Last winter, in the weeks after David Beaty took hold of the controls at Kansas, the first-time college head coach compiled a list of options. It was already late in the recruiting process, and to cull together a respectable class, Beaty was going to have to channel Usain Bolt during the final weeks before signing day in early February.
He started with what he knew: The state of Texas.
In those chaotic days, Beaty passed along a name to new receivers coach Klint Kubiak, who had just arrived from the Minnesota Vikings. The name was Steven Sims. He was a 5-foot-10, 165-pound wide receiver from Houston. And if Kansas had anything going for it this late in the process, it was this: None of the big boys in Texas were that interested in Sims.
“If you turn his high school film on, you kind of say: ‘How did guys miss on him?’” Kubiak says now. “But there are a lot of teams in that area picking guys up, and for whatever reason, he didn’t get picked up. It worked out for Kansas.”
Indeed. Nearly six months later, Sims is more than just another under-the-radar recruit who landed at Kansas. When the Jayhawks open the season at 11 a.m. Saturday against South Dakota State, Sims could find himself starting his first college game as a true freshman.
“There’s always a guy that you’re not expecting, and then you go, ‘Wow’,” says offensive coordinator Rob Likens, who will debut his version of the Air Raid on Saturday. “He was one of our ‘Wow’ guys. We’re excited about him.”
Sims is not the only true freshman in line for playing time. Tight end Jace Sternberger is expected to see snaps behind regulars Ben Johnson and Kent Taylor. Running back Taylor Martin could see time in the backfield rotation. Cornerback Tyrone Miller, Jr. is a candidate to start in the secondary. And Jeremiah Booker — another overlooked receiver from Texas — is expected to contribute once he returns from a collar-bone injury suffered during the preseason.
“We’re relying on those guys to step right in and be a force for us,” Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart said.
The number of true freshmen in the two-deep depth chart is both intriguing and slightly alarming — depending on your perspective. On the one hand, Beaty appears to have unearthed a handful of sleepers in his 2015 recruiting class, especially in the receiving corps. During fall camp, Beaty’s staff utilized a daily “Freshman Academy” to get his young players up to speed. On the other hand, the Jayhawks’ depleted roster requires that some young players be ready right away.
Take the case of Sims, a former standout receiver at Travis High School. In his final high school season, Sims finished with 64 catches for 923 yards and 14 touchdowns. He would add 28 carries for 214 and five touchdowns in the running game. But because of his size, most of the top programs in Texas decided to pass. Here was Sims, one of the top offensive players in Houston, but for a while, the only schools that showed much interest were places like Stephen F. Austin, McNeese State and Southeast Louisiana.
Enter Beaty, who had tracked Sims while working as the receivers coach at Texas A&M.
“We were recruiting him at A&M for a little while,” Beaty said. “I think the thing that helped us get him is that he’s not a 6-4 receiver.”
Sims, according to Kubiak, showed up to campus as an advanced prospect. He retains knowledge easily, and he picked up the playbook at a quick pace. He has also proved durable — despite his slight build.
“We rode him a lot (during preseason camp),” Beaty said, “and he’s had a couple issues with hamstrings and things like that, but he hasn’t missed a rep, which I’ve been very impressed with.”
Because of his size, Sims is naturally labeled as a slot receiver. But Kubiak said he possesses the ability to roam all over the field. The same goes for Booker, a 6-2, 195-pound receiver who grew up in College Station, Texas. In many ways, Booker’s story is similar to Sims’. He was under-recruited, passed over by Texas A&M, and then picked up by Beaty. And Booker, who could return to the field by late September, has already earned a nickname from his veteran teammates.
“Specimen,” says veteran receiver Shakiem Barbel.
The Jayhawks’ up-tempo offense system will demand a deep receiving corps. So the Jayhawks will also lean on senior receiver Tre’ Parmalee and transfers Joshua Stanford (Virginia Tech) and Quincy Perdue (UAB). But players like Sims underline a signature theme of this season. Beaty wants immediate success — he wants to win games — but he also wants to lay a foundation.
Sims and his freshmen brethren are presumably excited about playing right away. It’s just, well, you won’t hear it from them. Beaty has barred all freshmen from speaking to the media for the duration of the season. In this way, Beaty is old-school — believing that freshmen should be seen and not heard. But this much is clear: They will be seen.
“They came here expecting to play,” Kubiak said of the influx of freshmen. “They knew our situation at Kansas … we needed guys to contribute immediately, so they didn’t come here just to ride the pine.”