It’s been a few weeks since the end of Kansas football coach David Beaty’s second round of spring football, but there’s still plenty to sort through in terms of what we heard and learned from the players and coaches this spring.
As the years have gone on, I’ve grasped a better understanding of the fact that we really don’t learn that much about a program during spring ball. Yeah, you might get to see a new addition to the program or check out the infant stages of a new offense or defense, but, for the most part, the hard work and the serious movement comes over the summer and during preseason camp.
Spring ball is just a time to jump back in, work on some fundamentals and see how much players retained from what you wanted to do last season.
That does not, however, mean that players don’t make themselves noticed and, from time to time, enjoy some serious strides in the spring.
Here’s a short list — in alphabetical order — of a few Jayhawks who did just that, at least the way it looked through my eyes.
• Jacob Bragg, sophomore Offensive Lineman
The third-year sophomore may very well have found a home on the offensive line and he spent most of the spring running with the first unit at that position. That’s good news both for the player and the program, because after his first couple of years in Lawrence, the once-highly-touted center was in danger of being passed over at his position of choice and falling into the category of another promising player who never panned out. With three years of eligibility still remaining and a home at his new spot (right guard), Bragg has a chance to more than pan out. Bragg played in 10 games a year ago and spent some of that time at both right and left guard, but he was not on the two-deep depth chart heading into the final game of 2015 and, with 10 extra pounds and much better mobility now appears ready to compete up front.
• Keegan Brewer, freshman Wide Receiver
I know I wrote about him a little this spring, but I don’t think you can say enough about the impact this Texan made. He’s lightning quick and also fast and appears to have great command of his routes and good hands. Beyond that, he also is extremely elusive. He plays at a deep position, but, with all of that talk last year about the Air Raid Offense using 8 or 9 receivers each game, you can’t convince me for a second that this newcomer is not one of KU’s Top 8 or 9 receivers. He’s going to play and I think he’ll be one of the more pleasant surprises in 2016.
• Tyrone Miller, sophomore Free Safety
For the most part, Miller is the same player he was a year ago. Like many Jayhawks, he added some muscle and improved in several areas in the weight room, but it’s not as if he suddenly grew four inches or switched sides of the ball. What he did do, however, is return to his natural position of safety, a move that should help both Miller and the KU secondary. Whether it’s Miller or senior Bazie Bates IV who starts alongside Fish Smithson at safety, the Jayhawks have upgraded the position — either through depth or a first-string stud — with a quality athlete who can compete with the athletes many other Big 12 programs send streaking down the field 60-70 times a game.
• Mesa Ribordy, red-shirt freshman Center
I remember Beaty first talking to me about Ribordy as an under-the-radar guy to watch this offseason. Evidently the offensive lineman who came to KU as a walk-on is very much on the radar these days. Everything I heard from a handful of people I talked to said that the 6-foot-4, 300-pound athlete was one of the better offensive linemen in the program this spring. He’s pushing for reps at center and also is versatile enough to play guard. His development is just one piece of good news at a position of major need with this team. And whether he winds up starting or provides quality depth at three different positions, Ribordy figures to be an important part of KU’s future and may be a factor as soon as 2016.
• Jace Sternberger, red-shirt freshman Tight End
Like a bunch of players in the program, Sternberger added some serious weight/muscle this offseason and now, at 6-foot-4, 236 pounds (up 11 from last year’s roster) looks like an absolute beast. The best part about the Oklahoma native’s new look is that it did not appear to do anything to his mobility, quickness and speed. Remember, this was a guy who also played D-End in high school and he is very strong and has some very good feet. We did not get to see much in terms of the way he was used in scrimmages this spring, but what little we did see showed a guy who I believe will be very active in this offense. He also looks like a dream to coach. During every drill I saw, when he was not the one running the drill, he was right there by the coach, waiting and taking instruction. What’s more, when they did show some live offense, he never strayed too far from Beaty’s side and Beaty always seemed to be looking for him. He’s not a true tight end in the way that Ben Johnson is so there’s room for both of them on the field and I think they’ll use Sternberger more like a hybrid H-Back/Tight End, which could be quite a weapon if the O-Line can protect the QB and those fast receivers can clear some room.
Denver Broncos’ GM John Elway’s love of former Kansas football players has been well documented throughout the past several years.
Dating back to the addition of former Kansas cornerback Chris Harris as an undrafted free agent in 2011 to the addition of linebacker Steven Johnson a year later and the signing of Harris’ KU running mate, Aqib Talib, via free agency, it’s clear that Elway appreciates what former Jayhawks can bring to the roster.
Tuesday, that list grew by one when the Broncos claimed fullback Toben Opurum off of waivers from the New Orleans Saints.
Opurum, a former KU running back under Mark Mangino who was switched over to defense by Turner Gill and his staff, spent the past couple of seasons of his college career playing the Von Miller role for the Jayhawks. Opurum improved each year but never fully got his footing on defense and switched back to fullback prior to the 2013 NFL Draft in an attempt to make a roster on offense.
It worked. After signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Opurum was picked up by the Houston Texans later that year and then spent 2014 and 2015 with the Saints. He cracked the active roster with both the Texans and the Saints and spent the rest of the time on the practice squad.
Opurum’s road to making the Broncos’ 53-man roster this summer figures to be a long one, but there’s no question that this opportunity represents his best shot to make and stick with an NFL franchise full-time.
Recent events indicate that Denver head coach Gary Kubiak is very interested in operating with a fullback full-time in the Broncos’ post-Peyton Manning offense. Expect the Broncos to carry one fullback on their final 53-man roster, and Opurum was brought in to compete with 2016 sixth-round draft pick Andy Janovich, of Nebraska.
Janovich may have the advantage in that Denver invested a draft pick in him, but Opurum brings to the table the advantages of NFL experience and the ability to lean on Harris, Johnson and Talib for a better understanding of what it takes to play for the Broncos.
What’s more, all of that adversity that Opurum battled through at Kansas could wind up serving him well now, just as it did Harris during his quest to make the Broncos’ 53-man roster. That time spent on defense should have him prepared to shine on special teams and everybody knows that the fastest way to make an NFL roster is to excel at your position and stand out on special teams.
It should be fun to see how Opurum fares, but there’s no doubt that this is his best shot at truly sticking with an NFL franchise. The fact that it’s with the KU-football-loving Broncos should come as no surprise.
While the Kansas University football coaching staff continues to mine the country for talent and send out offers to athletes in the Class of 2017 and beyond, one previously committed KU target has decided to go a different direction.
Class of 2017 offensive lineman Grant Polley, of Denton, Texas, this morning announced on Twitter that he was de-committing from Kansas.
"After further careful consideration, and many weeks of prayer I have decided to de-commit from the University of Kansas and open up my recruitment," Polley wrote. "I will not be entertaining any interviews concerning this as I just want to finish this school year strong, enjoy the recruiting process and focus on the upcoming season."
Polley, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound lineman who initially committed to Kansas last January following the commitment of fellow-Class-of-2017 lineman Jared Hocker, has started to receive more and more interest from several big-name programs, including Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and others.
Because his commitment to Kansas was merely an oral pledge, Polley is free to re-open his recruitment and, though it probably is not likely, could choose to re-commit to Kansas down the road.
Polley ranks as the 65th best prospect in Texas by Rivals.com and is ranked as the 39th best offensive tackle in the nation.
His change of heart leaves KU with three oral commitments in the upcoming recruiting class — Hocker, Dallas running back Dom Williams and Louisiana athlete Travis Jordan.
Do your best to hide your shock after reading this, but former Kansas University quarterback Jake Heaps is getting another shot at the NFL.
Earlier this week, Heaps revealed that he had signed a free agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks — his hometown team — and will attend minicamps and attempt to make the Seahawks’ roster or practice squad this offseason and preseason.
It’s a long shot, sure, but it is a shot and I’m well aware that many people — mostly likely many of you reading this — never believed that Heaps would do much after leaving Kansas following his junior season.
In reality, he didn’t, but you have to give the guy credit for continuing to chase his dream and play the game he loves.
After leaving KU, following one season as the Jayhawks' starter — as it goes around here lately, he was benched for the final three games of 2013 in favor of Montell Cozart — Heaps played his senior season at Miami, Florida, where he appeared in four games and completed just 6 of 12 passes for 51 yards while serving as the back-up to freshman Brad Kaaya.
That reality continued a trend for Heaps, who saw his production dip every season after his freshman year at BYU, where the former five-star QB began his promising career by setting several BYU freshman passing records.
That 2010 season, in which Heaps threw for 2,300+ yards and 15 touchdowns went down as easily the best of his college career. During his lone season at KU, Heaps threw for 1,410 yards with 8 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing just 49 percent of his passes.
Sure, Heaps’ ability was some of the problem, but the bigger issue, at least the way I always saw it, was KU’s inability to protect him and surround him with quality playmakers who could catch the football.
That’s not to put all of the blame for that poor offensive season on Heaps’ supporting cast. It definitely was a shared effort and both parties played a big role in the Jayhawks watching their struggles continue.
But I always thought both Heaps and Dayne Crist got a little too much blame for the KU offense's inability to produce. So it goes with the quarterback position.
Despite not playing much at Miami, Heaps received his first crack at pro football with the New York Jets. He made a couple of cuts, appeared in a preseason game or two and almost made the team. The reason? The guy can throw the football when the offensive line gives him time to do just that. He’s got a live arm and understands offenses very well. He’s just not that great at improvising on the fly and getting out of trouble, which makes Seattle’s decision to add him a head scratcher at the very least. Heaps’ skills in no way remind me of Seattle starter Russell Wilson, unless you’re talking about how both are quality young men with a serious competitive drive and passion for the game of football.
Regardless, it’s cool to see Heaps get another shot just the same as it was to see Crist get his crack at the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens after his rough one-year run at Kansas.
Both are great dudes who did all they could to help Kansas and truly committed to the cause while they were Jayhawks. Both also made some lifelong friends at KU and have nothing but good things to say about their experience here, even with the record and the stats not being what either of them hoped.
That’s the sign of quality individuals and that, along with his rocket right arm, probably has as much to do as anything with Heaps getting this second chance.
Best of luck to him and what a cool opportunity to try out for the team you grew up rooting for.
Another NFL Draft has come and gone and, not so surprisingly, no Jayhawks were selected in this year’s seven-round draft.
That’s a far cry from a year ago, when three former Jayhawks — Ben Heeney, JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald — were drafted in the seven rounds.
As is the case just about every year, a handful of former Jayhawks who finished their college careers in 2015 were signed as undrafted free agents following the draft, so there is the possibility that the number of Jayhawks in the NFL could go up by the time August rolls around.
But going the free-agent route makes all of those guys longshots to stick so the better way to examine this year’s draft is through the lens of what the teams with Jayhawks did that might impact the former KU players already in the NFL.
The good news on that front is the answer, in just about every case, is not much.
Here’s a quick look.
Denver Broncos — The Broncos did pick up a pair of defensive backs in this year’s draft, but both were safeties and neither will threaten the status of starting cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Let’s face it; even if the Broncos had drafted a corner, even that would not have threatened Harris and Talib, the former KU teammates who have become two of the top corners in the league and, in many eyes, the top cornerback duo in the NFL.
New Orleans Saints — Former KU running back Toben Opurum has spent the past couple of seasons with the Saints, primarily on their practice squad and he appears to be doing enough in that role to keep his bosses happy. The Saints did add a running back in the draft but not until the final round.
Oakland Raiders — The Raiders added two defensive ends and an outside linebacker, but none of those players should impact Heeney, who had a stellar rookie season playing inside and in the heart of the Oakland defense. The talk out of Oakland both immediately after the 2015 season and in the offseason sure made it sound a lot like the Raiders were thrilled with what they had in Heeney and that his role would only increase from here on out. This draft definitely indicates that. The Raiders also stayed away from the cornerback position, good news for Dexter McDonald.
Philadelphia Eagles — I’ve heard nothing but good things about JaCorey Shepherd’s recovery from a torn ACL last preseason as well as the Eagles’ feelings on him as a big part of their future. The Eagles’ draft certainly would lend support to that claim. Phily did add a pair of DBs in the 6th and 7th rounds and one of them, Blake Countess of Auburn, seems to have some steal-type potential. But even at that, Countess seems more like a true cover corner and the Eagles were looking at Shepherd as more of a nickel back. All in all, in could have been worse for Shepherd and he has to be feeling good that the franchise did not feel as if it needed to use a high pick on a player in the secondary.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Steven Johnson signed with the Steelers this offseason mostly because of the opportunity to not only make the roster but also impact the team. The Steelers added two linebackers in the draft — a sixth-round pick from Washington and a seventh-rounder from Temple — and it’s entirely likely that Johnson, who has spent time with the Broncos and Tennessee Titans after landing in the league as an undrafted free agent, will have to compete with those two players for a possible spot on the 53-man roster. Competing and being in that underdog role is nothing new for Johnson, so don’t expect him to shy away from the challenge. When I caught up with him at this year’s spring game, he seemed ecstatic about the opportunity in Pittsburgh and no doubt will be ready for the battle.
San Diego Chargers — No safeties in the draft for the Chargers is excellent news for former KU standout Darrell Stuckey, who not only has entrenched himself as a key part of the Chargers’ special teams — he earned a Pro Bowl nod for that role two years ago — but also may be in line for more time in the secondary now that stud Eric Weddle, who mentored Stuckey, is no longer with the team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — The Bucs added two cornerbacks but no safeties, which should inspire former Jayhawk Bradley McDougald to release a sigh of relief. McDougald has been rock solid for Tampa during his years with the franchise and continues to improve each season. He’s still young but now trending toward veteran status and seems to be a big part of their defense.
There are, of course, a handful of other former Jayhawks still trying to hang around with this team or that team, but as for the players who have carved out key roles in pro football, this draft did not seem to hurt any of them.
One quick note about Tanner Hawkinson, who was drafted by Cincinnati and then spent time in Phily before getting picked up by Jacksonville... I saw Hawkinson before this year’s spring game, as well, and he said he was not completely sure what his future held. There’s no doubt that he could still make a roster, but his time in the NFL might have come to an end and he might have been a victim of not catching on in quite the right situation. We’ll keep an eye on it and see what he ends up doing.
For the past couple of years a lot of the talk surrounding Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart focused on what other position Cozart could play as much as it did on his qualities as a quarterback.
And given the Bishop Miege graduate’s elite-level athleticism, that type of chatter made perfect sense.
However, as things stood entering the 2016 season — spring football wrapped up last week — I was one of the rare people who still believed that Cozart, incredible athlete or not, actually served this team best as a quarterback.
After all, even though freshman quarterback Ryan Willis showed a ton of potential last season and appears to be poised for big things in the future, he missed most of the spring with an injured wrist and the rest of the position behind him is wildly inexperienced. Therefore, Cozart, even in a back-up type role, can still bring something of value to the roster as a passer. Besides, if he were to move to wide receiver, he’d be plugging himself into a deep and talented position and competing for playing time with teammates who have been running routes and catching passes their entire lives.
Those were my thoughts before Wednesday.
But now, in the wake of the news that Cozart, along with fellow KU quarterback Deondre Ford, had been granted a hardship waiver that came with an extra year of eligibility, my mind is starting to go to that place that so many other minds already have been.
Should Montell Cozart switch positions?
Cozart himself was asked this question earlier this spring and, as much as the young man fancies himself a quarterback, he proved that he truly is a team player by saying he inquired about switching positions if that was what the coaches thought was best for the team. It wasn’t then. But it might be now. And that extra year of eligibility has a lot to do with it.
See, with just one year left, it would be tough for Cozart to fully make the jump from QB to wide receiver or DB or wherever else they thought he might be able to help. After all, even former Jayhawk JaCorey Shepherd, who went on to become a sixth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, needed a full year and then some to make the transition from wide receiver to cornerback. And that switch is a much easier transition than going from quarterback to anywhere.
So that’s what is so intriguing about that extra year that Cozart now has at his disposal. If they make the move now, he could spend the summer, preseason camp and all of the 2016 season easing into the transition and then be ready to truly make some noise at his new position heading into next spring.
With young QBs Carter Stanley (red-shirt freshman) and Tyriek Starks (incoming freshman) in place and ready for action — along with Ford and Keaton Perry on the roster for QB insurance — the Jayhawks have the bodies behind Willis to give Cozart a shot somewhere else. Besides, it's not like he couldn't move back if something happened to Willis or the need popped up.
That’s not to say Cozart could not move at a faster pace and contribute in a different role as soon as the 2016 season, but the extra year takes some of the pressure off and gives him time.
The only thing left to do now is to figure out the best spot to move him and then pull the trigger.
Having said all of that, don’t count Cozart out of the QB race just yet. Willis did next to no throwing this spring because of that wrist injury and Cozart has never been anything but supremely confident in his skills.
Like it or not, there exists the real possibility that Cozart could be lined up under center for the first offensive snap of the season just as he was in each of the past two seasons.
The good news, though, is this: If he’s not, it now looks as if there’s time to find him somewhere else to contribute.
Tuesday afternoon’s two-hour practice, which came three days after the annual spring game, represented our final chance to see the 2016 Kansas University football team until preseason camp.
And, at least through these eyes, the 14th session of spring ball offered a much better look at this group of Jayhawks, mostly because we had more time and did not have to worry about trying to keep up with that strange scoring system that decided the spring game.
The biggest difference between Saturday and Tuesday was the fact that the Jayhawks were wearing shorts, shoulder pads and helmets on Tuesday instead of full pads and it sounds like that’ll be the case again Thursday, when the Jayhawks close out their spring schedule.
From there, they’ll focus on finishing school, getting through finals and then jumping into the always-grueling summer session, which will be run by the players themselves and strength coach Je’Ney Jackson and his staff.
With that in mind, here’s a quick look back at a few things that caught my eye on Tuesday, both the good and the bad...
• As I wrote in a short article after practice, sophomore QB Ryan Willis was throwing — albeit with a Nerf football — during the early portions of practice and, from the looks of things, the Jayhawks can’t get him back soon enough. Maybe it was just a bad day, but all four of KU’s other quarterbacks showed accuracy issues and failed to consistently put the ball where it needed to be in team drills, on everything from short throws to the flat to deep shots down the field. Willis is not perfect, but he’s got a great arm and he just might believe he is.
• One thing that really jumped out during the entire two-hour session was how much KU’s coaches emphasized good footwork. Sure, fundamentals are stressed every day. And let’s face it; when you’re in the position that KU football is in, you sure better be focusing hardcore on fundamentals. But the specific nature of how much they drilled footwork was interesting to me.
• You know those tomahawk and buckeye stickers that Florida State and Ohio State players (and several other teams with their stickers) put on their helmets when players reach certain goals? It looks as if the Jayhawks are joining the club? I don’t know yet if this is just a practice thing, just a spring thing or something more permanent. But I do know that it’s just a reward for KU’s defensive players right now and that could be the result of the defense getting the better of the offense on a pretty consistent basis throughout the spring. Either way, the tiny Jayhawk stickers look pretty cool.
• Minor detail here, but it definitely stood out: DC Clint Bowen was not at practice because, as Beaty said, he was "as sick as a dog." You know he'd have to be to stay away from one of 15 spring practices that are so valuable to the team. That said, the defense seemed to move fine and work with a business-as-usual attitude and effort without their leader their. Good sign.
• Now for some individual notes.... I’m telling you what, man. This walk-on freshman receiver named Keegan Brewer can really play. He’s physical enough to play right now, runs great routes, has good hands and just oozes confidence. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’ll see him playing plenty of snaps this fall and during the next four years. And he looks like a pretty dynamic player with great drive and work ethic.
• Return man and former Wichita State sprinter Ryan Schadler was back working with the running backs on Tuesday. Because of a minor injury Schadler did not get any carries (or snaps) during last weekend’s spring game, but him working with the RBs certainly is no surprise. It’s a thin position and Schadler has some skills, so don’t be surprised if that role sticks. One other quick note here: The thin and inexperienced nature of the position should provide a good opportunity for incoming freshman Khalil Herbert to get some carries right away, provided he reports in good shape and picks up the offense quickly.
• I love the look of Fish Smithson and Tyron Miller at safety. Both guys look like natural leaders and bring confidence to the KU secondary. Miller looks about the same, physically, but he appears to be so much more comfortable at his position of choice.
• Remember Chase Harrell? The big, athletic wide receiver who graduated high school early last year and came to KU in time for spring practice? There was a lot of hype around him early on because of that (which might have been unfair) but Harrell went on to red-shirt the 2015 season. I haven’t heard or seen much from him this spring and I can’t help but wonder if he’ll be one of those late bloomers, especially when you consider how many talented receivers are already taking snaps ahead of him. This group of wideouts might not wow the folks at Alabama, but I think there are at least three or four receivers on this team that could play at just about any school in the country. That’s what makes finding the right QB all the more important.
• At the top of that list — though he’s not all that young — is transfer wideout LaQuvionte Gonzalez. You all saw what “Quiv” can do during the spring game, but watching him school the young DBs in KU’s secondary with his quickness and route-running savvy is good entertainment.
• Red-shirt freshman Jace Sternberger is a horse. He came in with good size and appears to have gotten much bigger but, and here’s the important part, he does not seem to have lost his athleticism and speed. I think this guy is going to have a big and very versatile role in KU’s offense this season and beyond. He really seems to be a coach’s dream, too — always attentive, always ready, locked in from start to finish.
• Curious about the first-string offensive line? Well, this was the way it looked during the spring game and it stayed consistent during Tuesday’s practice. From left to right: LT Clyde McCaulley, LG Jayson Rhodes, C Joe Gibson, RG Jacob Bragg, RT De’Andre Banks. It’s hard to know whether that’s what it will be this fall or not, especially when you consider last year’s left tackle (Jordan Shelley-Smith) is currently nursing an injury. But that’s the way it looks right now. Having said that, I was surprised to see how many little details the coaches still had to remind these guys about during Tuesday’s practice. I don’t know if this group has worked together most of the spring or not, and that could’ve been part of the problem. But for all of the good things we’ve heard about how far this group has come in the weight room and conditioning, it seems there’s still more than a little work to do on the field.
• One of the strangest things I saw at Tuesday’s practice came in the final 15 or 20 minutes, when it was offense against offense and defense against defense. What I mean by that is this: Wideouts Shakiem Barbel and Steven Sims alternated between receiver and defensive back. Ryan Schadler played some safety. Offensive lineman Will Smith played some linebacker. Weird, huh? Now, it’s important to note that none of these offensive players “playing defense” of the defensive guys posing as point-producers on the other side of the field actually were running things. It seemed to me as if going offense vs. offense and defense vs. defense was merely a way to keep more players engaged and learning, instead of having the offense go against the defense and putting half of the team on the bench or sideline. Can’t hurt, right?
Friends and teammates of former Kansas University running back Brandon Bourbon (2010-14) have become concerned about Bourbon’s safety after attempts to reach his phone for the past two-plus days have been unsuccessful.
Monday afternoon, a missing persons report was filed with the Missouri State Highway Patrol that indicated Bourbon had not been heard from since 7:30 p.m. on April 2.
The former four-star prospect from Potosi, Mo., who came to Kansas after initially committing to Stanford, suffered through an injury-plagued five-year run at KU and finished his career at Washburn University in Topeka.
During a mid-February phone interview with the Journal-World, Bourbon sounded like his usual full-of-life self and expressed excitement about plans to start up a training business for young athletes in and around his hometown, similar to the one former KU running back Jake Sharp has started in Salina.
Several friends, family members and former teammates took to social media on Monday to help locate Bourbon.
Oakland Raiders linebacker Ben Heeney sent out a handful of Tweets. Former KU wide receiver Josh Ford posted a message on Facebook that was shared by dozens of former Jayhawks. And Bourbon’s mother, Janet, posted the following on her personal Facebook account:
“Looking for my son Brandon K. Bourbon. He's not been heard from by anyone who knows him since Saturday evening. There is some incorrect information on Facebook that he was active a few hours ago. That (he) was on his computer. Please keep an eye out for him!”
According to a Tuesday update from The Associated Press, Washington County Sheriff's Capt. Zach Jacobsen said that Bourbon's family last saw him Saturday evening in the Potosi area, where his family lives. He says Bourbon's car, a silver minivan, is also missing, and that Bourbon's phone is off.
Jacobsen also said, since leaving college, Bourbon had been living in the Potosi area. He said authorities don't suspect foul play but are concerned because it's out of character for Bourbon to leave without contacting his family.
Anyone with information on Bourbon is asked to contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office at 573-438-5478.
There are two ways to look at the recent departure of three of Kansas University football assistant coaches who spent just one year in Lawrence working for head coach David Beaty.
The first is the glass-half-full approach and it says: "It sure is a bummer to lose these coaches after just one season, but the fact that they’re leaving says an awful lot about Beaty’s ability to put together a staff since, even after going 0-12, other coaches wanted to add KU’s coaches to their staffs.”
The second is the glass-half-empty approach and it says: “What in the heck is going on over there and why is KU losing this many assistants after just one season? Is this a sign that the program is a mess and people who come work here realize that and are bailing for better opportunities before things get even uglier?”
Both are valid viewpoints and certainly worth concerns, and I have heard both uttered dozens of times by the KU fans who still care about football at this point.
However, I’m not sure that either one actually answers the question of what’s going on in the KU football complex.
The reality is this: Each one of the three coaches who left KU did so for a better opportunity. All three got raises. One, linebackers coach Kevin Kane, was promoted from position coach to coordinator. The other, running backs coach/recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell, was promoted from 0-12 in the Big 12 to 8-5 in the SEC. And the most recent, receivers coach Klint Kubiak, was hired by his dad, who just so happens to coach the defending Super Bowl champions.
A fourth, former special teams coach Gary Hyman, initially stayed with the program after being reassigned but now has taken a job at Indiana State.
Say what you will about how it looks for Beaty to lose all three in a short span. And there’s no denying that, overall, it’s not a great look.
But a closer glance at the circumstances shows that each departure was a no-brainer and neither Beaty nor the current state of the KU program should be considered the sole reason that any of these assistants left.
Beyond that, although it's clear that continuity is so key at all levels of development in the game of football, the Kansas program remains stable in that the head coach (Beaty) and both coordinators (DC Clint Bowen and OC Rob Likens) — as well as both line coaches (Zach Yenser and Calvin Thibodeaux) who need to help KU make up the most ground — are expected to be back with the program for Year 2 of the Beaty era.
It should be noted here, however, that Thibodeaux's name has surfaced in Oklahoma, where Bob Stoops is in search of a new defensive line coach. Multiple sources at KU recently told me they were confident Thibodeaux would remain on Beaty's staff, but heading home to an alma mater of the caliber of OU is an awfully tough thing to turn down, so this is worth tracking.
I know it’s easy for coaches on their way out the door to say flattering things about the place they’re leaving simply because it does them no good to trash the place and also out of a sense of loyalty to the people who just paid their bills. And that’s probably some of what’s going on here.
But in my conversations with all three coaches, as well as others closely tied to the football program, I did not get the sense that this is a case of rats fleeing a sinking ship.
People, both still on board and departing, believe that, in time, Beaty will get things turned around at Kansas. One of the coaches leaving even went as far as to tell me that he almost did not leave, even with the wonderful opportunity sitting in front of him, and said Beaty was the main reason. “The work environment he has created at KU is second-to-none,” the coach said. “Between that and the facilities, it really is a great place to be.”
Time will tell if that holds true. But the most important thing to find out now is if Beaty can do as good of a job replacing these coaches as he did putting together his staff in the first place.
The results of that will determine just how damaging these moves are for Kansas football.
Sunday night was a good night for fans of Kansas University football.
However short the moment might have been, the few hours that made up and followed the Denver Broncos’ 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50 gave KU fans an opportunity to brag on a couple of their own.
Former Jayhawks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, starting cornerbacks for the Broncos’ dominant defense, played a big role in knocking off the Panthers and delivering the third world championship to Denver.
Sunday’s Denver victory marked the first time since offensive lineman Justin Hartwig won Super Bowl XLIII with the Pittsburgh Steelers that a former Jayhawk stood on top at the end of an NFL season and just the second time ever that a pair of teammates who played their college ball at Kansas won football’s top prize together, joining Don Davis and Rod Jones, who helped St. Louis win Super Bowl XXXVI.
Obviously, Talib and Harris winning a Super Bowl does not erase the misery of the past six KU football seasons. Nor does it automatically make the outlook for the next year or two suddenly sunnier than it once was.
But bragging rights are bragging rights and when you’re a fan base as starved for success and feel-good moments as KU’s, you take ‘em where you can get ‘em, and this was certainly a place where you could get it.
For starters, Harris is as good of an ambassador for KU football as there is on the planet. He’s proud of his time at Kansas, still keeps up with the program regularly — even going as far as to watch and Tweet about most of KU’s games on Saturdays — and every time I’ve talked with him in the past five years has spent a good 5-10 minutes of each conversation drilling me on the ins and outs of the KU program and the Jayhawks’ chances at turning things around. He lives that whole “Once a Jayhawk, always a Jayhawk” thing.
And he deserves every bit of the success and credit he is getting for helping Denver win it all. Mostly, because he created it for himself.
Undrafted out of college, Harris worked his butt off to make the Broncos’ roster as a free agent and made his way up through the ranks by standing out on special teams. There came a point, early on, when his passion, heart and effort spoke so loudly that the coaches had to put him on the field on defense to see what he could do. The only thing that has pulled him off since then is injury.
And now Harris and Talib, who started in KU’s secondary on that Orange Bowl championship team back in 2008, can put a little NFL hardware next to their college accolades. Knowing these guys, you can bet that simply tasting that kind of success is only going to make both guys even more hungry for more in the future.
Most of this you know. I’m aware of that. But one of the things that seems to be missing from the feel-good narrative of the former Jayhawks turned NFL champs is the incredible amount of work both players have put in to get to this point.
Give former Kansas coach Mark Mangino plenty of credit for recruiting both of them. For different reasons, each player was an overlooked or unwanted two-star prospect with few other options and Mangino saw enough in both of them to roll the dice. I know these guys love the man and appreciate everything he did for them and their careers.
But to say Mangino developed them into the players they are today is wildly underselling the commitment to excellence that both players have displayed throughout their post-KU careers.
Talib, the former All-American, possessed such raw talent and incredible ability — not to mention all of the confidence in the world — that he parlayed his stellar KU career into becoming a first-round pick in the NFL Draft and has been highly sought after throughout his pro career, even if his antics on and off the field have given him less than a sterling reputation. Still, put away all of the extra-curricular activities and trash talk and Talib’s talent is undeniable.
For Harris, it’s been a little bit different. Jerked around throughout college, some by Mangino and a lot more by Mangino replacement Turner Gill, Harris had to overcome way more than going undrafted to get to this point. And he’s done it with a huge smile and even bigger chip on his shoulder every step of the way. Not that you’d ever know about the second part. Harris is one of the genuinely nicest players in the game today and his passion for helping people has earned him all kinds of well deserved recognition in Denver and his native Bixby, Oklahoma.
No one but Harris (along with a handful of his closest friends and personal trainers) helped him make the Broncos’ roster that summer in 2011 after the NFL lockout — another obstacle that made Harris’ path to pro success more difficult — and no one but Harris put in the work to become bigger, stronger, faster and flat-out better to the point where he soon would become one of the top-paid and most respected cornerbacks in today’s game.
During my time covering Kansas, Harris is by far the one athlete, in any sport, who blew my mind with the way he improved by leaps and bounds after he left KU.
Was he a fantastic player at Kansas? You bet. But Harris made himself a future Super Bowl champion and top-tier NFL cornerback by putting crazy amounts of work after he left.
Sunday night it paid off and I don’t doubt for a second that Harris was thrilled to bring KU fans along for the ride.