Standing behind the podium in the Vanier Football Complex after he unveiled his 26-member signing class on Feb. 6, third-year Kansas State coach Ron Prince knew the question was coming.
Asked to address one possible perception that his signing 19 junior college players might be met by his Big 12 coaching colleagues to infer a state of "panic" after the Wildcats finished the 2007 season at 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big 12, Prince recalled an offseason discussion he had with friend Paul Pasqualoni.
The former long-time head coach at Syracuse and current Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator, whom Prince coached against during his time as an assistant coach at Virginia, relayed his experience from coaching against the Wildcats in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats' path to its success that season was largely attributed to a 12-member junior college coup that included the likes of Michael Bishop, Darnell McDonald and Jeff Kelly.
"(Pasqualoni) quickly reminded me that there were seven players that played in the bowl game that weren't on the spring roster. It's the 10-year anniversary of the second-highest number of community college players to come to the team. I don't think that (1997) was perceived as a panic year.
"It gives you an opportunity to advance your team and give you talent that has played in games."
Prince said he saw the trend approaching and indicated he wouldn't sway from his belief that just as K-State gained help from junior college players before, it intends to maintain such a strategy in the quest to cultivate competition and on-field results.
Prince's message to his skeptics: "I don't really care what people think or say anyhow. I have my obligations to put the team together to try and manage what's coming down the road. It has been a very physical Big 12 North for us."
The class was ranked 28th in the nation by Rivals.com-- sitting behind Big 12 teams Oklahoma (fifth), Texas (14th), Colorado (15th) Texas A&M (16th), Missouri (26th) and Oklahoma State (27th).
It includes 16 players who are projected to play on defense, 15 on offense and one punter. Six players -- linebackers Ulla Pomele and Hansen Sekona, defensive backs Blair Irvin and Billy McClellan, wide receiver Adrian Hilburn and offensive lineman Wade Weibert -- who signed national letters with K-State in December are on campus for spring drills.
K-State's crop also features a nation-leading 12 Top 100 junior college players, including four at linebacker and three at wide receiver.
A total of eight signees claim times of sub-4.48 in the 40 with 15 boasting times of 4.6 or faster. In an attempt to address needs at both the offensive and defensive line, K-State secured four offensive linemen with beef (averaging 6-foot-5 and 282 pounds) and four defensive linemen that are listed between 290 and 300 pounds.
"Looking at teams that have been successful here, being a fast team is one thing they have in common," Prince said. "We want to have a run-and-hit team from a special teams and defensive standpoint. A lot of the things we've done from a recruiting and strategy standpoint have all been so we can have a fast, strong and disciplined team."
The 32 signees, including six mid-year additions, hail from 14 different states with seven coming from California. Additionally, the class was collected from successful programs as the group combined for a 303-89 record during the 2007 season.
Hopefully for K-State, they will help the Wildcats reach a bowl berth in the fall.
Quarles projected to be a deep threat
Although Jordy Nelson was labeled a possession receiver by some NFL scouts, he showed deft ability to blaze past defensive backs to haul in the deep ball. The speedy 5-foot-7, 170-pound Deon Murphy, the Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year, made the big catches as well.
Prince believes the Wildcats landed the ideal complement to Murphy in Aubrey Quarles.
The 6-foot, 190-pound junior college transfer out of Santa Rosa (Calif.) Community College arrives as the No. 20 junior college prospect in the nation and as one of four four-star signees for the Wildcats. Quarles, who runs a 4.4 40, will be expected to impact a passing game led by strong-armed junior quarterback Josh Freeman.
"What we saw with Aubrey is the ability -- the speed isn't exactly the same -- to score deep the way Yamon (Figurs) had and with the same ability Deon Murphy had last year," Prince said. "We have to make sure we can maintain that type of deep threat in our offense and keep from having a lot of eight- and nine-man fronts."
The Wildcats' three other incoming wide receivers also arrive from California junior colleges, including Brandon Banks and Attrail Snipes (Bakersfield), Adrian Hilburn (San Francisco).
Prince studied Quarles' highlights and dubbed him "too good to pass up."
"We're very attractive to these players because we have a good quarterback, so this was a player we could see clearly his deep-threat ability and not just his speed but his ability to adjust to the ball in the air," Prince said. "He's a really good post-route runner. The highlights, that's where a lot of his catches are.
"Usually you have to have a 6-foot-4 or 6-5 player to have that ability to range the ball and he just has a knack for it."
Pomele a first-look gem at linebacker
The routine is, well, routine. Every week assistant coaches sift through highlight tape, then in a "funnel effect," pass on the best of the best to Prince's desk for further inspection. Problem was, the Wildcats only had a single game tape of Santa Rosa (Calif.) CC linebacker Ulla Pomele. No matter. Assistants soon came running holding the tape of the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Pomele, who was rated as a four-star prospect and as the No. 38 junior college player by Rivals.com.
"The guys turned the game tape on for me," Prince recalled, "and Ulla made as many plays in his game tape as some kids do in a highlight tape that spans an entire season."
While it remains undetermined whether Pomele will fit in at an outside or inside spot at linebacker in the Wildcats' 3-4 defensive scheme, Prince expects him to make a push for playing time as the defense must improve upon its No. 9 league finish in scoring defense (30.8 points per game).
"Ulla has a very good nose for the ball and is used to playing against the kinds of offenses that we are facing each week," Prince said. "From a learning standpoint, he and (fellow newcomer) Hansen Sekona are facing many of the schemes and strategies we are facing in our conference. Clearly when you score 36 points a game and that's good for fourth in your division, you've got to be able to answer some defensive questions.
"We want to make sure we always have guys fitting in that unit whether it's linebackers or down linemen. We looked around the conference and all the teams that were playing well late in the year had those players. Ulla is no exception. He's got some body to him and with his positive attitude, you'll be impressed with who he is."
Pierson punts away doubt
For a second-straight season, Prince signed a specialist. A year ago Prince signed long snapper Corey Adams, which as Prince put it "raised some eyebrows." This time he found All-American punter George Pierson out of Tyler (Texas) Junior College. The 6-foot, 180-pounder averaged 43.2 yards on 42 punts, including a career-long 75-yarder.
With the departure of All-Big 12 punter Tim Reyer following last season, Prince, armed with a well-documented focus on special teams, was desperate to discover a new weapon.
"We saw the need that we needed to have one of the very best punters," he said. "We've been able to play a certain way and Tim Reyer has been quite a luxury for us. We've downed quite a few punts. We don't want to give that up."
Prince said the decision to opt to sign Pierson instead of going the high school route was "an eight or nine-month discussion."
"You have so many needs in so many areas but we felt we could bring in this player and he could make an immediate impact," he said. "There's obviously no time to wait there. He's got to come in and be ready to go and we'll give him ample practice time to make sure he can gel with Corey and protection."
Prince was impressed with Pierson's tools across the board in punting.
"Not only can he punt for distance but hang time," he said. "The way the ball is moving up and down the field, the plus-territory punting and being able to place the ball inside the 20, that skill itself might be more important than just how far you can kick it."
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