University of Kansas

KU football hasn’t always prioritized Kansas recruits. Les Miles is changing that

Will Huggins doesn’t have to wonder where he stands with the Kansas football program.

The Shawnee Mission South junior says he’s reminded of the team’s thoughts about him — often.

“I have letters on top of letters at my door every single day. Calls every single day,” Huggins said. “ ... They’re recruiting way harder than anybody I’ve ever been recruited by — by a long shot.”

Huggins, a 6-foot-7 tight end who committed last week, admits he hasn’t always followed KU’s football program. He grew up watching the Jayhawks’ successful basketball team with family members, but hadn’t always given much thought to playing football in Lawrence.

Coach Les Miles and staff, though, quickly made it difficult for him to say no.

During a campus visit earlier this month, Huggins was “kind of shocked” when Miles offered him a scholarship — the first he’d received from an FBS school.

“I didn’t really know what to say honestly. It was awesome,” Huggins said. “That was kind of the offer I was waiting for.”

Huggins pledged three weeks later, and also is part of a bigger trend when it comes to recent KU football recruiting.

Miles, in focusing more on high-school talent, seems to be putting an additional emphasis on Kansas kids.

“I’m excited about the Kansas footprint and getting in those homes,” Miles said, “and recruiting those young men and those families.”

The coach didn’t waste time once he officially took the KU job in November.

Miles secured three Kansas preps in his first recruiting class, including Jayden Russell, a 6-foot-3 safety from Shawnee. That’s been followed up with vows from both Huggins and Topeka High’s Da’Vonshai Harden, who are half of the team’s current four-person class in 2020.

If just those commitments hold, Miles would have secured five in-state Kansas preps in two classes; in the Jayhawks’ four seasons before that, they’d signed seven in-state high-schoolers combined.

Russell admitted he hadn’t been recruited as much by KU in earlier months, as it seemed efforts from the Jayhawks’ previous staff centered more on players outside the area.

“Kids from Kansas weren’t really even trying to go to KU,” Russell said. “Not because they weren’t good, but just because the fact they weren’t recruiting Kansas kids.”

Russell recalls Miles telling him a message on the day he committed: “We’re going to start getting Kansas kids on board. You’re going to be a part of it. Let’s make it happen.”

“He recognizes that Kansas has talent,” Russell said. “I think he wants in-state kids from high school that really care about the state of Kansas.”

Jon Holmes has noticed a shift as well. The coach of five-time reigning state champion Bishop Miege says he’s had a recent uptick in communication with KU’s staff, which has included not only phone calls but also additional offers to have kids come to campus for unofficial visits.

“They’re getting on guys really early — freshmen, sophomores — to try to make that decision really hard for them down the road,” Holmes said.

It makes sense from Holmes’ standpoint. For a long time, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder built a successful program by developing kids from the Sunflower State.

“There’s good talent here. I think it’s starting to get recognized more,” Holmes said. “You’re seeing some of these guys slip away to other bigger programs outside of this area and are able to go on and do good things there. So I think KU’s new staff has seen that.”

It might be a good moment for the Jayhawks to establish a new identity. With Snyder’s retirement, this could be as good a time as any for KU’s coaches to try to regain footing with talented local kids.

Miles also might have an advantage that many of his predecessors didn’t. Jon Kirby, publisher of the KU recruiting site, believes that KU’s recent increase in local kids also could be tied to the fact that Miles — on a new five-year contract — has the freedom to use previous recruiting methods while taking more high-school players than junior-college ones.

It’s no secret that as KU football’s hot seat has gotten warmer in recent years, head coaches have turned to more risky measures. With their jobs potentially on the line, both Charlie Weis and David Beaty went particularly juco-heavy with their classes, which didn’t allow much flexibility if one wanted to build with fourth- and fifth-year Kansas players.

Those types of guys — it’s worth noting — have had a decent success rate for KU over time. Joe Dineen — from Lawrence — was a multi-year team captain and is likely to get an NFL shot in the next few months. Ben Heeney, from Hutchinson, also developed into an all-Big 12 player before getting drafted by the Oakland Raiders.

One of this year’s top returners — senior safety Bryce Torneden — fits the mold as well. From Free State High in Lawrence, Torneden was KU’s only high-school commit from the state in 2016, and even he didn’t take a direct route to KU; he first committed to North Dakota State before then-defensive coordinator Clint Bowen offered a late scholarship.

Torneden says it’s difficult to overstate the benefits of playing five minutes from home, which includes being able to eat his mother’s specialty — chicken spaghetti — as often as he’d like. He believes, though, there is some benefit to having grown up around here; just as many of the Texas natives on the roster get fired up to play teams in their home state, Torneden has sensed that Kansas-based players feel additional attachment when playing for the Jayhawks.

It’s part of the reason he’s been so encouraged to see more Kansas high school players attending the team’s practices this spring.

“I think that relationship is definitely improving,” Torneden said, “and is going to be great for the long run.”

This could be just the beginning. Russell, who turned down offers from Boston College and Duke, has been a main force for KU on social media, openly recruiting others via Twitter.

“You can just tell guys are actually interested to see what Kansas has to offer,” Russell said. “I feel like we’re going to do something special.”

Huggins feels a similar pull to KU. He said, when talking to Bowen and some other coaches, they’d often brought the fact that the 2008 Orange Bowl roster was made up mostly of Kansas kids.

Like the phone calls and texts, this message resonated with Huggins — and could with others as well.

“It’s pretty cool,” Huggins said of the vibe surrounding KU. “It felt like home.”

KU football high school commits from the state of Kansas

2015 — Ryan Willis

2016 — Bryce Torneden

2017 — Kenyon Tabor, Cooper Root, Jay Dineen

2018 — Mac Copeland, Jalan Robinson

2019 — Amauri Pesek-Hickson, Jayden Russell, Mason Fairchild

2020 — Da’Vonshai Harden*, Will Huggins*

* — Verbal commitments

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.