WKU coaches revved-up to hit the recruiting trail

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Mike Sanford and crew are ready to unleash themselves.

The NCAA’s mandated recruiting dead period ends Thursday, giving Western Kentucky’s first-year coach – and his staff – the chance to solidify the program’s 2017 signing class. National signing day is Feb. 1.

“I think we’ve done a good job of identifying the needs, and now it’s just about looking to see who else is out there,” Sanford said last week. “Really honing in on these commits which have done a great job of sticking with us. We gotta make sure we go out and get to know what else is out there.”

Sanford’s strategy will have a myriad of prongs. First, the former Boise State quarterback had to evaluate the current roster of returning players from a team that has won back-to-back conference titles and 23 of their last 28 games.

Secondly, he had to survey the prospects who had committed to WKU while former coach Jeff Brohm and staff were in house – which of those young men had decided to follow Brohm to Purdue? Which had decided to look elsewhere? Which fit Sanford’s new system and program? Which still wanted to be Hilltoppers?

Thirdly, Sanford has kept an eye on the transfer market and graduate transfer market. Western will likely add players to the 2017 roster who have immediate eligibility after graduating from a prior institution.

A fourth aspect? There are 10 new full-time coaches on staff who all came from somewhere else. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a prospect formerly committed to Notre Dame or Boise State or Indiana State or North Carolina State or Northern Iowa or Georgia Southern could be wearing red and white come August.

Finally, creating a mission statement for both future Hilltoppers and current ones was pivotal.

“First off, I want to explain to them what ‘The Pursuit,’ is,” Sanford said. “Certainly, you look at that, and it looks like a social media campaign, or a social media brand, and for recruiting – I want to explain to them exactly what the pursuit means. That’ll be some stuff that’s in house. We wanna explain about the standard. What pursuing those five goals that we laid out as a program, what pursuing those goals really looks like. It’s gonna be different.

“All I know is the experiences that I’ve been around and I’ve had a chance to be exposed to from a head coach standpoint. I wanna take the best of all those and the great experiences that I’ve had working for great coaches and I wanna apply that here and make it our own that’s uniquely Western Kentucky.”

Sanford’s staff was built with those who know how to recruit well and with those who are noted for doing so. Assistants like Jami DeBerry, Jimmy Lindsey, Junior Adams, Clayton White and Ryan Mahaffey – to name a few – are tasked with keeping the river of talent that’s been arriving in Bowling Green flowing.

White helped start that flow, in a way, in his first go-round on The Hill back in 2010. He remembers recruiting former players like Antonio Andrews and Cam Thomas.

“We all know football is all relationships and trust and honesty and being able to coach kids and look ‘em in the eye,” White said. “The recruiting part, it’s the same thing. Guys came from different schools, bringing prospects that they had at other schools, now we’re trying to merge those guys together.

“The previous staff did a really good job of building a class, giving us a foundation to work off of. So now, we’re just trying to merge nine different assistants and go out and try to sign the best possible class that we can sign coming up here in 2017 in February.”

The Hilltoppers’ new assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, Steve Spurrier Jr., called the next couple weeks of recruiting, “critical.” He also admitted that the Spurrier name is something that will help him get his foot in the door in high schools and homes where future Tops may reside.

His experience at South Carolina, and this past season at Oklahoma, helped open his eyes to the importance of recruiting.

“What Clemson and Alabama (who played each other Monday for the national championship) have in common is both of ‘em run as good a recruiting department as there is in the country,” Spurrier Jr., said. “We won’t get near that. But clearly the game of college football has moved into how are we going to most efficiently and best recruit football players here? That’s how we’re going to win games.

“It’s changed so much in three years then how it was 15-20 years ago. Ten years ago you recruited seniors. Now you’re recruiting ninth graders and recruiting 10th graders. There’s just so much more reach with social media and Facebook and Instagram that you’ve gotta do that. The game’s changed.”

Western Kentucky has 16 high school seniors currently committed to joining the program in 2017, as well as junior college transfers Jaylon George and Carson Jordan who signed a letter of intent in December. The class is currently rated third in Conference USA by Scout.com and 247sports.com and tied for fifth by Rivals.com.

Wide receiver Khalil Newton (6-2, 175) of Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., and linebacker Juwuan Jones (6-2, 230) of Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, Ga., are among WKU’s highest-ranked commits.

For now.

“To be a college football coach is a special opportunity,” Spurrier Jr., said. “But to have an opportunity to work with young men, to watch ‘em develop, especially in college – I had an opportunity to work in the NFL a couple years, which is kind of a different environment. But to be able to recruit guys, to be able to recruit families, to bring them to a college, to really watch ‘em go from a boy to a man, watch ‘em get a degree, watch ‘em develop so much on and off the field, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – there’s something really in that.

“As much time as you put in, as much effort, and as much work to be able to get on the field and achieve things is a remarkable accomplishment for so many young men. That’s a very rewarding aspect for me.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop