With Fort Hays State University’s most accomplished season in two decades came one consequence.
An 8-4 season for Chris Brown and the Tigers ended with a loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the Mineral Water Bowl on Dec. 5, marking an end to Fort Hays’ first postseason appearance and eight-win season since 1995. While the Tigers continued practice in preparation for the bowl game, most of the nation got a three-week edge on the recruitment trail.
With 30 additions to the Tiger locker room in hand, Brown sees the successful season as no burden to his staff’s ability to compete nationally for the top Division II prospects.
“I’m very excited about this group of guys we’re bringing in,” Brown said during a press conference Wednesday. “I really feel our needs this year were O-line, D-line, and I feel like we really met those needs. … Our coaches did a great job of understanding what our needs were this year and they went and got those kids we needed. Looking through our class, a lot of these guys were top on our list of guys we wanted to get. We worked hard on them and it was fun recruiting them.”
Brown sought out depth in the trenches after graduating 14 players from last year’s squad — three coming on the offensive line. Among the top priorities were a pair of in-state prospects who made their commitments to Fort Hays official by inking their National Letter of Intent on Wednesday’s National Signing Day.
“I think that’s an area where we’ve gotta get as many kids as we possibly can get because you’re gonna have injuries at both of those positions as the year goes on, and we’ve gotta have guys that can fill out and guys that can give guys rest and guys that are gonna help you out in the future,” Brown said. “I really think we did a good job of filling those voids. I still think we’re gonna try to find a few more kids in those areas, but I think the kids we got are kids that are gonna make an impact on our team and make us a lot better.”
Topeka High’s Dakota Williams and Buhler’s Jaden Abernathy bring all-state experience on the line to Hays. Williams (6 feet, 2 inches, 280 pounds) and Abernathy (6-3, 290) were considered among the best offensive line products in the state and are part of 10 in-state seniors to make their way to FHSU. Abernathy is set to participate in the 2016 Kansas Shrine Bowl this summer.
Coming from beyond Kansas’ borders on the line is Brandon Gonzales (Kearney, Mo.), John Lucero (Raymore, Mo.) and Pat Kelly (North Bridgton, Maine). With depth running scarce, adding quality and depth up front was on the top of Brown’s list.
“Offensive line-wise, I think any of those guys can play for us,” Brown said. “They’re just strong, big barrel-chested kids that move very, very well. They finish the block, they’re very physical and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I think any of those guys that you put on the field will be great players for us.”
Opposite of the offensive line comes a talented group of D-linemen with an array of vitals and skills. Amari Angram-Boldin, a defensive tackle from Pahokee, Fla., comes in at 6-3 and 365 pounds as one of the top 30 players in Palm Beach County. From Largo, Fla., is Javaris Sanders, a 5-11, 290-pound lineman with honors from the Tampa area.
Sterling Swopes, an end from Lee’s Summit, Mo., was seen as a must-have recruit by Brown due to his 6-4, 220 frame and 38-inch vertical. Joining the Missouri all-state selection is another from Wentzville in Blake Wilson, as well as the hometown kid, Braydon Delzeit. Irick McDonald will transfer in from Florida International as a redshirt freshman, rounding out the Tigers’ front.
“When you look at them, I think Amari’s gonna be a very good player for us,” Brown said. “He’s a big, strong, solid body. Javaris Sanders is another defensive lineman that’s gonna be an impact. All of those guys — Blake Wilson, Braydon Delzeit, Sterling Swopes — are gonna be impact guys. I feel really good about that group of guys.”’
Scott City’s Cooper Griffith will stay put in western Kansas as the reigning Class 3A Defensive Player of the Year. A two-way player at linebacker and running back, Griffith twice earned all-state honors on defense and amassed more than 400 career tackles. Ty Hart and Ty Clark have transferred into Fort Hays at linebacker, while Oklahoma Class 6A-II Co-Defensive Player of the Year Jacob Taber (Sand Springs, Okla.) will join the crew in the fall.
Rounding out the Tigers’ defensive additions is a deep secondary, led by Texarkana, Texas, corner Jerry Wrightner. At 6-1, 175, Wrightner recorded 110 tackles, nine interceptions, two forced fumbles, and four touchdowns in his career. Wrightner was named a Class 5A all-state selection as a senior and runs a 4.37 40-yard dash, according to Hudl.
Also from Texas is Missouri City’s Jihmon Preston, a safety who reminds Brown of former Tiger and 2014 All-American Michael Jordan. Logan Stewart and Elijah Cordero, both Colorado products, figure to factor in at safety. A hoist of other talented ball-hawkers, including Rayvon Lewis (Blue Springs, Mo.), Hunter Gnose (Stiatook, Okla.) and Christien Ozores (Junction City), also have Brown — a former All-American safety at Pittsburg State — anxious to get his new freshmen on the field.
“I think Jerry Wrightener — he’s a kid I feel is a tremendous athlete, got great speed, great size, plays physical for a corner. Jhimon Preston, another kid from the Houston area, I think he kinda reminds me of Michael Jordan a little bit as when he was a freshman, and hopefully he matures and grows a little bit just like Michael Jordan did.
“I think those two guys and Elijah Cordero — that kid reminds me of Doyin. Doyin’s got a great frame, good size, was a little raw when he got here, but turned into a great strong safety for us. I think Elijah’s gonna be that same type of kid.”
Hunter Knoblauch, an Andale product in the secondary, also transferred in from Kansas State. Knoblauch was recruited by Fort Hays before last year’s signing period, but ultimately chose to sign with the Wildcats. For Lewis, the similarity in the structure of his high school led to an easy decision for the Kansas City area cornerback.
“After going up there and listening to all the coaches, they were preaching the same thing our coaches do here at Blue Springs,” Lewis said. “They talk about winning and how all the players are a family, nobody’s above nobody no matter what. That just got my attention and I knew I wanted to be a part of that organization.”
Highlighting the Tigers’ offensive signings is Jacoby Williams, a 6-foot-3 Texas gunslinger who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns during his Class 5A MVP campaign. A mobile, pass-first righty from Garland, Williams said the presentation from recruiters and FHSU assistant coaches Ike Eguae and Philip Vigil, his quarterback coach, sold him near instantly.
“The whole presentation, it just caught my attention more than any other school that’s came,” Williams said. “They told me how much they liked me as a player, how much Coach Vigil liked me. After that, I was just ready to see the campus for myself. … Once I got up there, it just felt right. I just knew I belonged there.”
That feeling led to Williams to become the Tigers’ first commit during his official visit. After shattering school records and following in the footsteps of the likes of Baylor QB Seth Russell at Garland, Brown sees a bright future for Williams.
“I just really like his attitude, his demeanor and the way he plays the game,” Brown said. “He’s a very smart football player, doesn’t make a lot of bad decisions when you watch his film. He’s got the size that you want, he’s very mobile, has got a very good arm, but knows the game of football and it’s very important to him. He’s got a great presence about him — not arrogant, not cocky, but very confident in his abilities and what he can bring to the team. … We’re gonna let him compete with Jake (Mezera) and see what happens there. Hopefully we can redshirt him, Jake can be the starter for a few years and then he comes in becomes a three-year starter, as well.”
Offensive weapons will surround Williams, including two more Florida signees. Da’Jaun Johnson is a 5-foot-8, 160-pound wideout from St. Petersburg, Fla. Although he starred as Gibbs High’s quarterback, the speedster rushed for just shy of 900 yards with 13 scores.
Also from Tampa, Fla., is Richard Benjamin, a 6-foot wideout transfer from Louisville. Benjamin served sparingly as a defensive back for the Cardinals and will come to Hays with three years of eligibility remaining with a chance to make an immediate impact.
Chance Clark (Highland CC punter) and Mitchell Miller (Liberty North, Mo. athlete) round out the initial wave of signings, bringing 30 new players to join as the Tigers try for their first nine-win season in program history.
With offseason programs well underway for current players, the grind to bring in as many as 10 more additions continues for Brown and his staff. But for the time being, Brown is anxious to get a group he hauled in acclimated to the family atmosphere he has built in his five years in Hays.
“I really feel like the kids we were after really hard, we got those kids,” Brown said. “They just felt good here, but our coaches recruited these kids year-round. It wasn’t just a two-month thing. I think that really helps with building relationships and getting those kids to understand what’s going on here, the family that we are building, the family that we have here. Those kids want to be a part of it.”