Kansas football: Why player development is bigger than landing top talent

Kansas coach Lance Leipold watches plays on the field during Saturday's spring game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
Kansas coach Lance Leipold watches plays on the field during Saturday's spring game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. /

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the Kansas football staff’s ability – or inability (depending on who you speak with) – to recruit high school prospects at a high level.

The conversation has picked up in large part due to the fact that KU currently has zero commitments for the upcoming 2023 recruiting class, despite hosting numerous prospects on visits this spring and hitting the recruiting trails these past few months.

It’s even more concerning to some because the 2023 recruiting class boasts one of its more talented crops of Kansas kids in recent years.

According to Rivals.com, there are two four-star talents in their Kansas Top 12 rankings: running back John Randle Jr. out of Wichita and quarterback Avery Johnson out of Maize. The rest of the class is made up of three-star prospects – three of whom are already committed to in-state rival Kansas State.

Recruiting is important and getting your best local prospects to stay home is never a bad thing, but the bigger key for this staff being successful is whether or not they can develop players.

High school recruiting success isn’t everything

Though it can sometimes seem like it, high school recruiting classes are not the end-all-be-all.

Kansas has had good recruiting classes under previous coaches, and it has not resulted in wins.

From 2016 to 2018, Kansas saw their national recruiting class ranking increase each year under then-head-coach David Beaty. In 2016, the class was ranked No. 95 (10th in the Big 12); in 2017, the class was ranked No. 55 (9th in the Big 12); and in 2018, the class was ranked No. 48 (7th in the Big 12).

They landed four, four-star talents during that time, including a bevy of highly sought-after recruits from Louisiana – who later dubbed themselves the “Louisianimals.” These players included four-year safety Mike Lee and standout running back Pooka Williams Jr.

Following a winless season in 2015, the Jayhawks won just six games combined between 2016 and 2018 – despite the increase in recruiting success.

Les Miles was hired in November 2018, so he had very little time to put together an impactful recruiting class for 2019. His first class was ranked No. 70 nationally on Rivals (last in the Big 12).

Miles’ second class (2020) took a huge leap up to No. 49 in the country (8th in the Big 12). His third and final class (2021) at KU ended up being No. 44 overall (4th in the Big 12).

And yet, Kansas finished 3-9 in 2019 and 0-9 in 2020 before Miles was fired in March 2021 for reported misconduct while he was at LSU.

Just because a player is highly ranked coming out of high school, that does not guarantee he’s going to excel in college. And just because a recruit isn’t highly ranked coming out of high school, that does not mean he won’t succeed at the next level.

Look at Kansas’ 2008 Orange Bowl roster for example. That team wasn’t full of four-star and five-star talents.

Orange Bowl MVP and future first-round NFL draft pick Aqib Talib was a two-star prospect out of high school. Future All-American Anthony Collins was a two-star prospect, as was Chris Harris Jr. Even Kansas legend Todd Reesing was just a three-star recruit out of high school.

Part of the lack of on-field success for both Beaty and Miles was due to misidentifying players who were the right fit for Kansas, but a larger part was due to their staffs’ inability to develop talent.

Transfer portal changing the game

Another reason why there shouldn’t be an overemphasis on high school recruiting classes is because of the new transfer landscape taking place in college athletics.

The transfer portal has really opened up for programs like Kansas to get players who have experience at the college level and have multiple years of eligibility left.

In the past, Kansas relied too much on transfers at times – particularly from the junior college ranks. Charlie Weis did it and David Beaty did it as a way to try and turn around the program more quickly.

The problem with that approach was the transfer players often had just one or two years of eligibility remaining, which caused scholarship number problems down the road for Kansas.

That’s not the case anymore thanks to the new transfer rules – and Kansas wisely appears to be placing a big emphasis on the transfer portal to fill holes on the roster.

Getting players who have college experience with multiple years left to play is an absolute win-win for a rebuilding program like Kansas.

Leipold’s track record

Being a whiz on the high school recruiting trail was never head coach Lance Leipold’s specialty at Buffalo.

Only twice in his six seasons at Buffalo did he put together a recruiting class ranked in the top 100 on Rivals. In 2019, the Bulls had the No. 94 ranked class, and in 2021 (the last recruiting class before Leipold took the job at Kansas), the class was ranked No. 89.

But despite the ho-hum recruiting success over his six years, Leipold led his team to two conference titles, two bowl wins, and in his final three seasons a record of 24-10.

You don’t get that type of success with that type of recruiting unless you have coaches who can develop the players they have on the roster. That starts from the strength and conditioning coach all the way to head coach.

Luckily for Kansas, many of those Buffalo coaches are now on the Kansas sideline.

KU has landed some impressive recruits in the past and will again in the future. Recruiting – whether that’s through the high school ranks or through the transfer portal – is an important part of building a competitive roster.

But all the recruiting rankings and all the transfer commitments mean nothing if you can’t develop the players once they step foot on campus. This Kansas staff has the pedigree to get it done, and if they do, we could finally be looking at a team that’s ready to compete consistently with their Big 12 peers.