Chris Klieman knew quickly the 2017 recruiting class he signed at North Dakota State was special.
“We thought,” Klieman said, “it was a class that we could develop.”
The Bison developed it better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Just ask the Bucs and the rest of the NFL.
The Bucs took 6-foot-5, 302-pound offensive lineman Cody Mauch in the second round of last month’s NFL draft, then grabbed defensive back Josh Hayes four rounds later. The Packers plucked Plant High alumnus Christian Watson in last year’s second round.
Three undersized recruits. Three NFL draft picks. That’s an exceptional hit rate for a Football Championship Subdivision signing class of 25 (including walk-ons). Florida State and Miami had top-12 classes that year but only produced four draft picks each. North Dakota State’s total doesn’t include three players who signed as undrafted free agents this spring, or another (tight end Josh Babicz) who spent time on the practice squads in Seattle and Green Bay last year.
“We could get credit…” said Klieman, now the coach at Kansas State. “(But) players have got to put in the work. Cody put in the work, for sure. Christian put in the work. Josh Hayes put in the work to get where they’re at.”
From afar, Mauch’s ascent is the unlikeliest, from preferred walk-on to No. 48 overall pick. It’s not that simple.
Klieman’s staff knew him because they scoured North Dakota for overlooked prospects who would love to play for the Bison; Mauch was an hour south of campus in the 912-person town of Hankinson.
The Bison found a prospect who was too lean but long and athletic enough to set school records in sacks and touchdowns, average 20 points and 15 rebounds in basketball and qualify for the state track meet. Klieman had flashbacks to two recent linemen who, like Mauch, were nearby, undersized, multi-sport athletes who needed to grow into their frames: 2021 second-round pick Dillon Radunz and Joe Haeg, who appeared in the final 16 games of the Bucs’ Super Bowl 55 run.
Coaches try to project how players’ bodies will develop, getting input from the strength coach and drilling down details like how many pounds a player added between sixth and seventh grade. But the process remains inexact. The Bison didn’t know whether Mauch would bloom into a 300-pounder like Radunz and Haeg.
“If this kid puts on the growth and the mass that those guys did,” Klieman thought, “he’s got a chance.”
When Mauch exploded from a 6-foot-5, 221-pound recruit into a 269-pound redshirt freshman, Klieman knew Mauch had an NFL future.
Klieman knew even earlier with Watson.
Watson was stuck behind a loaded group of receivers at Plant and didn’t hit 140 pounds until his sophomore season. The Bison, thanks to the Tampa Bay connections of then-assistant Atif Austin (an alumnus and former coach of Tarpon Springs High), loved Watson’s speed and ball skills.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“We caught him at the right time, when he was really starting to grow and evolve as a player,” Klieman said.
Watson grew, all right, into a 6-foot-4 star who led the Packers with seven touchdown catches last year as a rookie.
Like Watson and Mauch, Hayes didn’t have ideal size, either. He said he didn’t take diet and workouts seriously enough at Lake Gibson High, which helps explain why he was the fifth-lightest player on the Bison’s roster as a freshman (5-foot-11, 178 pounds).
It didn’t matter. Klieman saw the same thing Bucs vice president of player personnel John Spytek saw during the draft process: a tenacious competitor. That was evident by how well Hayes played in his first year when injuries forced him into the starting lineup of the national championship.
“Josh rose to the occasion,” Klieman said, “like we knew he would because he just loved to compete.”
Hayes, like Klieman, left North Dakota State, but they reunited last year at Kansas State — Klieman as the head coach, Hayes as a two-time transfer coming from Virginia. The Wildcats convinced him to switch from cornerback to more of a safety and nickelback to add versatility to his NFL resume.
Sixteen months later, Klieman and Hayes reflected on that path together over the phone as one of the newest Bucs sat in the same Polk County home Klieman visited six years earlier to try to convince him to join a remarkable recruiting class.
“It’s a pretty special feeling for all of us coaches involved…” Klieman said. “It’s neat to see those guys continue to chase their dreams and know that it’s not going to be handed to them. It’s going to be done with hard work, and those guys definitely put the work in.”
• • •
Sign up for the Bucs RedZone newsletter to get updates and analysis on the latest team and NFL news from Bucs beat writer Joey Knight.