KU football reckoning with uncommonly high expectations

photo by: AP Photo/LM Otero

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels speaks to reporters during the Big 12 college football media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

Arlington, Texas — Two years ago, the Kansas football team didn’t even make it to the Big 12 Conference Media Days. Severe weather coming out of Lawrence grounded head coach Lance Leipold in his first year at the helm, and he and the Jayhawk players had to videoconference from afar.

In 2022, after a 2-10 season, the new-era Jayhawks made the rounds at their media-day debut at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — but sometimes felt like those they interacted with didn’t take them seriously, running back Devin Neal recalled Wednesday.

“You come here, they look at you, they kind of just giggle, laugh, like ‘You guys aren’t really going to be a contender,'” Neal said. “And now there’s more respect.”

Last year brought a 5-0 start and the first bowl appearance in 14 years. And so this year’s media day began with the Jayhawks sporting color-coordinated suits and quarterback Jalon Daniels, the conference’s newly minted preseason offensive player of the year, wearing a gold ensemble, a red tie and a piece of custom jewelry from back home in Los Angeles: an Apple Watch hung around his neck that played his highlights from last season.

Eye-catching, headline-garnering, but also very telling: KU brought four of its same five attendees from 2022, but suffice it to say they weren’t the same old Jayhawks. Following such an anomaly of a season, they demand a bigger spotlight than at any point in at least the last decade.

“I’m very big on ‘Pressure is a privilege,'” Daniels said. “If there’s pressure on me, that means that I’m expected to do something. There’s times a couple years ago where I would have wished that I had pressure to do that.”

Daniels earned the recognition last season with 2,439 combined yards passing and rushing and 25 total touchdowns following his September breakout, even as he played just nine games due to a late-season shoulder injury.

The players made sure to emphasize that even with their preliminary success, they have much more to accomplish: “I like kind of the underdog mindset,” Neal said, adding that “the biggest killer of teams is complacency, so I don’t want us to get to that point where teams respect us so we can kind of just relax, you know.”

Indeed, as they enter their junior seasons looking to elevate their skill sets even further, Daniels and Neal, both preseason all-conference first-team selections, have looked to the pros for inspiration. Daniels has worked to get stronger and attempted to get better at extending plays outside the pocket, pointing to Joe Burrow as an example. Neal has taken it one step further, asking the advice of his acquaintance, former Texas and now-Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson, on how to deal with certain defensive looks.

Kansas running back Devin Neal speaks to reporters during the Big 12 college football media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

He also spent time at the House of Athlete gym in Tampa training with NFL free agent Leonard Fournette.

“I trained with some guys that definitely know their stuff,” Neal said, adding that other pros like the Steelers’ Diontae Johnson also spent time at the facility. “It was valuable, picking those guys’ brains.”

Daniels and Neal will draw attention, but the Kansas defense got plenty of buzz on the negative side last year, finishing 127th in the country by allowing 469.4 yards per game, giving up more than 35 points on average along the way. Linebacker Rich Miller, the lone first-time media-day attendee in Arlington this year, said Wednesday he believes KU can build upon its early-season form if it commits to “playing together as a defense,” adding that “no one is looking at it as pressure at all.”

photo by: Henry Greenstein

Kansas linebacker Rich Miller speaks to reporters at the Big 12 Media Days at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on July 12, 2023.

“We know when we do that — even look at the Arkansas game (the Liberty Bowl) in the second half — we know when we actually come together, make our minds up, and play as a defense, no one can stop us,” Miller said. “It’s really no pressure or anything, we just go out there and play our game.”

In his own remarks Wednesday, Leipold took a measured tone, asserting that his team must find a balance between “embracing” the expectations — because they have come along so rarely at Kansas — and staying firmly in the present.

“Any program at any state, you have to focus on where you’re at at the moment and making sure you don’t get too far ahead of yourself,” he said, “and no offense to anyone, we can’t spend a lot of time reading all the positive things you’re going to say because (then) all of a sudden we’re not staying focused on what we need to at the moment to get better.”

Kansas head football coach Lance Leipold speaks at the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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