Turner Gill’s second recruiting class at Kansas University was made up of 25 high school seniors from the Class of 2011. Just 11 of them remain in the program.
Some never suited up for Kansas, such as quarterback Brock Berglund, who is at his fourth school and still hasn’t thrown a pass. He appeared in one game this season for Northern Colorado of the Football Championship Subdivision and rushed the ball once for two yards.
Others gave up football. Some transferred. A number of players from the class flunked, some were dismissed for bad behavior and others transferred.
Most of the ones who stuck it out are among the best players in the program.
Provided offensive lineman Damon Martin recovers sufficiently from an illness that has sidelined him most of the season, five players from the class will return next season because they red-shirted as freshmen. Quarterback Michael Cummings, defensive lineman Ben Goodman, linebacker Jake Love and offensive lineman Bryan Peters have one more year of eligibility.
Safety Alex Matlock has the option of returning for a fifth season.
Middle linebacker Ben Heeney, cornerback JaCorey Shepherd, defensive end Michael Reynolds, versatile Victor Simmons and Love, a linebacker, all are coming off big games in the 34-14 victory against Iowa State.
Tony Pierson ranks 18th on KU’s career rushing list, despite spending a year-and-a-half as a wide receiver and missing time with concussion problems.
Gill and his staff emphasized speed in that recruiting class and that approach ranks as the No. 1 reason KU has a good defense. But Gill took way too many academic risks and/or didn’t instill enough discipline in that area for the class to stay together. Gill’s successor, Charlie Weis, took way too many behavior/academic risks when he emphasized recruiting junior-college players and that combined with the attrition from the Class of 2011 has left Kansas with woefully inadequate depth and badly in need of stability in the program.
But the players who did stick around from the Class of 2011 bring plenty of talent. Six of them play their final game in Memorial Stadium on Saturday vs. TCU. Heeney, a standout running back at Hutchinson High who switched to linebacker at KU, leaves the biggest mark on the program.
Heeney reflected on, “coming into Kansas my freshman year, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if I was going to be able to compete, not knowing if I was going to be good enough. I was a Kansas kid out of high school, I’m coming in with all these guys from Texas and all these guys from all over the place, and I’m from Kansas. It was scary, man. It was scary back then.”
A bona fide All-American candidate, Heeney said the success he has had at Kansas proves the school should value in-state recruits higher than it has.
Heeney was asked what all the players are asked these days. Where should KU go next for its coach.
“I don’t know if it’s my place to say, but at the same time, I’ll say it anyway because I don’t really care,” Heeney said.
More athletes need to take that approach. Speak their minds. Don’t let anybody else do their talking for them.
“As far as I’m concerned, and I feel like most of the team feels this way too, I think the last two guys who were hired had no connection to KU, or no connection to Kansas or anything like that. Coach Bowen is a guy, grew up in Lawrence, went to Lawrence High, went to KU after that. He spent most of his life in Lawrence. He knows every single guy in Lawrence. He knows the donut-shop guy down the street. He knows the police officers. He knows literally everybody.
“To have a guy like that run the football program, to me, you’re not going to be able to bring anybody in here who cares more about KU or what happens to this university more than him, in my opinion.”
Then he lobbied for Kansas high school football prospects.
“I feel like we need to recruit more in Kansas,” he said. “I think he can do that because he knows the coaches around here. I’m a Kansas kid. I think I have some talent. There are other kids like me that in the past KU hasn’t been able to get. Those kids are going to K-State more often than not and they should be going here.”
The only purple he wears these days is in the form of bruises, and if you think he looks bad, you should see the other guy.
“I was about to go to K-State rather than come here because when Gill was recruiting, I wasn’t being looked at. I had a breakout year my senior year,” Heeney said. “I wasn’t even getting looked at by KU until the fifth game into the season, which is stupid. You should be recruiting the best kids out of Kansas and they should be going to the University of. Why would they be going to the state university? I think coach Bowen definitely has all the connections and all the ties to get Kansas kids here.”
Heeney said he never lost a football game from third grade until losing one in eighth grade. KU is 9-36 during Heeney’s time in the program and he has played for three head coaches. In his mind, if Bowen doesn’t land the job, he’ll count that as a major loss for the university he has loved for as long as he can remember.
“It means a lot to him,” Heeney said. “Maybe it hasn’t meant as much to the previous guys. I don’t know. I’m just a player.”
A great player.