Arkansas coach Bret Bielema describes Kansas State coach Bill Snyder as a mentor who will forever influence the way he runs his football program.
If you look closely, he said before the Liberty Bowl, you can see their coaching similarities. But Bielema is not a carbon copy of his former employer. They differ in one major area — recruiting. And he illustrated their differing views with a story from his days as a K-State coordinator.
“He didn’t allow coaches to go out and recruit all that much,” Bielema said of Snyder. “He always used to say, ‘There is nobody more important than the players you have on campus.’ For me, in recruiting, every moment that we can be out, I want our coaches out recruiting. But his philosophy was to focus on player development.”
The majority of college football coaches agree with Bielema’s approach, and K-State is currently trying to play catch up on the recruiting trail because of it. Signing day is Feb. 3, and the Wildcats are scrambling to add talent to a 12-man recruiting class that ranks 86th nationally and ninth in the Big 12, according to Rivals.com.
K-State has gone 57-33 with a Big 12 championship since Snyder’s return in 2009 while lacking positive recruiting reviews, in large part because of his track record for turning walk-ons and overlooked recruits into major contributors. Still, this class may need a boost.
Rivals ranked K-State in the top 50 — 45th and 47th — the past two recruiting cycles and ranked it in the top 70 each year going back to 2010. The Wildcats haven’t flirted with a recruiting ranking this poor since 2009, when Snyder got a late start replacing Ron Prince and they finished 93rd.
The loss of four talented commitments, highlighted by offensive lineman Zach Shackelford’s flip to Texas on Sunday, has left big holes to fill. Wichita East defensive end Xavier Kelly (Clemson), St. Louis running back Tre Bryant (Nebraska), Dodge City Community College offensive lineman Chris Gaynor (TCU) and Shackelford were all viewed as difference-makers when they committed to K-State.
They withdrew their commitments for different reasons, but there is a common thread.
Recruiting today is a year-round process. You can’t take time off if you want to recruit at a high level. That is just the reality. There is an expectation from today’s recruits to have that year-round hand-holding. K-State takes that hands-off approach during the season, and it is certainly noticeable.”
ESPN recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree
K-State led early with each but faded as time passed, losing the most ground during the season. That’s when Snyder instructs his assistants to stop recruiting and start focusing within. Outside of bye weeks, K-State coaches don’t travel for recruiting. By the time assistants returned to the road in December, K-State lagged behind its competitors, which never took a recruiting break.
“Recruiting today is a year-round process. You can’t take time off if you want to recruit at a high level,” said ESPN recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree. “That is just the reality. There is an expectation from today’s recruits to have that year-round hand-holding. K-State takes that hands-off approach during the season, and it is certainly noticeable.”
Snyder has long defended his recruiting approach, and it has paid dividends. Few, if any, schools develop players better than K-State. But it also takes emphasis off recruiting when others are going all-in.
Kelly, a four-star defensive end who withdrew his commitment from K-State as a junior and ultimately entertained 32 offers, said K-State coaches occasionally stopped by his high school to visit him, but so did faraway schools from the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences. There was no difference. He respects K-State but admits he received more noticeable recruiting attention elsewhere.
“There were times I had 10 head coaches texting me every single day,” Kelly said. “It was a lot to handle.”
That also hurt K-State with Bryant. He orally committed to K-State in the summer but later agreed to visit Minnesota and Nebraska in the fall when they ramped up interest. Bryant ultimately switched to Nebraska after watching the Cornhuskers upset Michigan State in person.
“I really like the offensive system, and I think that I am a good fit. I can really envision myself there in their offense,” Bryant told Rivals. “I felt like Kansas State wasn’t the best situation for me.”
Of course, a four-month hiatus isn’t the only recruiting challenge K-State encounters.
Snyder rarely leaves Manhattan for recruiting purposes, as evidenced by the stir he created when he flew to Belton, Texas, last week to meet with Shackelford. And his coordinators rarely show up in Twitter photos with recruits. That work is left largely for receivers coach Andre Coleman and defensive ends coach Blake Seiler, with recruiting coordinator Taylor Braet and graduate assistant Collin Klein providing support by phone.
By comparison, there are head coaches who use helicopters to visit as many prospects as possible in a recruiting window.
Snyder tries to make up for that by meeting with recruits in his office when they make visits, asking about their personal lives and digging deeper than rival coaches. But that’s only possible for recruits who visit.
Then there is the uncertainty of Snyder’s future. K-State announced last week that Snyder, 76, will return as coach next season, but there are no guarantees beyond 2016, which creates a question mark for recruits.
There is not a young guy that comes into my office and doesn’t say, ‘How long are you going to be here?’ So I know something is out there.
K-State coach Bill Snyder
“That was a big part of my decision,” Kelly said. “I wanted to be around coaches I knew were going to be there for four years. No one wants coaches going in and out of their program while they are in school.”
Coaching uncertainty is an issue across the nation. But it has hurt K-State this cycle, even with Kansas recruits.
“This is a decent year for talent in Kansas,” said Rivals recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt. “You can get some really good, national-type players in the state. They just haven’t competed well. If you aren’t competing in your backyard, you are going to have trouble building a great class.”
Snyder admits his age has been used against K-State in recruiting.
“There is not a young guy that comes into my office and doesn’t say, ‘How long are you going to be here?’ ” Snyder said during the season. “So I know something is out there.”
He tries to provide an honest answer, citing his health, his ability to positively influence K-State players and the support of his family as key factors.
“The astute answer is supposed to be five years,” Snyder said. “That is what everyone wants to hear, and that is what most guys say. I can’t say that, because I don’t know if it will be five years. I don’t know how long it will be.”
Those words were enough to land 12 recruits and persuade four of them, including four-star quarterback Skylar Thompson, to enroll a semester early.
Thompson, a Fort Osage product, is seen as the gem of K-State’s recruiting class. He led his team to a state championship as a senior and is perhaps the quarterback of the future. Blake Hickey, a three-star offensive lineman from Godley, Texas, also appears to have upside.
Crabtree was also complimentary of three-star receiver Byron Pringle. Helmholdt likes Holton linebacker Mason Barta and Lincoln, Neb., tight end Nick Lenners.
“There are certainly some bright spots,” Crabtree said. “On the flipside, they still have glaring needs to fill.”
K-State will try to do exactly that this weekend when it hosts an important batch of recruits, including defensive backs Tre Jackson and Caesar Williams. It will also push for junior-college offensive lineman Breontae Matthews.
Land some of those players, and K-State’s recruiting class instantly improves. The pressure will be on.
“Momentum in recruiting is a tricky thing,” Helmholdt said. “It can change real quick. Just because they lost guys doesn’t mean they are going to finish poorly. They could turn it all around, but they have to do a better job down the stretch than they have so far.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett