YEAR TWO OF A *MUMBLES*-YEAR REBUILD
God bless you, David Beaty.
In his first season with the unfortunate Jayhawks, he took a Kansas team that went 3-9, 3-9, 1-11, and 2-10 the seasons before his arrival and promptly went 0-12. We knew it was possible when the “paycheck” games were a plucky South Dakota State squad and a Justin Fuente-led Memphis. The Jackrabbits took a 31-7 second quarter led and held on to win, and Fuente’s Tigers blasted the Jayhawks 55-23. The Jayhawks lost all nine Big 12 games by an average score of 48-12.
It sucked. If you’re looking for signs of life (and if you’re willing to squint) you’ll notice
that the Jayhawks rebounded from that 31-7 deficit to lose by just three points, or that the Jayhawks battled back from being down 20 against the conference’s most explosive offense in Texas Tech, and took a Trevone Boykin-less TCU to the wire. Along the way a lot of young guys got experience due to injury and Beaty likely found his quarterback for the future in Ryan Willis.
Still, 0-12 is 0-12. And 0-12 sucks.
Once upon a time, the Big 12 had divisions and the conference heavyweights might rotate off the schedule every few years, allowing the possibility for a team like the 2000 Iowa State Cyclones to go 9-3; however, in the brave new round robin Big 12 you don’t get that luxury. There aren’t any waterfalls going into the KU training facility any time soon. You don’t have a hardware-packed trophy room with which to dazzle recruits.
At least downtown Lawrence is cool. But even the nearest Waffle House is 24 miles away. There are no shortcuts to be found here, except but to hunt for a win, and then hunt for another one, and another one . . . unfortunately, in Lawrence those wins might be fifty-two weeks apart.
QUARTERBACK BY COMMITTEE
Beaty wouldn’t even have the luxury of a clear leader at quarterback. Five different quarterbacks threw at least one pass. Montell Cozart led off and was more or less effective (62.7% completion rate through four games) before suffering a shoulder sprain, but a whole month hadn’t even passed before Beaty was discussing the possibility of a position change for the 6’2”/200-pound junior. Then his counterpart Deondre Ford went down for the year.
Enter Willis, a three-star pro-style quarterback who took over against Iowa State. Beaty has discussed changing over to a “true Air Raid” style offense in 2016 and Willis better fits the mold. Despite missing most of the spring with a wrist injury, I’d be surprised if Beaty turns back to Cozart.
A true sophomore asked to carry a young team in a power-packed Big 12, what could go wrong, right? While Willis struggled in his debut, Beaty certainly saw a glimpse of
the future during Willis’ 35-for-50, 330-yard performance against Texas Tech . . . but otherwise there wasn’t much to write home about. Outside of the Tech game Willis completed just 49% of his passes for seven touchdowns and nine picks.
He’ll need help. A useless running game resets and has very little depth outside of senior Ke’aun Kinner, who toted 43 times for 270 yards and three scores against South Dakota State and Memphis, but more or less vanished after that. Backing him up are an unrated Ryan Schadler and two-star Taylor Martin.
At wideout Willis loses his preferred target in Tre’ Parmalee but gets targets two through four back. Steven Sims Jr., Jeremiah Booker, and Tyler Patrick were spotty, but they share a common characteristic with Willis and the young running backs: they were all freshmen.
It will be a recurring theme throughout these previews that injuries usually hurt in the short term but help in the long term, as they force young players to step up early, which builds depth. However, normally when I say that I don’t see this many freshman-turned-sophomores. If this principle takes in Lawrence look for the Jayhawks to be occasionally dangerous while also being occasionally terrible in 2016. But if Beaty’s offense can stave off the injury bug in 2016 the pieces will be in place for a solid, experienced, deep unit for the 2017 campaign.
We’ll also learn Beaty’s playcalling prowess. He retains offensive coordinator Rob Likens but will take over the playcalling duties. At least the offensive line, while a giant question mark, retains some junior rather than sophomores.
AN EXPERIENCED DEFENSE NEEDS TO STEP UP
Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen has been at Kansas in some capacity for two decades, including a stint as interim head coach in 2014. This will be his seventh year as DC or co-DC. Bowen was born in Lawrence. He played defensive back for the Jayhawks in the 90s. He coached Aqib Talib. If there’s anyone who bleeds crimson and blue in this world, it’s him, and he’s overseen some salty Kansas defensive units in the past.
That said, let’s take a gander at this unit.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Kansas was one of the Big 12’s worst defenses in 2014. It lost all but three starters. When that happens scores like 55-23, 66-7, 58-10, 62-7, 59-20, 49-0, and 45-14 get a little easier to understand, if not to stomach.
Last year I wrote that the 2014 squad was at least a little bit good at stopping teams once they got into scoring position (i.e., inside the KU 40), and maybe if they could retain a little of that energy they might be able to stop every game from turning into a track meet?
That didn’t happen. The Jayhawks plummeted from 8th in Redzone S&P+ to 95th. Opponents more or less had their way with Kansas from the opening whistle. Factor in opponents named Oklahoma and Baylor (even the mostly-hapless Texas got in a few licks) and the Jayhawks were in for a rough 2015.
It’s even difficult to play the “squint to see signs of life” game.” Kansas held TCU to 5.29 yards per play, which was certainly worth bragging about even if the Frogs were lacking Boykin. It’s best performance came against in-state rival Kansas State, holding the Wildcats to 5.26 yards per play, but still allowed 45 points.
First things first, let’s shore up that run D. Allowing opponents to tote for 3,206 yards on the year is unconscionable. Fortunately, the Jayhawks return a ton of experience in the front seven. Unfortunately, most of their specialities were in the pass rush: the defensive line was saltiest on passing downs and generated a decent number of sacks. They have to do a better job of getting the opponent behind the sticks.
There’s talent (or at least experience) to be found further back. Kansas returns a pair of skilled linebackers in Joe Dineen Jr. and Marcquis Roberts, and adds an intriguing newbie in Maciah Long. If the Jayhawks are going to improve, these linebackers will be the key ingredient.
And speaking of experience, the secondary is loaded with it. Fish Smithson led the team in tackles at safety and a freshman Tyrone Miller Jr. logged substantial hours at corner. There’s a lot of upside here if they can only create some chaos, and if nothing else fans can take solace in the fact that this unit really has nowhere to go but up. In an offensively-loaded Big 12 the ceiling is only so high, but this defense will almost certainly improve in 2016.
KANSAS WILL FIELD A SPECIAL TEAMS UNIT
Matthew Wyman had a pretty good leg for punts and kickoffs and Ryan Schandler housed a kickoff, but otherwise this unit was unreliable. Field goals were a veritable coin flip and punt returners were probably safer taking a fair catch. A young offense would appreciate having the field slanted slightly more in its favor.
KANSAS WILL PROBABLY WIN A FOOTBALL GAME!
As I said before, it’s hard to build in the Big 12. Everyone knew 0-12 was on the table in year one, and despite all the positivity I tried to pump into this team, this defense will still probably be top 80 at best, and the offense turning the corner from young and unstable to experienced and efficient is no sure thing.
The easy solution would be to load the roster with JUCOs and try to ride a dual-threat guy like Cozart. Beaty isn’t taking any shortcuts, however, preferring to let freshmen and sophomores carry the team. This formula isn’t going to win in Norman or Waco or Morgantown, but it might work in Manhattan. Iowa State visits. Unfortunately, Kansas also draws an Ohio Bobcats team that will likely contend for the MAC this year and a Memphis team that, while losing its head coach and its NFL draft ready quarterback, is still probably more than capable of giving KU the business.
That said, Rhode Island comes to town on September 3rd after going 1-10 in FCS. Get a win. Keep building. As long as the KU administration isn’t expecting a bowl this (or probably next) season, Beaty has demonstrated that he’s willing to do the work and that he deserves time.