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November 7, 2008

Spikes discovers potential

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It wasn't that long ago that Kansas offensive tackle Jeff Spikes had no intentions of ever playing football. If there was a sport that Spikes was going to play, it was going to be basketball, not football. Fortunately for him, Devlin Culliver, the football coach at Harvey High School, thought differently.

It was March of 2006 when Culliver first saw Spikes. Culliver was the new coach in town, and he had heard about the 300-pound athlete that had no desire of playing football. Culliver wanted to hear it for himself.

When he approached the high school junior, Spikes had a cast on both legs, an injury he had suffered throwing the shot put, Culliver still immediately saw the potential for Spikes in football. Though it wasn't going to be an easy sell.

Spikes had grown up in a large family and was without a father figure for most of his life, so he had to become the leader of the family. And throughout his childhood, others around him preached that basketball was going to be his only ticket out of Painsville, Ohio.

"They were living their dreams through him and he fell for it because he is a kid," Culliver said.

And for a while there was potential at basketball. The 6-foot-6 Spikes had the height, and was athletic for his size. Yet there was one problem - Spikes couldn't stop gaining weight. By the time Spikes was a junior, he already weighed over 300-pounds.

Eventually, Spikes realized that not too many colleges were looking for 320-pound forwards. Spikes still wanted to go to college, so football would have to be the answer. One month later, Spikes and the new coach drove down the road to Cleveland to attend the Browns high school football combine.

When they got there, Spikes, who had very little football experienced, asked Culliver for advice.

"Just don't fall down," Culliver said.

On that day, Spikes did more than just stay on his feet, he looked like he had been playing football for years. Around the camp, word started to get around about the athletic 300-pound lineman, and more than 20 coaches would approach Culliver asking about Spikes.

But only one coach would follow through. He was an up-and-coming offensive line coach at Illinois, and after that day Ed Warinner would stay in contact with Jeff Spikes for the rest of his recruitment.

"Coach Warriner saw the bigger picture in Jeff," Culliver said.

The next fall, Spikes went out for football, but quickly learned that actually playing the game was a lot different than going through the workouts the previous spring.

Spikes struggled with learning the technique and fundamentals of playing offensive tackle. Still, nobody could deny how athletic he was for an offensive lineman.

Finally, Warriner and Illinois head coach Ron Zook flew to Painsville to offer Spikes a scholarship. And it was almost official, Spikes was planning on committing to Illinois when Warriner called him at the last minute.

Warriner had just been hired as the new offensive coordinator at Kansas, and wanted to send Spikes with him. Soon after, Spikes was a Jayhawk. For Spikes, his relationship with Warinner made it an easy decision.

"He didn't tell me if you come here we will do this or that," Spikes said. "He said if you come here you got to work. There will be good days and bad days, and you will feel that you won't make it. If you work hard the sky is the limit. Most coaches won't be real."

At the time Culliver was happy for his player but was still interested to see how Spikes would develop. He remembers telling a reporter after signing day that at that moment Spikes was 90 percent potential and 10 percent football player.

"I thought under the right coaching staff and position coach he could turn that number around," Culliver said.

Now, two years later, when listening to Spikes speak, it is clear that he is all about football these days. With wide eyes and speaking with as much enthusiasm as his voice can muster, he talks about his switch from left tackle to right and how he was skeptical at first, but now he feels that it was the best move the coaching staff could make.

He mentions how rewarding it is to play with his best friend Jeremiah Hatch, and how every week he picks up the phone and gets his play critiqued by former Kansas offensive tackle and current Cincinnati Bengal Anthony Collins. It all coincides with Spikes playing his best football of the season.

Against Kansas State, the Kansas offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, and Spikes more than held his own at right tackle. It is no surprise when coaches say Spikes has a good chance of one day joining Collins in the NFL. Sometimes, Culliver still can't believe how far Spikes has come in just a few years.

"They took all his natural potential that he had and turned him into a football player."


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