In late 2014, David Beaty agreed to become the head football coach at the University of Kansas, knowing the job in front of him came with various challenges.
Heading into his third season in charge, the eternally optimistic Beaty feels better today than he could at any point during his first two years, when the Jayhawks went 2-22 overall.
The steps taken to get here were small, but there were enough of them — such as solid recruiting efforts, developing players in the program and Beaty’s first Big 12 victory in 2016 — that KU’s coach and everyone else who spends most of their waking hours in Anderson Family Football Complex think the coming season should include more progress, more highlights and, most importantly, more wins.
“Obviously, we weren’t satisfied last year with our record,” Beaty said of KU going 2-10 overall and 1-8 in the Big 12, “but we’re extremely encouraged by the progress that our team has made. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I love the energy and enthusiasm this team and our coaching staff shows.”
Beaty credits the upperclassmen who have been around for all the struggles of his first two seasons in charge for following his lead and persevering. The Jayhawks wouldn’t feel so upbeat entering the fall if not for the presence of players such as juniors Dorance Armstrong Jr., Daniel Wise, Steven Sims Jr. and Joe Dineen.
“This team knows that it has to earn everything that it gets,” Beaty added of what makes KU’s most prominent players special. “Nothing’s going to come easy in this league. It never does, because it’s one of the finest leagues on the face of the planet. But these guys that we have, they’re committed to getting better every day.”
Here’s a look at what to expect out of each position group for KU’s offense and defense in 2017.
Beaty and new KU offensive coordinator Doug Meacham have taken a wait-and-see strategy on naming a starting quarterback for Meacham’s Air Raid.
Either junior transfer Peyton Bender, a former Mike Leach pupil at Washington State, or redshirt sophomore Carter Stanley, who started the final three games of 2016 and helped the Jayhawks knock off Texas, will be handed the keys to an offense with more skill players than the program has seen in some time.
Bender is known for his quick reads and release, while coaches often cite Stanley’s ability to extend plays with his feet as an important attribute.
Both QBs project as far more effective than any starter KU has put on the field to open the season in years.
Although there is no definitive No. 1 rusher entering the season, either, the group figures to benefit from having multiple bodies to send out at a physically demanding position.
Sophomore Khalil Herbert and junior Taylor Martin return and are expected to be more productive than the younger versions of themselves last season.
The unit benefits, as well, from the addition of the biggest name in KU’s 2017 recruiting class, freshman Dom Williams, a four-star prospect from Independence, Texas.
Although junior Octavius Matthews, a juco teammate of Bender at Itawamba Community College (Miss.), was expected to contribute, too, an undisclosed ailment has kept him out of preseason practices.
Junior Deron Thompson, a former Colorado State back, became a pleasant surprise to coaches of late.
Even within an often inept offense a year ago, Steven Sims Jr. emerged as one of the best KU receivers in some time. Sims produced 72 receptions, 859 yards and seven touchdowns — all team-highs — and Meacham expects him to do even more as a junior.
While the team’s No. 2 receiver in 2016, LaQuvionte Gonzalez, was dismissed from the program before camp opened, Alabama sophomore transfer Daylon Charlot is now eligible and anticipated to be a massive addition.
The talent doesn’t end with those two, though. The group should easily be the deepest on the roster, with the help of senior Bobby Hartzog Jr., juniors Jeremiah Booker, Ryan Schadler, Kerr Johnson Jr. and Tyler Patrick, sophomores Chase Harrell and Evan Fairs, as well as freshman Quan Hampton.
The longer an offensive lineman is on campus, the bigger, stronger and more knowledgeable he gets. That’s why Beaty likes his group of blockers so much.
Experience is likely to benefit left tackle Hakeem Adeniji, a sophomore, as well as starting center sophomore Mesa Ribordy. Senior Jayson Rhodes provides a veteran presence at left guard, junior Larry Hughes and redshirt freshman Chris Hughes — no relation — will battle for starting right guard duties, and the biggest competition of all comes at right tackle, where former Alabama lineman Charles Baldwin and sophomore Antione Frazier have been pushing each other.
Sophomores Malik Clark, Hunter Saulsbury and Clyde McCauley III bring depth to the rotation, as do juniors Jacob Bragg and Zach Hannon.
The most trustworthy disruptors on the team populate the defensive line.
The Big 12’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year, Dorance Armstrong Jr., returns after a breakout sophomore campaign in which the star defensive end led the conference with 20 tackles for loss and racked up 10 sacks.
Helping Armstrong give O-linemen and quarterbacks headaches, of course, is junior defensive tackle Daniel Wise, a force on the interior and a team leader.
Who among their cohorts will emerge as productive up front remains to be seen, but candidates include seniors Isi Holani and DeeIsaac Davis, juniors Josh Ehambe, J.J. Holmes, KeyShaun Simmons and Willie McCaleb, and sophomore Isaiah Bean.
After missing the majority of 2016 and earning a medical redshirt, junior Joe Dineen brings veteran leadership to a group that featured plenty of competition and improved depth throughout August practices.
Dineen’s one-time high school teammate, Keith Loneker Jr., has been praised for his knowledge and effort, too.
Junior Osaze Ogbebor is expected to see the field more due to his development. Redshirt freshman Dru Prox has positioned himself to back up Dineen, and true freshman Kyron Johnson, who enrolled early in the spring, has impressed with his potential.
The defense’s ultimate success in the months ahead likely will have a lot to do with what KU gets out of its defensive backs.
Sophomore safety Mike Lee became a highlight hit-maker in his debut fall, but there’s little to no FBS experience elsewhere
The other four defensive backs who start with him for KU’s Sept. 2 opener against Southeast Missouri State will also be entering their first stints as regulars.
Sophomore Hasan Defense and junior transfer Shakial Taylor have stood out enough during the preseason to become safe bets to start on the corners.
Sophomore Bryce Torneden and junior Tyrone Miller Jr. are the top candidates to play the second safety spot, next to Lee. At nickelback, senior Derrick Neal has the athleticism to cover wideouts and sophomore Kyle Mayberry has the corner background to do the same.