Head coach Les Miles managed three wins in his first season at Kansas — that tied for the program’s top mark of the decade — but there’s reason to think the Jayhawks may not match that number in 2020. In the offseason, Miles made the painful (but correct) decision not to go for a quick fix in recruiting; KU, which has been dealing with a scholarship-player discrepancy for years, signed all freshmen in its 2020 class — a positive step for the overall health of the program.
That could result in huge growing pains this season, though. KU has major holes to fill, and it didn’t replenish with many ready-now additions.
In essence, Miles chose to pay the bill for the previous sins of former coaches Charlie Weis and David Beaty, who too often gambled on juco players while thinning out KU’s available talent pool. Miles is trying to build the foundation in a sound manner, but doing that means 2020 is likely to be an even bigger challenge than 2019.
Previewing Kansas' Offense for 2020
KU’s offense took off in 2019 with the midseason promotion of Brent Dearmon to offensive coordinator. Dearmon, known for his expertise in run-pass option, led the Jayhawks to 48 points at Texas, 37 against Texas Tech and 31 at Iowa State but just a combined 29 in losses to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor. “There was no in between,” Dearmon said. “When 9 (starting quarterback Carter Stanley) was playing at his top game, you felt like nobody could stop us.”
KU will have to replace Stanley — he just completed one of the Jayhawks’ most productive seasons in years — and the options are unproven. After KU missed out on Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks — he eventually chose Arkansas — the remaining front-runners are junior Miles Kendrick and senior Thomas MacVittie. Those two combined for just one pass attempt in 2019, with Kendrick playing four games for the Jayhawks the previous year. Expect competition for the starting job to continue into fall camp.
The Jayhawks’ greatest strength is at the skill positions. Junior Pooka Williams Jr. is one of the nation’s most dynamic running backs, a two-time first-team all-conference selection who led the nation in forced missed tackle percentage against eight-plus in the box, according to Pro Football Focus. Backup Velton Gardner showed flashes in 26 carries as well, breaking off a 45-yard touchdown run at TCU and a 32-yard score against Texas Tech.
KU’s deepest group is receiver. Andrew Parchment and Stephon Robinson Jr. return as top-10 players in the Big 12 at their position, while Kwamie Lassiter II, Takulve Williams and Ezra Naylor II have breakout potential.
Dearmon admits KU will be less experienced on the offensive line, with the biggest immediate concern coming at left tackle — the spot that four-year starter Hakeem Adeniji occupied most of his KU career.
Previewing Kansas' Defense for 2020
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot says that the No. 1 goal in a rebuild is always to get guys to tackle and compete. He felt KU’s defense accomplished that in 2019. “I don’t know if there was an opposing team that would say, ‘They don’t play hard,’” Eliot says. Now, the objective is to refine the execution. Eliot says that was KU’s biggest issue as it allowed a league-worst 36.1 points per game. “Sometimes we had a guy going right and he should have been going left,” Eliot says. “And so that’s the next step that we’re building on.”
On paper, though, it’s tough to envision KU improving too much based on the number of inexperienced players who will have to take on leading roles. The Jayhawks lost almost all of their contributing defensive linemen from last season, and they’ll also be thin at outside linebacker, where former top recruit Steven Parker will need to emerge after playing four games and redshirting in 2019.
KU should get a boost with Dru Prox back for a sixth year of eligibility; the inside linebacker was the Jayhawks’ best defensive player for four games in 2019 before sustaining a shoulder injury that ended his season. Eliot is also bullish on Gavin Potter, a sophomore who was forced into playing time as a true freshman following Prox’s departure. “It was sink or swim, right?” Eliot says. “I think he came out swimming, so it’s going to help us down the road.”
KU also has question marks in the secondary, where it lost talented players in Bryce Torneden, Mike Lee and Hasan Defense. Fifth-year senior Kyle Mayberry should be a stabilizing force at corner, while Kenny Logan Jr. is a name to watch if he makes the expected switch from corner to safety.
Related: Big 12 Football Predictions for 2020
Previewing Kansas' Specialists for 2020
KU has a top punter in Kyle Thompson, who needs to improve his consistency but has shown the potential for booming kicks. Liam Jones is the incumbent at placekicker, though his accuracy was poor on both PATs and field goals in 2019.
KU does have a friendly non-conference schedule, with winnable games against New Hampshire, Boston College and Coastal Carolina. The Jayhawks are likely to be double-digit underdogs in all their Big 12 matchups, though, a reality of the coaching staff’s decision to work at a talent discrepancy — for now — with the hope of building for the future.
National Ranking: 106
(Top photo by Jeff & Laura Jacobsen/Kansas Athletics)