Kansas fans would be forgiven for concentrating more on the Jayhawks’ run to the Final Four than the beginning of spring football practice. After all, KU is one of college basketball’s blue-blood programs, while the football program has often been one of the worst in the country — at least during the most recent decade.
The only national headlines the football program has made in recent months have centered on its team captains refusing to shake Baker Mayfield’s hand (before losing 41-3), an assistant coach leaving for a career in the oil industry, and an interstate billboard in Topeka calling out the Jayhawks as “incompetent” while also calling for the job of athletic director Sheahon Zenger. Not exactly encouraging news.
Kansas has lost 81 games since 2010, including 67 of 71 played against Big 12 opponents. The Jayhawks have ranked dead last in the Big 12 in total offense every year this decade. Kansas lost its final 11 games of the 2017 season, and finished winless in conference play for the second time in three years. The Jayhawks were outscored 46-14 in league play, on average. Head coach David Beaty, who is 3-33 at the helm since 2015, faces a tough uphill battle and must likely show significant improvement to keep his job.
Nevertheless, spring is generally a time of great optimism for FBS football programs across the country, and Kansas is no different.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas Spring Practice
1. A wealth of experience
The biggest asset Kansas has heading into spring practice is experience. The Jayhawks had only eight seniors on the roster last season, and only two were full-time starters. Kansas expects to return nine starters on offense, including every player that attempted a pass or run, plus 14 of the 15 different players that caught a pass. Leading receiver Steven Sims (above, right) could push for All-Big 12 honors after tallying 59 receptions for 839 yards and six touchdowns last year. Though the team lost standout defensive end Dorance Armstrong, Jr. a year early to the NFL draft, the other 10 starters, and 10 of the top 11 tacklers, are expected to return on defense. The veteran group includes Joe Dineen Jr., who was the Big 12’s leader in tackles (137), tackles for a loss (25.0) and run stuffs (34), as well as All-Big 12 defensive lineman Daniel Wise, who led the team with seven sacks, and defensive backs Mike Lee and Hasan Defense, who tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
According to the research of SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, the Jayhawks welcome back 91 percent of their offensive production and 92 percent on defense — both second most in the Big 12 and among the top four programs nationally. Overall, Kansas has the most experienced roster in the conference, with 91 percent of its total production returning. The Jayhawks rank second nationally among FBS programs. Only Michigan State (92 percent) has more.
But how does an experienced roster impact Kansas’ chances of generating more wins? According to Connelly, 86 percent of teams that return greater than 80 percent of their production have “improved their adjusted scoring margin per game by at least six points.” Kansas had an adjusted scoring margin of -20.85 across all games last season, and -25.59 against FBS opponents. However, the Jayhawks were outscored by 10 points or more in every loss, and didn’t record an adjusted scoring margin lower than -8.5 in any contest, so there is a lot of ground to make up. KU must improve far more than the average veteran-laden team to see any significant improvement in its won-loss record.
2. Quarterback competition
Carter Stanley (right) and Peyton Bender have both spent time as Kansas’ starting quarterback. Stanley took hold of the job late in 2016, and entered ‘17 with the inside track. Stanley’s emergence also encouraged Montell Cozart to pursue a graduate transfer at Boise State, where he became a productive red zone weapon for the Mountain West champs. However, Bender exited fall camp atop the depth chart and threw for more than 1,000 yards in his first three starts to set a school record.
Bender didn’t hold onto the job for the entire season, but he made eight starts and led the team with 1,609 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. The rising senior struggled with accuracy, completing just 54.2 percent of his passes, and tossed 10 interceptions. Stanley, a junior, showed flashes, including a 418-yard performance against Kansas State, but he was similarly inefficient and finished with 1,108 yards, a 54.6 percent completion rate and just four touchdowns compared to seven picks.
Because neither Bender nor Stanley emerged as the sure-fire starter in 2017, intriguing junior college transfer Miles Kendrick has an opportunity to state his case this spring. Despite his diminutive size (5-9, 193), Kendrick has a strong and accurate arm, as well as the mobility to make plays out of the pocket. Kendrick started nine games for the College of San Mateo as a freshman, and led the school to the California JUCO state championship game while throwing for 18 touchdowns. He was ranked the No. 12 dual-threat quarterback from the junior college ranks in the 2018 class by 247Sports, and has three years of eligibility remaining.
Settling on a quarterback could be the key for an offense that saw its production drop by more than 31 yards per game last season. The Jayhawks, despite the addition of highly coveted offensive coordinator Doug Meacham from TCU, saw a decrease from 4.96 yards per play in 2016 to 4.64 a year ago.
3. Take the next step defensively
The Jayhawks made some strides in 2017, especially against the run. Kansas surrendered 171.6 rushing yards per game last year, and allowed 4.2 yards per carry, which ranked No. 8 and No. 6 in the Big 12, respectively. Though far from spectacular, KU improved dramatically from 2016’s numbers (236.4 ypg., 5.2 ypc). Dineen led the league in tackles for a loss and run stuffs by a large margin, and Wise contributed 16 TFLs and 18 run stuffs, both of which ranked in the top 10. Armstrong wasn’t far behind. Nevertheless, because of a poor pass defense and underachieving pass rush, the Jayhawks still ranked at the bottom of the Big 12 in total defense (468.3 ypg), and barely avoided the basement in yards allowed per play (6.44), just .02 better than Baylor. KU ranked No. 118 and No. 115 in the country in these two categories, respectively, and ranked No. 104 overall in defensive S&P+ (32.8).
Again, experience should help — especially in the secondary where all five starters and the top 10 on the two-deep depth chart return. The team must replace Armstrong at defensive end, but three junior college transfers — Najee Stevens-McKenzie, Azur Kamara and Foster Dixson — are set to compete with Isaiah Bean and KeyShaun Simmons for the other starting spot opposite John Ehambe. Overall, the unit should show progress statistically, and is deeper than it was last year.
4. Offensive line
Despite returning all five starting offensive linemen from last year’s unit, there are questions up front. The Jayhawks surrendered 29 sacks last season, which combined with the 460 passes the team attempted, equates to a mediocre 5.9 percent sack rate. Kansas also averaged just 3.15 yards per carry last season, which was the worst in the Big 12 and ranked No. 126 nationally. The Jayhawks too often failed to gain enough ground on early downs, setting up far too many difficult third-and-long situations.
Center is a specific area of concern. Mesa Ribordy missed two conference games last season with a concussion. His health is paramount to how much improvement this group will be able to make in 2018. It isn’t a coincidence the Jayhawks had their two worst offensive outputs of the season with Ribordy sidelined, failing to score a single point in either game.
5. Newcomers to know
Beaty was hired at Kansas in part because of his reputation as a great recruiter, and though the wins haven’t come on the field, the head coach and his staff have won a few key battles on the trail. The Jayhawks spent a large part of the 2018 recruiting cycle listed among the top 25 nationally, but after suffering some defections wound up 62nd overall and eighth in the Big 12, according to the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. Still, the Jayhawks are set to welcome several exciting newcomers capable of big things.
Two true freshmen are likely to make an immediate impact this fall. Anthony “Pooka” Williams and Corione Harris signed with Kansas as four-star prospects from Louisiana. Williams, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound all-purpose running back could be an explosive playmaker as a runner, receiver and return man. Harris was ranked 27th among cornerback prospects by 247Sports, and like Williams was considered a top-300 recruit overall. In addition to quarterback and defensive end, the Jayhawks also brought in junior college talent at receiver (Stephon Robinson), corner (Elijah Jones and Elmore Hempstead), safety (Davon Ferguson), defensive tackle (Charles Cole), and offensive line (Reuben Lewis). Combined with the experience returning from last year’s roster, the newcomers have raised the overall talent level in Lawrence, and should help Kansas be much more competitive in 2018.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.