The Les Miles era of Kansas football is upon us. Miles and his coaching staff have one of the toughest tasks in college football: rebuilding a program that has won just six games over the last four seasons, hasn’t gone to a bowl game or posted a winning record since 2008, and returns one of the most inexperienced rosters in the country.
There are question marks everywhere. The Kansas offense ranked last in the Big 12 and 107th in the country in yards per play (5.17) last season. The Jayhawks surrendered 6.06 yards per play defensively, which ranked eighth in the conference and No. 100 nationally. Oh, and Kansas must replace its starting quarterback, three of its top four receivers, its entire starting defensive line, and an all-time performer at linebacker. And last we heard, the best player on the roster was suspended.
In all likelihood, things will get worse at Kansas before they get better. But Miles is a name-brand, national championship-winning head coach. He’s won on the field, and on the recruiting trail, and the early indication is he’s helping the Jayhawks get back on the path to respectability. As the Jayhawks prepare for spring practice, and with it our first glimpse of the on-field product under Miles’ direction, we offer five storylines to watch.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas Spring Practice
1. The one and only Les Miles
Miles is one of the great personalities in college football, and one of the most quotable coaches in sports. Miles is so charismatic he became a fixture in beer commercials, trained as an actor, and landed a role in a major motion picture while he was away from coaching. But Miles apparently missed being on the sidelines so badly over the last two years, he relinquished a potential $5 million payout owed to him after LSU fired him during the 2016 season to take one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in the nation.
Miles received a great deal of criticism during his later years at LSU, especially for an offensive system many in the vocal Tigers' fan base believed to be underachieving at best, and archaic at worst. Some prominent college football media members also chastised Miles for his stubbornness, both for his team operating out of a traditional pro-style offense and for refusing to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who called the plays.
But he also won a lot of games and recruited a ton of future NFL players to Baton Rouge. Miles was 114-34 overall and 62-28 in SEC play at LSU from 2005-16. His teams posted seven double-digit-winning seasons, which included the 2011 SEC championship team and the '07 national title winners. Miles is one of only five active FBS head coaches with a national title (BCS or current College Football Playoff) to his credit, so despite his sometimes less-than-eloquent way with words, and his faults as a decision-maker at LSU, he’s proven himself to be one of the most successful coaches of college football’s modern era.
2. Scholarship deficit and basic roster concerns
Before we're able to dive into which units are strengths, which position groups must be rebuilt following the graduation of past starters and contributors, and the position battles that are typically the focus of spring practice, we need to address a foundational problem facing the Kansas football roster — and one that Power 5 programs shouldn’t have to deal with: a huge scholarship deficit.
KU currently ranks No. 122 in returning production, according to Bill Connelly’s annual list, but more importantly, as Ross Dellenger pointed out in a recent SI.com piece, Miles inherited a roster situation even worse than he or athletic director Jeff Long realized. Though FBS programs are allotted a total of 85 scholarships, the Jayhawks won’t reach that benchmark until at least 2022 (and most likely 2023 or later), because of “the shortsighted recruiting tactics of past regimes and the NCAA’s two-year-old 25-scholarship limit for each recruiting class.”
Kansas hired its last head coach, David Beaty, in large part for his recruiting prowess. Beaty helped raise the talent level somewhat following the Charlie Weis debacle, but he was never able to turn slightly higher recruiting rankings into wins, finishing his four-year tenure with a 6-43 overall record. Not only did Beaty’s decision to sign a combined 25 junior college players from 2017-18 not pay off in the standings, but the Jayhawks are in an even bigger hole now than the one he inherited from Weis.
3. Building blocks
There are two areas of the Kansas roster that show distinct promise: running back and defensive back. Miles and his coaching staff inherited three tailbacks who accounted for more than 200 rushing yards last season, led by Pooka Williams Jr., who set school records as a true freshman in 2018 and earned Offensive Freshman of the Year honors from the Big 12. Williams was one of the most productive ball carriers in the conference, and he ranked second in the league in rushing yards per game (102.3) and scored seven times on the ground. He enters 2019 as the leading returning rusher in the conference with 1,125 rushing yards to his credit.
Sadly, Williams was arrested in a domestic violence matter in December and subsequently suspended from all team activities. His status for the spring and fall is unclear. Though if Williams is still suspended come August, at least there is depth at the position. Rising senior Khalil Herbert and junior Dom Williams combined for 730 rushing yards a year ago, and Herbert was second on the team with five touchdowns.
The secondary is arguably an even stronger unit, and certainly the most experienced position group on the roster. Cornerbacks Hasan Defense and Corione Harris and safeties Bruce Torneden and Mike Lee — all seniors — have combined to start 82 games, and the quartet played a big role in the Jayhawks' success picking off passes last year. Of the 16 interceptions recorded by Kansas a year ago, which ranked in the top 20 nationally, Defense was responsible for three, with Harris, Torneden, and Lee providing one each. Torneden and Lee both took theirs to the house.
4. Quarterback competition
A major reason for Beaty’s downfall was Kansas’ inability to get consistent quarterback play during his tenure. While Peyton Bender posted a solid 13:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2018, his 5.9 yards per pass attempt ranked dead last in the Big 12 and fell outside the top 100 in the country. His 118.07 rating also was the worst in the conference among primary starters and ranked No. 95 nationally.
On the bright side, Bender’s struggles (and others before him) have allowed Carter Stanley to see the field often over the last three years. The rising senior appeared in nine games in both 2016 and '17, including seven starts combined, and made six appearances and two more starts as a junior. Last year, Stanley completed an impressive 72.3 percent of his passes for 304 yards and three TDs with one interception, but he averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt.
Stanley enters his senior season with the inside track to the starting job, having thrown for 2,371 yards and 13 touchdowns (though also with 13 interceptions). However, Stanley has struggled to stay atop the depth chart in the past, and he’ll face a challenge from a pair of junior college QBs.
Thomas MacVittie was a four-star prospect ranked No. 91 overall by 247Sports. He signed with Pitt coming out of high school in 2016, but he landed at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College where he rose to No. 2 among junior college signal-callers in the 2019 recruiting cycle. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, MacVittie has prototypical size and a strong arm. He’s also extremely athletic and played some special teams for the Panthers before leaving. Along with new receivers Andrew Parchment and Ezra Naylor, MacVittie could inject the Kansas offense with a dose of fresh blood.
The wild card is Miles Kendrick, who is even more athletic than MacVittie, but is far, far from the NFL prototype as he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds. Kendrick made four appearances as a true sophomore last year (which allowed him to redshirt), in which he completed 11 of 19 passes for 100 yards and an interception. He added 47 rushing yards and one touchdown on 16 carries. Should MacVittie or Stanley claim the QB job, Miles might look to get Kendrick playing time at another position.
5. New-look linebacker corps
Linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. was one of the most productive defenders in college football throughout his Jayhawks tenure. Dineen racked up 391 career tackles, including an amazing 284 stops (as well as 36.0 tackles for a loss) combined over the last two years. Running mate Keith Loneker Jr. ranked among the top seven on the team in tackles in each of the last three seasons, topping out at third last year when he was credited with 68. Fellow senior Osaze Ogbebor didn’t light up the stat sheet, but he provided quality depth at the position.
But with Dineen, Loneker, and Ogbebor all out of eligibility, Kyron Johnson and Denzel Feaster are the only returning linebackers with any significant experience at the position. Johnson made seven starts last season, posting 16 total tackles, 4.0 tackles for a loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Feaster also appeared in all 12 games and has one career start to his credit. Feaster was credited with eight tackles and 1.0 TFL.
The rest of the room is very inexperienced. Drew Harvey, Dru Prox, and Jay Dineen has played a combined 33 games, but mostly on special teams. Miles and his new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot (who ran a base three-man front with three linebackers and a hybrid linebacker/safety last season at Colorado), might have to rely on a few newcomers, and potentially a walk-on or two, to fill out the unit. Freshman signee Gavin Potter was the only new recruit listed as a linebacker in his 247Sports profile, but defensive ends Steven Parker (6-4, 220) and Jereme Robinson (6-4, 212) are linebacker-sized. Senior defensive end Najee Stevens-McKenzie (6-3, 225) might also be an option, though the defensive line is in transition as well after losing all four of its primary starters from last year.
(Top photo courtesy of @KU_Football)