Anticipation, uncertainty accompany Les Miles’ 1st season with KU football

Kansas head coach Les Miles surveys his team during football practice on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 within the new indoor practice facility.

The start of every season comes with some level of anticipation for those diehards who endure the University of Kansas football program.

The quickly approaching 2019 season, though, arrives with some unique expectations — not because the Jayhawks have a new head coach, but because that man’s name is Les Miles.

Even though Miles’ time at LSU ended with his firing in 2016, the fact that he won 77% of his games over the course of 11-plus seasons and directed the Tigers to a national championship carries significant weight, considering KU so often has existed on the opposite end of college football’s spectrum of success.

And while no one is banking on Miles magically turning the Jayhawks into one of the best programs in the country overnight, the coach hasn’t hidden his optimism about the program in the months since relocating to the Big 12 for a career reboot.

“When I came in I did not know how capable this team was going to be,” Miles admitted. “But I see that there is a very strong athletic base and a real capable football team in Lawrence.”

Dating back to his second year as a head coach, in 2002, when he was at Oklahoma State, Miles’ teams have won seven games or more every season. Thus far, he has made a point not to say how many games he thinks KU can win this fall, in part, he explains, because he doesn’t want to put a ceiling on the team’s potential.

Even if the Jayhawks win just four games out of 12 it would meet the low bar of becoming the program’s most successful season since 2009.

Here’s a positional look at the players who will help determine just how Year 1 of Miles’ tenure at KU turns out.

Quarterbacks

If Thomas MacVittie ends up opening the season as KU’s starting quarterback, as many have suspected would be the case since Miles began speaking highly of the 6-foot-5, 225-pound transfer from Mesa Community College (Ariz.) early in the offseason, it won’t be because MacVittie blew his coaches’ minds with his arm and legs.

Spring football came and went without Miles naming MacVittie the No. 1 QB. And when preseason camp began the first week of August, Miles made it clear he wasn’t in a rush to pick a starter.

Whether the delay had more to do with MacVittie struggling or senior Carter Stanley showing he had true starter potential, too, only those who watched KU’s closed practices know for sure.

Miles said throughout the past several months that MacVittie had a slight edge over Stanley, and that the competition was between those two QBs in particular.

It seems — at least in Miles’ first year at KU — that QB play isn’t expected to be a real strength of the offense.

Running backs

The quarterback position could be at least a bit of an afterthought, though, if KU’s running backs are as good as many expect them to be.

The Jayhawks have more depth with their rushers than they do anywhere else on the roster. And, of course, that starts with sophomore Pooka Williams.

A preseason All-Big 12 running back, Williams emerged in 2018 as the program’s preeminent offensive playmaker. During his freshman year, the Louisiana native ran for 1,125 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 games. Williams proved he could make plays in the passing game, too, bringing in 33 receptions for 289 yards and two more TDs.

Because of that success, Williams appeared poised to become the face of the program before he was arrested and charged with domestic battery this past December. Williams later reached a diversion agreement in the case. He didn’t practice with KU in the spring, when he was suspended from team activities. As part of his punishment, he will miss the Aug. 31 opener versus Indiana State.

During that game and any other time that KU’s most talented skill player won’t be on the field, the Jayhawks have more than one capable replacement. Both senior Khalil Herbert and junior Dom Williams can be pugged into the backfield without KU offensive coordinator Les Koenning or running backs coach Tony Hull worrying about much of a dropoff in productivity.

And even if KU should have to deal with injury issues at running back, freshman Velton Gardner could potentially slide into the rotation.

Receivers

KU enters the season without a clear No. 1 receiver in its passing game. However, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that one or more of position coach Emmett Jones’ pupils will potentially break out in the weeks and months ahead.

Atop the list of candidates to become a go-to receiver sits senior Daylon Charlot. Once upon a time, Charlot played at Alabama. His potential has often been referenced by coaches and teammates alike since he arrived at KU as a transfer three years ago. But his next big game for the Jayhawks will be his first. Now a 6-foot, 193-pound senior, Charlot caught 12 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns in 2018.

The most productive returning receiver from this past season, though, is junior Stephon Robinson. In his first year playing at the FBS level, Robinson made 28 catches for 330 yards and a touchdown.

Robinson and other returning receivers who have been in the program since before Miles took over and hired Jones seem likely to take on larger roles this year. Chief among them are juniors Kwamie Lassiter II, Quan Hampton and Evan Fairs, as well as sophomore Takulve Williams.

Meanwhile, junior college transfer Andrew Parchment seems the safest bet to become the most impactful newcomer in the receiving corps. Though his juco teammate at Iowa Central Community College, Ezra Naylor, should provide some depth for the group, too.

It remains to be seen how the offense will use tight ends, be that as extra blockers or actual pass-catching threats. But the assistant who oversees that position, Jeff Hecklinski, seems to have some options, leading with junior Jack Luavasa and senior James Sosinski.

Offensive line

The blocking and pass protection up front long has been an issue for KU’s offensive potential. However, Miles repeatedly has stated his confidence in this year’s offensive linemen, who are coached by Luke Meadows.

The surest blockers among the veterans should be senior left tackle Hakeem Adeniji (6-5, 300) and junior left guard Malik Clark (6-4, 315).

The rest of the starting spots at the point of attack might not be determined until the final days before the season opener. At center, senior Andru Tovi (6-3, 310) and redshirt junior Api Mane (6-3, 327) continued battling for the first string spot during preseason practices.

On the right side of the O-line, more veterans project as likely starters, with junior Chris Hughes (6-4, 315) at right guard and senior Clyde McCauley III (6-5, 310) at right tackle. A former Ohio State lineman and a starter throughout the 2018 season for KU, senior Kevin Feder (6-9, 300) could play a factor at right tackle, too.

Some younger players in the group, such as redshirt freshmen Nick Williams (6-8, 290) and Jacobi Lott (6-4, 320), might force their way into the rotation.

Defensive line

A couple years back, some of the most talented players in the program resided on the defensive line. But now that Daniel Wise has graduated and moved on, little certainty exists anymore at the very front of KU’s defense.

Among the 12 players listed as defensive linemen on the Jayhawks’ roster, only five played in games for KU a year ago, and the leading returning tackler from that small group made eight total stops in 2018. That distinction goes to senior defensive end Codey Cole III.

Beyond Cole, possible disruptors on the defensive line include upperclassmen in seniors Darrius Moragne, Sam Burt and Willie McCaleb.

A pair of junior college transfers, junior Caleb Sampson and sophomore Malcolm Lee, both of whom signed with KU this past winter, will likely need to prove themselves Big 12 ready for D-line coach Kwahn Drake’s group to have some level of success this fall.

Freshmen D-linemen Marcus Harris and Da’Jon Terry could become longterm solutions for the unit if they don’t break into the rotation immediately.

Linebackers

While there are an abundance of linebackers on the roster — 19 in total — not one is expected to emerge as an adequate replacement for Joe Dineen, the program’s all-time leader in tackles for loss and the FBS leader in solo tackles (108) in 2018.

A whopping 14 of KU’s linebackers are freshmen and sophomores, leaving junior Kyron Johnson and senior Dru Prox as the most obvious choices to head into the season as starters at inside linebacker. Johnson made 16 total tackles and four tackles for loss this past season, while Prox made six total tackles.

At outside linebacker, KU has one of the defense’s most athletic talents, senior Azur Kamara. Playing the “Jack” position, Kamara, at 6-4 and 235 pounds, is essentially a standing defensive end who can also drop into pass coverage. As a junior in 2018, Kamara made 16 total tackles and five tackles for loss, plus two sacks.

The only other upperclassmen at linebacker are seniors Najee Stevens-McKenzie, who made one tackle as a junior, and Denzel Feaster, who finished 2018 with eight stops.

KU defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot (who also oversees outside linebackers) will need four-star 2019 signee Steven Parker, who plays the same position as Kamara, and other underclassmen to acclimate quickly, as will inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler.

Secondary

Far more proven defenders occupy KU’s secondary, where defensive backs coach Chevis Jackson inherits some of the most talented players in the program.

At safety alone, the Jayhawks have two seniors who each boast 20-plus career starts over the previous three seasons in Bryce Torneden and Mike Lee, both of whom know their position coach, former defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, well.

KU’s leading returning tackler, Torneden made 91 total stops as a junior, with 5.5 tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, an interception and two fumble recoveries. Lee, meanwhile totaled 68 tackles a year ago, with one pick, one fumble recovery and three forced fumbles.

At cornerback, KU also has returning starters in sophomore Corione Harris and senior Hasan Defense. No one on the 2018 team intercepted more passes than Defense, who contributed three while playing safety as a junior before returning this offseason to his natural position. Harris, while starting nine games as a freshman and at times taking his lumps, made one interception and matched Defense with 43 total tackles on the year.

Redshirt sophomore Davon Ferguson and junior Ricky Thomas are expected to influence KU’s success in the secondary, as well, from the safety position.

At corner, senior Elmore Hempstead Jr. and redshirt junior Kyle Mayberry give KU some veteran depth.

Kicking

The only Jayhawk other than Pooka Williams to bring home preseason all-conference honors was junior punter Kyle Thompson.

In 2018,Thompson averaged 43.3 yards on his 69 punt attempts, with seven touchbacks and 26 downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

When KU needs three points from a field goal or one point after scoring touchdown, it will be up to either junior Liam Jones, who has handled kickoffs each of the past two seasons, or freshman Jacob Borcila.

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