LAWRENCE — Entrenched in one of the most emotionally taxing back-and-forth contests of his four-year Kansas football career, Mike Lee tracked down a true freshman.
The senior safety wanted to let inside linebacker Gavin Potter know he belonged in this moment.
“I told Gavin on the sideline, I was like, ‘Everybody knows you as a freshman, but you’re not playing like you’re a freshman,” recalled Lee, whose Jayhawks fell 50-48 to No. 15 Texas last Saturday in Austin. “You’re playing like you’ve been here before. Just keep playing your game.’ ”
Thrust into playing time in Week 5 following a potentially season-ending injury to standout junior Dru Prox, Potter has improved on a game-by-game basis, playing above his head in the near upset of the 21-point favorite Longhorns.
Potter recorded six solo tackles, nine total stops, 1½ sacks and 2½ tackles for loss, all team-highs in the defeat. While Lee and others acknowledge there’s still room for growth in the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder’s game, praise for the strides he’s made to this point has been virtually unanimous among those around KU (2-5, 0-4 Big 12).
“You know, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s football,” Lee said. “You’re a freshman. You’re going to have mistakes. But I felt like overall he had a great game. He’s running to the ball. He’s making plays. He got some sacks on (Sam) Ehlinger. I feel like he did a good job on his behalf.”
Les Miles concurred. He said Potter has shown “no problem” filling big shoes or dealing with hostile environments.
“Yeah, he’s going to be something down the road. Give him a couple years and he’ll be something else,” Miles said. “But freshman newcomer of the something-or-other would be a great suggestion, if you’d make it. I kind of like the freshman newcomer of the something-or-other, right? That had a nice little zip to it, didn’t it?”
The excitement for Potter’s presence at KU has been mutual between player and program, and it dates back to one of the first phone calls Miles made as the Jayhawks’ new head coach.
A three-star recruit out of Broken Arrow High School, Potter was a nominee for Oklahoma defensive player of the year honors by the Tulsa World as a senior, totaling 23 tackles-for-loss en route to a 13-0 season and a state championship.
Film of Potter’s work soon found its way to Miles, who wasted no time dialing the prospect up.
“I was just sitting there thinking for a little bit, I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if he called me on the phone and offered me?’ " Potter recalled. "And then two days later he called me on the phone and offered me. ... I was just really starstruck. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really Coach Miles calling me on the phone.’ I was stuttering. I didn’t know what to say.”
Miles and Potter clicked from the get-go, including over one subject that had nothing to do with football — Potter’s own wrestling background, which included a pair of state championships.
“He used to be a wrestler too, so that’s something that we would talk about every once in a while. We’ll still talk about it every once in a while,” Potter said. “He doesn’t ever want to wrestle for some reason though. I don’t get it.”
While he’ll likely never get to grapple with the 65-year-old Miles, Potter said the skillset he honed on the mat has been the biggest key to his development as a football player.
“I’m going to have my kids do it. I’m grateful that my dad made me wrestle because I didn’t really want to, but after a while I was happy that I did,” Potter said. “It helps you balance mindset, knowing that you and somebody one-on-one, it should be you every time, so that’s helped me a lot with that.”
Once Potter felt KU was the right destination, all that was left was the announcement — but it wasn’t one that went down without some flair and a little bit of trolling.
Potter’s commitment went viral on signing day with a double fake-out of sorts. Orally committed to Kansas State, Potter entered his ceremony in a purple Wildcat hoodie but peeled that off and reveal a red undershirt with the Texas Tech logo ... only to also yank that off, revealing a blue-painted chest with the letters “KU” written at the center.
There were no more articles of clothing to remove, so no more surprises.
Of the dramatic commitment ceremony, a grinning inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler observed: “He’s 100-percent pure meathead, is what it is."
Potter swears there was no ill-will intended with the swerve.
“I just thought it would be fun,” Potter said. “I thought it would be between me and my school. I didn’t think it was going to blow up the way it did. All the people at my school know I joke around, so I just went in there and just had fun. It blew up. I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was going to do that.’ ”
Ekeler — a former linebacker in the early-’90s for, you guessed it, Kansas State — was nevertheless thrilled to land Potter.
Ekeler was in the room for an over-the-top celebration from the coaching staff when defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot shared the news of Potter’s commitment on signing day, a moment Eliot shared through a video posted to Twitter.
“He’s extremely instinctive,” Ekeler said of Potter. “He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s smart. He’s built ready-made to be an inside linebacker. He’s a kid who plays the game and he acts like he’s about 10 years old. I mean, he just loves it. He’s just got a great demeanor about him. Love working with him. He’s going to be a helluva player. ...
“He’s probably the most confident freshman I’ve ever been around. Nothing is too big for him."