Playing quarterback for Kansas against a brutal schedule requires making the right decision when the best-laid plans break down.
For example, take a look at three screen shots taken from ESPN's telecast, all from the biggest play of KU's 43-7 loss at Memphis, defensive tackle Jonathan Wilson's interception return for a touchdown.
The first shows guard Jayson Rhodes falling to the ground after he let a defender blow past him.
The second shows quarterback Montell Cozart getting tackled by the defender Rhodes missed. In this one, Rhodes is on his back as the football sails over his head.
The the third screen grab, the best available but just a tick too late for a true representation, shows that if the block had been made, Cozart very well could have found tight end Ben Johnson for a big gain. We'll never know for sure, of course, but do know that if the Jayhawks could have scored on that possession instead of delivering a touchdown in the other direction, the game would not have been over by halftime. In reality, Memphis took a 33-7 lead into the second half.
The broken play doesn't change that Cozart made a bad decision, it just illustrates that the offense's problems start before the quarterback pulls the trigger.
Don't look now, but Kansas has the ninth-ranked passing defense in the nation, allowing just 135 passing yards per game and 4.8 yards per pass attempt.
The D-line will need to continue to bring the heat for Kansas to maintain what has been the strongest aspect of the team, its pass defense.
Big 12 offenses know how to shred secondaries every year, so it’s not realistic for Kansas to maintain its current national ranking, but if the Jayhawks can pressure the quarterback on a regular basis the way the hounded Memphis’ Riley Ferguson they can slow down pass-happy offenses looking to run up the score on them.
“We fed off of each other’s energy, that’s what we do,” sophomore Dorance Armstrong said of the heat the the Jayhawks put on Ferguson.
Clearly, Memphis came into the game determined to keep defensive tackle Daniel Wise from getting into the backfield to slam ballcarriers to the turf the way he did in the first two weeks of the season.
Every move Wise made was greeted with a pair of blockers double-teaming him. He didn’t make any tackles until the second half and finished with three, none behind the line of scrimmage.
It was imperative that the rest of the D-line take advantage of all the extra attention being paid to Wise or other teams would have no qualms about doing the same. Wise’s mates up front delivered, combining for four of the team's five sacks, three for 19 yards from Armstrong and one apiece from junior DeeIsaac Davis and senior Damani Mosby.
“We can do better,” Armstrong vowed. “We came into the game with zero sacks and we just had to make sure to come out with a sack early. As a defense, to go two games in a row with no sacks, that’s not our standard.”
Actually, Kansas did have one sack coming into the Memphis game, but none from the defensive line. Linebacker Courtney Arnick had one sack for five yards coming into the game.
The D-line will need to continue to bring the heat for Kansas to maintain what has been the strongest aspect of the team, its pass defense.
One week from Thursday, Kansas faces the No. 1-ranked passing offense in the nation.
Patrick Mahomes leads the country with 497.7 passing yards per game and has thrown 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
A more encouraging way of looking at it than focusing on the Red Raiders’ passing ranking is to consider that Mahomes is facing the nation’s ninth-ranked passing defense.
During my two-and-a-half years as co-host of a show on ESPN Radio in New York City, Mondays after a Jets loss required the least preparation. Throw out the phone number and listen to the apoplectic voices break it all down to help themselves avoid a breakdown.
When the stressed-out voices were firing the offensive or defensive coordinator, they often offered as proof the lack of adjustments made at halftime.
Kansas created plenty of fodder for griping in Saturday’s 37-21 loss to Ohio (University, not State), but accusations of a lack of halftime adjustments could not be aimed at the coaching staff.
The halftime adjustments the offensive staff made, albeit way too late, certainly worked given that the same Jayhawks offense that produced 21 total yards in the first half totaled 190 in the third quarter.
Defensive adjustments worked as well. Ohio (University, not State) amassed 359 total yards in the first half, 66 yards with a turnover in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter, most of it played without injured quarterback Montell Cozart, didn’t go as well. As was the case in the first half, Kansas couldn’t stop the run and OU (Ohio, not Oklahoma) ate 10 minutes of clock with an 18-play, 81-yard drive that ended in a field goal.
Still, give the KU defense credit for allowing just nine second-half points on three field goals. Before that game-clinching drive, here’s how Ohio’s second-half possessions went: Three plays, five yards, punt; three plays, two yards, field goal; four plays, 13 yards, punt; eight plays, 36 yards, interception by Fish Smithson; three plays, zero yards, field goal.
The halftime adjustments worked. The plan coming into the game did not.
Even one week against one of the five least talented teams of Div. I football, FBS and FCS combined, can reveal obvious traits about a squad coming off an 0-12 season.
For Kansas, which ended a 15-game losing streak with a 55-6 thrashing of Rhode Island, two factors leaped off the replay: 1. The Jayhawks, as suspected, have far more speed than a year ago. 2. The offensive line — still too young, too at a disadvantage because of not having as many combined years in a college weight room as most college blockers — will have trouble getting much push for runs up the middle.
In contrast, Ohio has a ton of experience up front on both sides of the ball. Kansas has talent at defensive line, so matching the Bobcats’ massive O-line is a possibility. The other matchup doesn’t figure to go as well for Kansas, with Ohio’s experienced D-line having the big strength edge. So Kansas will need to turn speed and creativity into big plays Saturday in order to emerge with its first two-game winning streak since two weeks into the 2011 season.
A look at a handful of Jayhawks with the capability of making game-turning plays:
1 - LaQuvionte Gonzalez: He consistently used his speed and quickness to get open and looked like a threat to pop one nearly every time he touched it as a kick and punt returner. By reaching around the defensive back and somehow coming away with the ball for a touchdown, Gonzalez provided a highlight that figures to be shown for years, maybe forever. The defense must account for him at all times and still he finds ways to get open.
2 - Montell Cozart: Sure, it wasn’t his first big day against FCS competition, but Cozart looked so much more decisive, more accurate and even looked as if he has strengthened his arm. David Beaty’s version of the Air Raid offense just might suit Cozart ideally. An easy man for whom to root because of his thick skin and positive personality, Cozart has the potential to make Beaty look wise for resisting the temptation to turn him into a wide receiver.
3 - Taylor Martin: He and Gonzalez are the two fastest players on the team. That speed makes Martin a threat running on the edge and getting behind the defense on pass patterns. Cozart barely overthrew him on a long pass down the sideline or he might have gone ... all ... the ... way.
4 - Dorance Armstrong: I had forgotten that Armstrong changed to No. 2 for his sophomore season and on one of the first plays of the replay I watched on ESPN3, I wondered who that player flying toward the sideline was, figuring he must be a safety. He’s a defensive end and he plays with equal parts speed and intensity.
5 - Daniel Wise: Emerged as a team leader during offseason conditioning and looked like a man on a search-and-destroy-the-quarterback mission in the opener. He has the potential to deliver a strip-sack at a pivotal point in the game. The D-tackle's most important work will come in doing his job against the run.
6 - Kyle Mayberry: The true freshman cornerback from Tulsa did not have the uncertain, shaky look so common among athletes competing in a college game for the first time. He’s blurry fast, seems to love the spotlight and has the sort of confidence that could enable him to take a chance and deliver a pick six.
7 - Beaty, the offensive coordinator: Again, it helped that Rhode Island was the opponent, but Beaty certainly seemed to have a winning touch for what play to call when. The Rams’ defensive line was pushing back the Kansas blockers — not a good sign — and getting more aggressive by the play. So Beaty called a play that baited that aggressiveness and resulted in tight end Ben Johnson standing alone in the end zone for an easy touchdown reception from Cozart.
Not all football games are won and lost in the trenches. Sometimes they are won with big plays, which very likely will be what Kansas needs if it is going to defeat Ohio.
NOTE: Las Vegas oddsmakers set the opening line at Ohio minus-9, which means Ohio was a nine-point favorite. In slightly more than 24 hours, the legal-betting public had moved the line an amazing 12 points, making the Jayhawks a three-point favorite, which was where the line stood as of Tuesday morning.
Kansas, seeking to move two games above the break-even point for the first time since improving to 2-0 in 2011 with a victory at home against Northern Illinois in Turner Gill’s second and final season on the job, has a few factors going for it Saturday when Ohio visits Memorial Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff.
First, Kansas should be able to draw more from Ohio’s Week 1 game tape than vice versa because the Bobcats were in a tight game, one they lost to Texas State, 56-54 in three overtimes, so they couldn’t hold back anything from the playbook.
In contrast, KU could afford to treat much of its 55-6 victory against Rhode Island almost like an NFL team approaches an exhibition game. The Jayhawks spread the ball around to multiple players, giving Ohio so much to prepare for and so little on any one player.
Nine different Jayhawks caught a pass and three different quarterbacks combined for six touchdown passes, Montell Cozart throwing three, Ryan Willis two and Carter Stanley one. Ohio must prepare for both Cozart and Willis. Four different running backs rushed the football anywhere from four to nine times.
The second factor involves KU’s Week 1 strength, the passing attack, matching up with Ohio’s Week 1 weakness, defending the pass. Kansas passed for 399 yards vs. Rhode Island and Ohio surrendered 440 yards and five touchdowns at home vs. Texas State of the Sun Belt Conference.
The third factor, the biggest one considering the extent to which emotion sways football performances in general and in the college game in particular, involves respect.
Oddsmakers made a loud statement that in their opinion KU’s 49-point victory said far more about the quality of its opponent than about the Jayhawks. Visiting Ohio opened as a nine-point favorite. What happened in Lawrence stayed in Lawrence in terms of national respect. Acting quickly, bettors put so much money down on KU that the Jayhawks became favorites in slightly more than 24 hours. As of Tuesday morning, Kansas was favored by three points, a remarkable swing.
If second-year head coach David Beaty can parlay the original lack of belief in his team among outsiders into an emotional outburst that fuels players to perform out of their minds, Kansas could score a victory and make believers out of Las Vegas oddsmakers who set the point spreads, and more important, out of a fan base that can be enticed back in droves at the first unqualified sign of legitimate progress.
Big game Saturday.
I won’t pretend that I can say something nice about the Kansas football depth chart having three names listed as possible first-stringers with the season-opener days away.
Best-case scenario would have had one of the three quarterbacks blowing away the competition by now.
Instead, I’ll reach into the issue and find something nice to say.
The size of the crowd for Saturday’s Rhode Island game has the potential to turn faces red, so I’ll use this week’s blog to examine whether head coach David Beaty’s attempt to keep his starting quarterback a secret until the 6 p.m. kickoff will increase the size of the crowd or decrease it.
Since URI, 1-10 in the Football Championship Subdivision last season, doesn’t have the talent to create scoreboard suspense, uncertainty regarding the starting QB, provided it doesn’t leak before game night, adds a little intrigue, creates a potentially powerful moment.
If Beaty really can pull it off and keep the secret, fans will explode in support of whichever quarterback sprints off the sideline. Cool moment, one that might motivate someone on the fence to buy a ticket and head to Memorial Stadium. So in that sense, it should increase attendance.
The potential for it backfiring at the gate exists. Here’s how: Fans wanting to believe the team will improve significantly from last season’s 0-12 finish might fear that Beaty keeping the secret in order to give his team an edge means the Jayhawks are weak enough to need an edge to defeat a team that went 1-10 in a lower division. Most thinking that way will get off the fence and makes plans for a Saturday night out on the town or in the den watching multiple games.
My guess is fans curious to experience suspense at Memorial Stadium, not that common a feeling in recent years, will outnumber those bummed that the coach thinks his team needs the edge against the Rams.
Humans tend toward optimism, particularly in regards to a team that has not yet lost a game.
Will it be Ryan Willis, Montell Cozart or Carter Stanley to take the first snap of the 2016 season? My guess is it will be Willis, but it’s only a guess. The only way to know for sure is to show up before Saturday’s 6 p.m. kickoff.
Every time a walk-on football player makes his way onto the Kansas depth chart it becomes that much easier for a high school player considering joining the Jayhawks without the benefit of a scholarship for the start of his career.
Red-shirt freshman offensive lineman Mesa Ribordy had to pay his own way this season and last. He had enough faith in his ability to believe that he will be on scholarship his final three years in the program.
Ribordy is on track to make that happen. Players who spend two years as walk-ons and then earn scholarships only count against the overall scholarship limit of 85 per Football Bowl Subdivision school. They don’t count against the single-year limit of 25.
In order to get back to a competitive level, Kansas will need to take advantage of several players in that category, which makes Ribordy a very valuable recruit.
A 6-foot-4, 290-pound graduate of Louisburg High, Ribordy is pushing for time at both right guard and center and has a strong chance of becoming one of the eight blockers who account for the majority of snaps at the five offensive-line positions.
Other players from Kansas high schools who have joined the program as walk-ons since David Beaty became head coach and hired Gene Wier as director of high schoo relations include: sophomore transfers Keith Loneker Jr. (Baker University, Free State) and Ryan Schadler (Wichita State track, Heeston), junior transfer Deron Thompson (RB Colorado State, Wichita Northwest); sophomore Reese Randall (RB Baldwin); red-shirt freshmen Mazin Aql (DE Blue Valley), Jackson Jenkins (OL Bishop Meige), Beau Lawrence (OL Blue Valley Southwest), Nathan Miller (CB Washburn Rural), Hunter Saulsbury (OL Blue Valley Southwest); freshman Tate Vang (WR, Goddard).
Kansas State has dominated in-state, walk-on recruiting and Kansas is coming from behind, but it’s important the coaches stay committed to bringing depth to the program through this method in hopes of eventually closing the gap on the Wildcats.
Kansas head football coach David Beaty’s media policy makes freshmen off-limits for interviews, but that didn’t keep teammates and Beaty himself from talking about running back Khalil Herbert during Monday's media session.
Clearly, Herbert has made a strong first impression.
“I saw him make some really good cuts, stuff that a typical freshman can’t really do,” tight end Ben Johnson said of Herbert’s performance in a Saturday scrimmage in which the South Florida native carried the ball three times for 93 yards and a touchdown. “That kind of stood out to me and I was pretty impressed. He’s just a natural ballplayer. There are things you can coach and things you can’t coach. He’s kind of one of those guys who just has natural instincts.”
Quarterback Ryan Willis shared what it does for him to see that sort of an effort from a freshman: “It fires me up. ... The key to this offense is getting it to our playmakers. Our playmakers right now are our running backs.”
Texas A&M transfer LaQuvionte Gonzalez is the top playmaker at wide receiver and his face lit up Monday at the mention of Herbert’s name.
“I love that kid,” Gonzalez said. “I mean, he can really run the ball. I like that kid. He’s got pretty soft hands. He can catch like a receiver. He’s an all-purpose back. He can do everything.”
Herbert, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound burner, comes to Kansas from American Heritage High in Plantation, Fla., where he played for former NFL defensive back Mike Rumph, now cornerbacks coach for University of Miami.
As did Gonzalez, Beaty gave Herbert points for more than his ability to run the football.
“He’s a dominant guy,” Beaty said. “He’s fast. He actually pass-blocks pretty good. Smart kid. Great kid. He showed some real burst on Saturday. Avoided some tackles, avoided a tackle in the backfield and took it for a long run, something I haven’t seen in a while.”
Beaty also praised the work of first-string senior back Ke’aun Kinner, sophomore sprinter Taylor Martin and the short-yardage contributions of Arkansas transfer Denzell Evans.
Say something nice about Kansas football: Improved depth eliminates need to rush freshmen onto field
True freshmen Larry Hughes and Clyde McCauley combined to start nine games at offensive tackle for Kansas last season and classmate Tyrone Miller started the first seven games of the season at cornerback.
If the same players were true freshmen this season, they would combine to start zero games at those positions.
That demonstrates the improved depth, most of it through upgraded recruiting, that already is taking place in the major rebuilding job.
“They were not strong enough to compete in this league,” strength and conditioning coach Je’Ney Jackson said of Hughes and McCauley. “They weren’t, and it was evident when they played.”
That’s why true freshmen linemen redshirt in all but rare circumstances.
Hughes and McCauley aren’t as strong as they will be two years from now, but they are a great deal stronger than a year ago.
“I’ve put on 25 pounds since when I first got here,” McCauley said. “I’m way stronger. My clean shot up about 50 pounds. My bench shot up about 90.”
He shouldn’t have had to face future NFL defensive linemen before those gains were made, but the ranks were so thin last season, he and Hughes were pressed into duty.
In contrast, incoming freshman O-linemen Hakeem Adeniiji (6-foot4, 265 pounds, Garland, Texas) and Antoine Frazier (6-4, 260, Huffman, Texas) have the luxury of red-shirting, which doesn’t necessarily mean they will.
Jackson said they both arrived on campus stronger than some of the veterans were when Jackson rejoined the Kansas football program in Jan., 2015.
“Those kids are both 260 pounds and they’re bench-pressing over 315 pounds,” Jackson said. “Young guys who are able to do it, it’s a great foundation to be able to build on.”
There is no masking a lack of strength up front or a lack of speed in the back of the defense.
Miller does not and will not ever have the speed to play cornerback in the Big 12. But the coaches didn’t know where else to turn, so they played a true freshman safety at cornerback and it showed.
Now if the Jayhawks need to call on a true freshman at cornerback, they can choose from a pair of speedy players born to play cornerback in Kyle Mayberry from Tulsa and Mike Lee from New Orleans. If they aren’t ready, it won’t be because they are playing out of position or don’t have the speed to keep up.
As for Miller, his confidence will grow instead of shrink now that he’s playing a position that suits his talents.
At linebacker, true freshman Maciah Long (6-2, 240) is more physically ready for Big 12 play than most freshman, but he played quarterback in high school and is new to the position. No need to rush him into action and burn his redshirt with experienced reserve linebackers Courtney Arnick, Kendall Duckworth, Keith Loneker Jr. and Osaze Ogbebore on hand.
Je’Ney Jackson’s non-stop search for how to make Kansas football players faster even takes him elsewhere in the athletic department at times. Jackson said he consults friends Stanley Redwine, KU’s head track and field coach, and sprints and hurdles coach Elisha Brewer.
“I’ll ask coach Brewer, ‘What things are you doing with your indoor sprinters?’ I pick her brain to see what I can steal.’ ... If you have an extremely slow team it’s going to be very hard to compete in this league,” Jackson said.
That’s been part of KU’s problem in recent seasons. Jackson is convinced it’s much less of a problem now and said that 42 players in the program were hand-timed at 4.59 seconds or faster at 40 yards. (He said just three returning players in the spring of 2015 met that standard.)
Asked to name the Jayhawks’ five fastest players, Jackson obliged: “Taylor Martin, LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Brandon Stewart, probably Kyle Mayberry, and I’d say Bobby Hartzog.”
A moment later, another image popped into Jackson’s head and he expanded the list by a name.
“And you know who I forgot is Ke’aun Kinner,” Jackson said. “He is definitely in that mix. Ke’aun Kinner. He is definitely in the top five. Here’s what’s nice: I have to think about it. It’s not, ‘OK, we only have five guys who can really run fast.’ ”
Every day during summer conditioning season, Jackson pitted fast runners against each other in races, believing the competition makes them train faster and in turn become faster.
Martin had the fastest unofficial 40 time, so I thought I’d ask him for his top 5. First, I asked him to name the toughest guy to beat in a race.
“Me, LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Ke’aun Kinner, (Colin) Spencer and T-Pat, Tyler Patrick,” Martin said.
Jackson and Martin mentioned eight players between them: Three cornerbacks (Stewart, Mayberry and Spencer), two running backs (Martin and Kinner) and three receivers (Gonzalez, Hartzog and Patrick).
Martin said Gonzalez is the toughest one for him to beat in a race.
Kansas definitely is getting faster.
Now it’s your turn to say something nice about Kansas football. Anybody out there?