Ky Thomas was walking around the north side of Memorial Stadium a few years back when Carlos Kelly made him turn his head skyward.
Several Topeka High football players and coaches traveled to Lawrence that morning to show support for one of their former teammates, Oklahoma State's Teven Jenkins.
Kelly, then an assistant coach at Topeka, noticed the banners of Aqib Talib, Todd Reesing and other Kansas football greats hanging on the concrete. He wanted Thomas, the Trojans' talented running back, to see them, too.
"Man, that could be you up there," Kelly said.
It may be several years before that happens, but it's more of a possibility than ever before. That's because Thomas, who spent his first two seasons playing at Minnesota, was among seven players whose transfers to KU were formalized on Monday. All have enrolled in classes, which began Jan. 17.
KU also announced that tight end Max Dowling, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound tight end from Buffalo who spent last season at Palmetto Preparatory Academy in Columbia, South Carolina, will join the program.
Thomas isn't the only former Big Ten running back transferring to KU. Sevion Morrison, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who spent two seasons at Nebraska, will also join the Jayhawks.
Michigan State cornerback Kalon Gervin, Ohio State linebacker Craig Young, UCF linebacker Eriq Gilyard, Miami (Ohio) defensive end Lonnie Phelps and Buffalo offensive tackle Nolan Gorczyca are the others.
"This is an exciting day for Kansas Football, adding a group of such versatile and accomplished players to our program," said head coach Lance Leipold, whose group of transfers is ranked 16th nationally by 247Sports.com. "Our staff did an excellent job identifying the types of players we want to build with both on and off the field. It's a tremendous advantage to have these student-athletes already on campus with our returning players, working hard to prepare for the 2022 season."
Leipold said following the season, his first at KU, that he wanted to accelerate the Jayhawks' rebuilding process by finding impact players at several positions of need who were interested in transferring.
Thomas certainly fits that description. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back, who has four years of eligibility remaining, ran for more than 7,000 yards during his time at Topeka High and was Kansas' Gatorade Player of the Year in 2019, his senior season.
He did not play in 2020, his first season at Minnesota, and figured to be buried on the depth chart again last season after redshirting. Instead, several of the Gophers' running backs, including Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts, were injured, and Thomas excelled over the second half of the season. He led the team with 824 yards on 166 carries and ran for six touchdowns, and he was named the offensive MVP of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl when he rushed 21 times for 144 yards and a touchdown in a win over West Virginia.
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, ranked in the bottom third in the Football Bowl Division with 139.33 rushing yards per game — the second fewest in the Big 12. Freshman Devin Neal, the Lawrence High grad who has played with and against Thomas since their youth football days, ran for team highs of 707 yards and eight touchdowns on 158 carries.
Kelly, who was hired as Topeka High's head coach before the 2020 season, said the friendship between Neal and Thomas played a large role in Thomas' decision. Neal even served as the host for Thomas' recruiting visit earlier this month.
"That's huge to have a duo that's right here, in their backyard, able to do some things on the national level," Kelly said. "That right there kind of said some things."
Morrison might even make it a trio. The 6-foot, 210-pound running back was considered by Rivals.com to be one of the top 15 players nationally at his position in the Class of 2020, but he only had 30 carries for 116 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Aside from Gorczyca, a 6-foot-6, 289-pound redshirt freshman guard from Omaha, Nebraska, who originally committed to play for Leipold at Buffalo, the rest of the Jayhawks' incoming transfers play defense.
A 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback from Detroit, Gervin was widely considered the best player in Michigan in the Class of 2018. He played in 19 games over four seasons for Michigan State, including four this season, before he decided to transfer.
Gervin may provide the biggest lift, if for nothing more than his experience, given that KU finished the season with four underclassmen listed on its two-deep at cornerback.
Young, a 6-foot-3, 233-pound linebacker from Fort Wayne, Indiana, played in 26 games in three seasons as a safety at Ohio State and every game in 2021 until he chose to transfer before the Rose Bowl.
It's possible Young ends up at safety opposite Kenny Logan Jr., the all-Big 12 second-team selection who led the FBS with 113 tackles last season. The Jayhawks' other starting safety, Ricky Thomas, was a senior last season.
Gilyard, too, brings considerable experience and will find in KU a team more suited to his style of play. The 5-foot-11, 228-pound linebacker manned the middle in UCF's 4-3 defense before head coach Gus Malzahn moved to a 3-4 this season, his first.
After starting each of the previous two seasons, Gilyard found himself squeezed out amid the change in responsibilities and decided to transfer in early October. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, who is close friends with Logan, Gilyard was considered a four-star prospect in the Class of 2018.
And while Phelps doesn't have years of starting experience like his fellow transfers, the 6-foot-3, 244-pound defensive end played in all 13 games last season and led Miami (Ohio) with 9.5 sacks and six quarterback hits.
All expect to contribute to the Jayhawks, who went 2-10 last season and 1-8 in the Big 12 to finish last in the conference for the seventh consecutive year.
But Kelly thinks Thomas, the running back from Topeka, may cherish the opportunity to do so more than the others.
"I haven't seen him smile this much," Kelly said. "Every time I see him, he's smiling. Not that I haven't seen him smile before, but it's just a different kind of smile. He's back and he's just on a mission, and now I think he can be on the way to his dream and have the support of his family."