up the production from that spot in 2020. It’s clear that coaching staff wanted to add some juice to the interior rush, and did so with Hentz and Newton.
Moving out a spot on the defensive line, the staff also went searching for defensive end reinforcements in the 2020 class. Wyatt Hubert is the obvious star at defensive end, but with Reggie Walker graduating, there weren’t many experienced options to pair with Hubert on the 2020 roster. Senior Chris Dugan is an interesting prospect, but has only played three games in his two years in Manhattan after an injury in fall practice ended his 2019 campaign before it started. Senior Bronson Massie will see plenty of playing time, and should compete for a starting role this year. Reed Godinet, a walk-on and younger brother of Taylor Godinet (and a nephew of Junior Seau), is the only junior on the roster.
In order to fix the hole at defensive end in the junior class, Klieman brought in Kirmani Gainous from Hutchinson CC and Tyrone Taleni from Mt. San Antonio College. Gainous was considered one of the Top 10 junior college defensive ends in the nation, and at 6’3, 250 brings a physical presence to the line. Last year at Hutchinson he put up 49 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 8.5 and earned a spot on the Second Team NJCAA All-American team. He’ll battle it out with Massie for the starting role opposite Hubert, and I expect him to see big minutes.
Taleni was a late addition to the 2020 class, and is an interesting gamble on a player with a high upside. Tyrone is a physical specimen from Savai’i Samoa that has limited football experience after growing up as a rugby player in Samoa. Assistant coach Mike Tuiasosopo used his connections in the Samoan football community to identify and bring in Taleni, much like he did with mammoth 2019 defensive tackle signing Matthew Pola-Mao. Unlike Gainous, I don’t see him as an immediate difference maker, but he comes into K-State with Sophomore eligibility and has a redshirt year available. I expect to see him use that redshirt year in 2020 to become more acclimated to football. This is the sort of high upside gamble on physical talent I love to see out of a coaching staff.
As I mentioned above with Kiondre Thomas, the corner back position was seen as a place of immediate need on the 2020 team. The coaching staff addressed that need with Thomas as a graduate transfer and Justin Gardner, a 6’2, 180 pound corner out of Hutchinson CC who originally signed and played for Oregon State before leaving the program and heading to Hutchinson for a year. He gives the Wildcats another tall, physical corner. This is a good example of the coaching staff using the JuCo ranks to plan for the future. I expect Gardner to play a complimentary role off the bench in 2020 and then start in 2021 as a senior after the Wildcats lose AJ Parker, Walter Neil, Kiondre Thomas, and Jahron McPherson to graduation. Look for him to play behind McPherson and slide into the nickel role in 2021.
Finally, the offensive side of the ball got involved in the junior college bonanza in 2020 when 6’5, 326 pound road grader Dawson Delforge out of Butler CC (originally out of Wamego High School) decided to play right down the road from his home town. K-State lost five out of their six top offensive linemen from 2019, and adding Delforge should provide, at worst, instant depth in the interior line, and at best, a starter at guard. Adding Delforge also assures that the Wildcats have enough depth to redshirt all of their 2020 offensive line signings. That alone makes Delforge a smart pick up by the coaching staff.
Looking to next year, the coaching staff already has one junior college prospect already in the mix with the 2021 class. The Wildcats will lose senior linebackers Justin Hughes, Elijah Sullivan, and Cody Fletcher to graduation after the 2020 season, and need to bring in some reinforcements to short up the position in 2021. DeShawn Page, a 6’2, 215 pound inside linebacker out of East Mississippi CC fits that bill.
While Page’s commitment should be considered tenuous at best, it’s clear that coaching staff wants to bring in at least one, if not multiple, junior college linebackers to compete for a starting spot in 2021 as well as provide a buffer for the freshman signed in the 2020 class and committed for the 2021 class. The 2021 depth chart at linebacker is wide open, with Daniel Green being the only current player on the roster guaranteed (assuming he stays out of trouble) spot on the depth chart.