It’s been eight long years since the Kansas Jayhawks posted a winning record, and nine since the program won more than three games in a season. However, the 2017 Jayhawks have the talent and experience to compete and there is renewed optimism surrounding football in Lawrence.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas’ Spring Practice
1. Building Momentum
Kansas’ 2-10 record, including a 1-8 mark in Big 12 play, doesn’t look good on paper. However, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic because the program took a small step forward in 2016, and can continue to build momentum towards a successful ‘17 and beyond.
Podcast: The 2017 Big 12 Primer
Things started very well for the Jayhawks last season. Kansas snapped a 15-game losing streak with a 55-6 win over Rhode Island in the season opener to give head coach David Beaty his first career victory after a 0-12 start. No one should get too excited about an FBS program for beating a bad FCS opponent, but given the fact the Jayhawks lost the 2015 opener to South Dakota State, it was a start.
Beaty and the Jayhawks then lost nine games in a row, but scared TCU to death in a 24-23 loss, played Iowa State to a 31-24 final before finally snapping a 15-game conference losing streak with a 24-21 victory over Texas. Some of the losses were bad – including a 55-19 loss at Texas Tech, 49-7 at Baylor and 56-3 at Oklahoma – but in general, Kansas was a much more competitive team than it had been in 2015.
Despite little to no on-field success since his arrival, Beaty has recruited remarkably well at Kansas. The most recent class ranked last in the Big 12, but the Jayhawks have been actively closing the talent gap in the bottom of the league, and added several junior college prospects that can contribute right away. Also, it’s early, but Kansas currently has the No. 1 recruiting class in the Big 12 for 2018, according to 247Sports. With two four-star recruits and four three-star prospects, the Jayhawks rank No. 10 nationally – one spot ahead of Oklahoma.
2. New Offensive Coordinator Doug Meacham
Not long ago, Meacham was a hot name in the mix for a head coaching gig, often brought up as a candidate for mid-major positions thanks to his success as co-offensive coordinator at TCU. In three years with the Horned Frogs, Meacham had a hand in two top-10 offenses in both points and yards per game. That’s why it was a big surprise when Meacham left Fort Worth in January to become the new play-caller for the Jayhawks.
A member of the Air Raid coaching tree, Meacham should help the Jayhawks take a step forward in the passing game. Last season, the Jayhawks ranked ninth in the Big 12 with an average of 240.4 passing yards per game despite throwing an average of 38.8 passes per contest – the second most in the league. Kansas quarterbacks combined for 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. Only two FBS teams were picked off more.
Fortunately, Meacham has some talent to work with. Rising sophomore Carter Stanley started the final three games of the season, including the win over Texas. Stanley will compete with newcomer Peyton Bender, a former Washington State recruit and junior college transfer, for the starting job this spring. Whichever QB emerges will have the top two receivers from 2016 – Steven Sims, Jr. (72 receptions, 859 yards, 7 TD) and LaQuvionte Gonzalez (62, 729, 3) – available, giving Meacham a strong core of playmakers to build upon. The unit also lost only one full-time starter on the offensive line, which is no small matter.
3. Rebuilding the Defense
It shouldn’t be a shock that a 2-10 team struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard. In 2016, Kansas allowed 37.3 points and 456.2 yards per game, which ranked 113th and 109th, respectively, in the nation. Although, it’s worth pointing out those numbers were far better than the 46.1 points and 560.8 yards the Jayhawks surrendered in 2015.
Kansas must replace four of its five starters in the secondary, as well as two linebackers and defensive end Damani Mosby. Overall, the Jayhawks lose 48.4 percent of their tackling production from a year ago, as well as players that recorded eight of the team’s nine interceptions.
Fortunately, Dorance Armstrong Jr., the team’s best defensive player and one of the top pass rushers in the Big 12, will be back. Armstrong recorded 10 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss last season. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two. Safety Mike Lee also returns back after finishing second on the team with 73.5 tackles. He also had an interception and forced two fumbles in 2016.
4. Newcomer to Know
Kansas signed eight junior college transfers in the 2017 recruiting class, including seven that have already enrolled and are expected to participate in spring practice. Running back Octavius Matthews is the best of the bunch. In fact, Matthews was ranked as the No. 1 JUCO running back recruit in the most recent class by 247Sports. A 6-foot-2, 200-pound Alabama native, Matthews picked the Jayhawks over Auburn and Louisville.
Kansas must replace its top rusher from last season, Ke’aum Kinner, who gained 738 yards and scored three touchdowns. Taylor Martin (324 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Khalil Herbert (189, 3) are the top returners that will challenge Matthews for No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
5. Can the Jayhawks Go Bowling? Or at Least Win a Road Game?
Kansas beat Minnesota 42-21 in the 2008 Insight Bowl to cap off an 8-5 season. The Jayhawks jumped out to a 5-0 record, and rose to No. 16 in the AP poll in 2009. Since then, Kansas has posted an overall record of 14-77 (9-75 against FBS opponents), including a 4-65 mark in conference play. Kansas is 0-41 on the road over that span, meaning KU hasn’t won a road game this decade.
Given such a horrific stretch of ineptitude, it may sound foolish to say the Jayhawks can make it back to a bowl game in 2017. Nevertheless, Kansas has talent and experience, plus the schedule sets up nicely with three winnable non-conference games (Southeast Missouri State, Central Michigan and Ohio), as well as West Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma at home.
The game at Ohio on Sept. 16 could (should?) be the first road win in 42 tries for the Jayhawks. Kansas might even have a chance to go 2-0 on the road to start the season given the trip to face a rebuilding Iowa State squad in October. A win in Ames would be the first for the Jayhawks in a Big 12 road game since they beat the Cyclones in 2008.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Kansas in the Big 12
There hasn’t been much success to celebrate on the football field at Kansas in recent years, but that could change soon. With coaching changes at Texas and Baylor, and some significant personnel losses for defending conference champion Oklahoma, the Big 12 is in a period of transition. Texas Tech is susceptible, and Iowa State’s rebuild is far from complete. Therefore, the timing creates a perfect opportunity for a program like Kansas to take a big step forward.
Given the momentum the program gained on the field in 2016, and the positive things that have already transpired thus far in 2017, avoiding the cellar in the Big 12 standings is a worthy goal and a bowl game may not be far away for these Jayhawks.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.