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A few months after he took over as Kansas State’s football coach, Chris Klieman had to answer some pointed questions about recruiting.
The most common, and painful, one of all: Why do so few of the best high school players in the Sunflower State want to be Wildcats?
“It’s really important that we recruit well in the state of Kansas and give kids in this state an opportunity if they are interested in Kansas State,” Klieman said in May 2019. “But it’s a challenge.”
Klieman talked a big game at his introductory news conference, saying that K-State was going to emphasize recruiting within the state, as well as the Kansas City metro area. He promised the Wildcats would dominate their home turf.
But when the best in-state players of the 2020 recruiting cycle fled for Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Oklahoma State, all he could do was preach patience.
Recruiting was not much of a priority at K-State during Bill Snyder’s final seasons. That was going to change under Klieman, eventually. In time, he vowed to build stronger relationships with high school coaches and start convincing the best local talent to stay home.
He is beginning to deliver on that promise. The Wildcats are well positioned to own their home state during the 2023 recruiting cycle, which just so happens to be one of the strongest in recent memory.
K-State has already landed five of the highest-rated recruits in the state. Coveted Derby running back Dylan Edwards chose K-State over an army of notable suitors, most notably Nebraska and Oklahoma. Blue Valley receiver Andre Davis spurned Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska in order to play for K-State. Kapuan tight end Will Anciaux and Collegiate defensive back Wesley Fair both chose K-State over other power conference schools.
And the Wildcats locked up Piper offensive lineman Camden Beebe before any other schools could get involved.
Klieman is baking something tasty in Manhattan. The cherry on top could come next week, when the state’s top-rated recruit, Maize quarterback Avery Johnson, announces his college decision. He is down to K-State, Oregon and Washington.
But most experts have tabbed the Wildcats as favorites.
“We’re going to have the best recruiting class that Kansas State has ever had,” Edwards said last week at his announcement ceremony.
A drought that has lasted nearly two decades
The Wildcats have a long way to go before statements like that are considered anything other than hyperbole, but that doesn’t change that fact that Klieman is red hot on the recruiting trail at the moment.
K-State has landed a throng of pledges this month to bring its 2023 recruiting class up to nine members. The vast majority of them picked the Wildcats over strong competition. The sight of Edwards ignoring Nebraska and Oklahoma hats in favor of a purple K-State lid served as a perfect illustration of the team’s recruiting momentum.
“We’re off to a great start,” Klieman said earlier this month. “Recruiting this state is very important to us. Now we just have to keep it going.”
K-State still has something to prove to the recruiting experts. Three major recruiting websites rank the Wildcats’ 2023 recruiting class 54th (Rivals), 51st (247Sports) and 45th (On3) nationally, as well as ninth in the Big 12. But things could improve next week if Johnson commits.
That would be a monumental development for the Wildcats.
Why? Consider this: K-State has played in 11 bowl games and claimed one Big 12 championship over the past 18 years, but it hasn’t landed the No. 1-ranked player in its home state (per Rivals) since Nick Patton in 2004. And he never actually made it to Manhattan, as an academic issue sent him on a detour to Dodge City Community College.
On top of that, K-State has only signed the state’s No. 2 recruit twice since then. More often than not, the top local talent has looked elsewhere.
That is an extraordinary drought for a team that has beaten its cross-state rival like a drum since the Mark Mangino days.
Twelve different schools have signed the top-rated recruit in Kansas since the Wildcats last pulled off the achievement. Nebraska did it twice, KU thrice and Oklahoma four times.
Perhaps that will change with Johnson. If the four-star quarterback chooses K-State, its recruiting class will assuredly climb up the national rankings. It will also have a star prospect to help lure in even more talent and give the Wildcats hope for its first top-40 recruiting class since 2008.
Why did it take three years for Klieman to get K-State’s recruiting machine up and running?
That question can be answered in myriad ways.
He needed time to prove he could guide the Wildcats to winning seasons before recruits viewed K-State as an up-and-coming program. He also needed time to line up the right mixture of assistant coaches who spend just as many hours recruiting as they do game-planning. Collin Klein taking over as offensive coordinator and Thad Ward coming aboard to coach the KSU receivers seems to have made a big impact. Producing NFL Draft picks in each the past two years also hasn’t hurt.
But it mostly boils down to relationships.
Klieman has visited schools all across the state and made it clear that any high school coach in the region is welcome at K-State football practices. They can stay and talk to assistants afterward or call them on the phone for advice. Anything his staff can do to help, consider it done.
That friendly approach has paid dividends.
“They’re just plucking them this year,” Derby football coach Brandon Clark said. “They’re getting all the Kansas players, which is awesome. The way they got them was, they’re just a very genuine group of coaches. You’ve got Collin Klein, who’s one of the best individuals in the world, both outside of football and inside football. You’ve got Coach (Klieman), a very humble guy. He doesn’t big-time anybody, but he also holds everybody accountable.
“And then you’ve got (recruiting coordinator) Taylor Braet recruiting these kids, and he’s the life of the party. You always have to have those guys on staff. It’s a great niche. What they’ve got going on is unbelievable.”
Edwards said he chose K-State because of the loyalty he felt from its coaches.
He wasn’t the easiest player to recruit, as he took visits to prominent schools all across the country and fully evaluated his options before making a decision. Edwards made headlines when Deion Sanders offered him a scholarship, and experts projected him to Oklahoma when the Sooners expressed interest.
But K-State was the first school to recruit him, and the Wildcats never backed down.
“They came here the most out of any school,” Edwards said. “They talked to me every day. I got on a call with them every day. There was not a day that went by, even on Christmas. They called me in the morning to say, ‘Hey, Merry Christmas.’ You just don’t get that anywhere else.”
To be fair, the Wildcats aren’t batting 1.000. Eudora tight end Jaden Hamm committed to Arkansas, Topeka offensive lineman Joe Otting is heading to Notre Dame and Derby defensive end Samuel Same is bound for Iowa State.
But K-State is involved with other in-state recruits, and its recent success has not gone unnoticed.
Anciaux, the Kapaun tight end, is glad he made his decision when he did. Otherwise, he might be suffering from a severe case of FOMO right now.
“It means everything to be able to compete for your home state and play in front your family and friends that you have known forever,” he said during a recent interview with Sports in Kansas. “You’ve got your whole state behind you, really. It’s going to be a special thing.”
Anciaux held scholarship offers from California, Iowa State, Kansas, Michigan State, Minnesota and Nebraska. They all would have been fine choices. Some thought he might end up with the Cyclones after he visited Ames several times. Others thought he would land at KU, where his parents went to school. But he chose the Wildcats, in part because it felt exciting.
Staying home is suddenly the cool thing to do.