Junior college transfers hit-and-miss in Big 12
DALLAS - The last thing Calvin Barnett wanted to do upon arriving at Oklahoma State last year was something he'd never done before.
"It was my first legit workout, and I'd never thrown up or anything like that from sports before," Barnett said. "I'm talking about baseball when I was younger. Soccer. Football. Every sport I'd ever played, I'd never thrown up. But that first day - it was a Friday - we did a full body workout after we ran and I threw up as soon as the workout was over."
He'd just made it to campus after two years at Navarro College, in Corsicana, Texas. He was second-team All-America in 2011, two years after he'd been considered the best high school player in Oklahoma and one of the best defensive linemen the nation.
At that very moment, Barnett knew none of his teammates were impressed by any of that.
"They were all like, 'Welcome to the Big 12,'" Barnett said.
His reality was the reality so many other junior college players get to know when they reach the Division I level.
"There are people who have been around and at the end of the day, you come in from junior college and, technically, you're already a grown man," Barnett said. "You're a young man, but you come in 20, 21 years old and you don't have time to play around. You know the game. You don't know the speed at this level, but you don't get to make many mistakes.
"It's very new and it's hard to adjust, but at the same time, people expect you to adjust due to your age. You're not a freshman."
Barnett ended up the Big 12's defensive newcomer of the year and the league coaches voted him first-team all-conference. The media included Barnett on their preseason all-conference team last week.
West Virginia would be fortunate if any, many or all of the nine junior college recruits it signed in the 2013 recruiting class are as successful.
"Coming from junior college, I give out a lot of advice to old teammates who are going to Division I and younger players I know who are going to a junior college, and the best thing I can tell them is work hard," the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Barnett said. "If you work hard and do everything right and you don't get in trouble, if you run hard and lift hard and take advantage of the opportunity, that's the best thing you can do.
"Now, if the dominoes fall your way and you're athletically gifted, more power to you, but if you try to do everything right, you can't go wrong."
It is perhaps more complicated than that. TCU's Jason Verrett is arguably the best cornerback in the Big 12, and maybe even the nation. Yet four years ago, he was basically an unrecruited high school senior relegated to Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College.
He redshirted in 2009 and moved from slot receiver to cornerback before the 2010 season.
It worked wonders and Verrett started his first Division I game in 2011 - against Baylor and eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III. He picked apart the Horned Frogs, including Verrett, and passed for 414 yards and six touchdowns.
Verrett legitimately wanted to quit after the game.
"I was heartbroken," he said.
He met with Coach Gary Patterson, who had similar conversations with similar players before.
"The biggest thing was I told him what was going to happen," Patterson said. "It's one thing to be real surprised, but I said, 'Look, if you don't start doing what you need to do, this is what's going to happen. This is the kind of opponent we're going to play against at this level.'"
Patterson had Verrett on the bench the next game, but started him nine other times and saw Verrett named honorable mention all-Mountain West. He'll probably see Verrett drafted early in April's draft.
"I had to learn quickly, but one reason I went to junior college was I wanted that Division I shot," Verrett said. "Once you get that acceptance, you can't go in there like a high school kid. You've got to go in with a lot of maturity."
Filling needs quickly
That's the main reason Kansas brought in 19 junior college players for this season. Coach Charlie Weis arrived in December 2011 and had 29 players leave the team before the start of the 2012 season.
He had a young roster without much experience, depth or talent and that turned into a 1-11 disaster.
"In recruiting, I think it's imperative to understand that when you bring in a high school kid, there's a good portion of them that need at least a year to go ahead and develop - at least a year. Sometimes it's more than a year," he said. "There's a handful of guys that are ready to play when they walk in the door, but that's the exception, not the norm. I needed guys that could play now because, if not, I'm going to be ranked tenth in the league every year."
Weis wants to go in the other direction quickly and build with high school players and fill needs with junior college players. WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen had to do a little of each.
He signed large recruiting classes with almost only high school players in 2011 and 2012, but will sign smaller classes the next two years. Junior college players helped fill out numbers and keep things even, but mostly addressed the problems of youth and inexperience he could have dealt with in 2013 and beyond.
When preseason practice starts Aug. 1, junior college players will pursue starting spots at center, running back, both outside receiver positions, inside receiver, defensive end, outside linebacker and punter.
Mistakes will be made
Every one of them is bound to make mistakes. Barnett's heaving introduction to college football was followed by a rocky stretch in his second game. He was called for three personal fouls in a loss to Arizona. His coach, Mike Gundy, didn't yank Barnett from the game.
"Coach Gundy told me he didn't pull me out because he knew I was smart enough to learn from it," Barnett said. "I didn't change one thing that I did then to what I do now."
WVU's stated goal is to recruit a junior college player who can either start or back up in the first year - and obviously one is better than the other. They have shorter eligibility clocks and there isn't much time to wait for them to develop. Sometimes that means to not only assume that they're ready, but that they'll also improve every game.
There's a trust involved, whether that means believing Verrett won't quit and will get better or that Barnett will figure out how far he can go before an official has to throw a flag. Kansas has one of the league's expected marquee transfers in Cassius Sendish, a defensive back veteran defensive coordinator Dave Campo likes so much that already that he's decided to move Sendish around at safety and cornerback.
"Everyone was there with open arms for me," said Sendish, who enrolled in January. "That's the main thing I credit with me coming in and making an impact. Everyone was willing to accept me and I was able to come in and blossom as time went on."
Wildcats lead the way
Kansas State is as good as anyone at junior college recruiting. And in some years it's as good as anyone because of junior college recruiting. Last year, six starters and four backups on defense and two starters and one backup on offense were junior college transfers for the conference champion.
Since the Big 12 formed in 1996, nine junior college transfers won a newcomer of the year award on offense or defense for the Wildcats, 27 players made an all-conference team and 32 went on to play professionally. Hardly any of the 24 players signed the past three years were highly ranked among junior college prospects.
The Wildcats are fortunate Kansas has some of the most organized and most successful programs in the nation inside the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, but they also know what they're doing.
"It can be hard because at first you don't know a lot of people and you might not get along with some people, but at Kansas State, we say we're a family and it's true," said junior Tyler Lockett, who never went to junior college, but has seen how his teammates have absorbed junior college transfers. "Everyone on our football team is pretty much cool with each other. We always go hang out after football practice.
"So we're able to bring them in and talk to them like we've been talking to them since childhood years and I think that kind of helps them calm down and focus a little bit more and say, 'I thought this was going to be hard.'"
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.