STILLWATER — Jaydon Mickens did not know what to think when he set foot in Oklahoma for the first time earlier this month.
First off, it was dark, so he couldn't get a very good feel for his surroundings. But the multipurpose football player from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles admits he already had an existing perception about Oklahoma State, the school that was recruiting him.
“I don't know what I'm doing in Oklahoma,” Mickens remembers thinking to himself. “I don't think I'm going to like it. I'm not ever going to go here.”
Instead, Mickens left Stillwater with a new leader in his recruiting battle.
“Making some friends and seeing what they had to offer academically and athletically, it just opened up my eyes,” Mickens said. “I know now, don't judge a book by its cover.”
The reason Mickens, who Rivals rates a four-star prospect, and OSU ever connected in the first place was because of the Cowboys' visit to Arizona earlier this month. OSU was taking on Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl after capturing its first Big 12 title, while Mickens was putting together a standout performance at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl in Phoenix.
Mickens' courtship is an example of how OSU has recently gained the attention of players from the West, a largely untapped recruiting ground during Mike Gundy's tenure as head coach.
Only one player from the Cowboys' Fiesta Bowl roster, departing senior Nehemiah Mundy, hails from a state west of Oklahoma. And he only came to Stillwater after transferring from UNLV by way of Los Angeles.
But two of the Cowboys' top remaining targets — Mickens and linebacker Seth Jacobs — are from California. Tight end Blake Jackson, a junior college transfer, is from Arizona. Another Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl participant, Chandler (Ariz.) wide receiver Javon Williams, was an OSU target until he narrowed his choice to UCLA and Arkansas earlier this week.
OSU director of recruiting Johnny Barr said he has seen a spike in interest from prospects all over the country, rattling off states like Colorado, Alabama, Georgia and Minnesota as places his staff has recently received materials from. It's another sign of the Cowboys' growing national exposure — think jersey combinations and marquee television games — and, of course, a reward that comes with compiling a 23-3 record over the past two seasons.
“There are kids coming to us,” Barr said. “And I hate to say we're bypassing on some guys, but we're not recruiting certain positions. That's not our need.”
But the West in particular has become a big recruiting area in the days and weeks surrounding OSU's appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. That has prompted Barr and his staff to consider stretching their recruiting areas beyond Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas.
“It makes us reach out maybe a little bit more than we have in the past because of guys that are coming to us interested in our school,” Barr said.
That's what happened with Mickens.
Mickens first took notice of OSU when Cowboy fans recognized quarterback commit Wes Lunt while all the All-American Bowl players attended the Fiesta Bowl. Mickens then envisioned himself scoring three touchdowns on that field like Justin Blackmon (“or better,” he said). And a few days after Mickens was named the All-American Bowl's Most Valuable Player, he got a call from OSU running backs coach Jemal Singleton.
But Mickens needed to see if OSU would mesh with his California upbringing, so he made Stillwater his first January visit.
Mickens and his host, Cowboy running back Joseph Randle, played video games and basketball. Mickens learned about OSU's academic opportunities. The OSU coaches pitched a versatile role for Mickens as a slot receiver, running back and returner.
During the trip, Mickens tweeted “I didn't kno how much fun OSU is!” And unless he changes his mind on his final visit to Washington State this weekend, he expects to sign with the Cowboys on Feb. 1.
Barr insists that OSU has no plans to abandon its recruiting roots, noting the program is always “going to live and die” by finding players in Oklahoma, Texas and the surrounding states. But he also recognizes OSU now has a better opportunity to land top talent nationwide because the Cowboys' prominence.
“We've always gone wherever there's a guy that we think we like,” Barr said. “We'll pursue them. There just seems to be more of them because of our success.”
And that success — especially when it comes with BCS bowl appearances in the West — could help OSU snag more California kids like Mickens, who never considered the Cowboys until a few weeks ago.
“They've got me thinking a lot about going out of state to go to school and seeing other things,” he said. “It's changed (my recruiting) a whole bunch.”