Fall sports preview: Leading KU football won’t be any easier for Les Miles in his second year
photo by: Associated Press
A year after experiencing his first losing season as a head coach in almost two decades, Les Miles figures to take on an even larger challenge in his second year at the University of Kansas: leading a football program through a pandemic.
While other conferences have postponed their seasons until the spring semester, the Big 12 will try to press onward. The Jayhawks went 3-9 in 2019 with Miles in charge, but even matching that win total in 2020 became more improbable for KU when the Big 12 opted for a 10-game schedule and eliminated two nonconference dates.
Two of the Jayhawks’ three victories in Miles’ first year came outside of the conference, against Indiana State and Boston College, while KU went 1-8 in the Big 12.
If the league can navigate its schedule successfully during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Jayhawks get all their games in, KU’s best chance at a win will be in its opener Sept. 12 versus Coastal Carolina, before playing five of its nine Big 12 games on the road.
Miles won major bowl games and a national championship during his 11-plus years at LSU, but taking the rebuilding Jayhawks through this schedule in these circumstances will present a unique test, even for “The Mad Hatter.”
It wouldn’t be the preseason in Lawrence without a giant question mark at quarterback.
As has been the case for years, the Jayhawks don’t have a clear-cut No. 1 QB headed into the fall. Miles went as far as to call it an open competition.
While we don’t yet know who will take the first snap of the season at QB when KU plays host to Coastal Carolina on Sept. 12, it’s a safe bet that it will be one of two veterans.
Considered by many to be the front-runner for the job in 2019 before Carter Stanley secured the spot, Thomas MacVittie, now a senior, might finally get a crack at running the show.
But first he’d have to beat out junior Miles Kendrick, the other top contender for the job.
Kendrick has more in-game experience at the FBS level than MacVittie, having played in four games in 2018. But that was for a different coaching staff. Miles recruited MacVittie as a junior college transfer in his first KU recruiting class. Miles didn’t show any favoritism for MacVittie, though, when choosing Stanley as the QB a year ago.
If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate or a backup who might get some snaps late in games or if things go awry, some names to keep in mind at QB are Miles Fallin and Jalon Daniels. Fallin is a walk-on entering his third year in the program, while Daniels is a true freshman who was recruited by offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon.
One of the easiest jobs for KU’s eventual starting QB will be handing the ball off to the Jayhawks’ star skill player.
A preseason All-Big 12 running back for the second year in a row, junior Pooka Williams Jr. has proven to be one of the most explosive offensive players around when KU gets him the ball in space.
A 5-foot-10, 170-pound runner and pass-catcher, the Louisiana native turned in 1,000-yard rushing seasons both as a freshman and sophomore. In 11 games in 2019, Williams averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 7.9 yards per catch while scoring five total touchdowns.
Those within the program hope he can become even more productive this coming season, now that Dearmon, who took over as offensive coordinator midway through the 2019 season, is calling the shots.
Even when Williams isn’t on the field, the Jayhawks hope to have reliable options backing up their star. Velton Gardner showed in flashes as a true freshman a year ago that he can break runs for chunks of yardage, too. In limited playing time and 10 appearances in 2019, Gardner averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns, one from 45 yards out and the other a 32-yard run to the end zone.
Freshmen backs Amauri Pesek-Hickson and Daniel Hishaw Jr. could provide KU with further depth at the position, as could redshirt freshman Torry Locklin, who took some in-game snaps in KU’s version of the Wildcat, known around here as the Jayhawk.
The more KU relies on its running backs, the more opposing defenses will load up the box to crowd potential rushing lanes. But the Jayhawks have some fleet-footed receivers to make defenses pay and balance everything out — as long as they find a QB who can get them the ball.
Overall, receiver looks to be the deepest and most talented position on KU’s roster this year. Assistant coach Emmett Jones welcomes back each of his three top pass-catchers from a year ago: seniors Andrew Parchment, Stephon Robinson Jr. and Kwamie Lassiter II.
Both Parchment (65 receptions, 831 yards, seven touchdowns) and Robinson (45 catches, 727 yards, eight touchdowns) proved to be deep threats in the passing game in what qualified as a breakout season for both. Lassiter was steady, too, as a third option, bringing in 34 catches for 352 yards and a TD.
The Jayhawks could benefit from some other receivers emerging this year, too, especially if they want to regularly spread the field with multiple receiver sets — scenarios that gave their playmakers space to take off last year.
Those complementary receivers could end up being returning players such as junior Takulve Williams or sophomore Jamahl Horne. But don’t rule out some of KU’s freshman wideouts. Lawrence Arnold and Luke Grimm drew praises from veterans early in preseason camp, and Jones thought highly of the entire group of 2020 freshmen when they signed this past winter. The class also included Tristan Golightly, Jordan Brown, Steven McBride, Malik Johnson and Kyler Pearson.
KU’s tight ends are likely to be used more as blockers than receiving threats, but they have some options at the position, too, with veterans Jack Luavasa and James Sosinski, sophomore Mason Fairchild and true freshmen Trevor Kardell and Will Huggins.
Just like last year, there are more questions than obvious answers on the front line of KU’s defense.
Malcolm Lee, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior; Sam Burt, a 6-foot-4, 293-pound senior; and Caleb Sampson, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound senior, all saw enough playing time in 2019 to give the D-line at least a little experience.
However, there are enough unknowns with the unit overall that the Jayhawks might end up needing some of their youngest players to produce.
After redshirting during his first college season in 2019, Da’Jon Terry has the size at 6-foot-4 and 345 pounds to potentially disrupt at the point of attack.
True freshman Jereme Robinson, at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, is another young prospect who would help KU’s defense if he’s more ready to contribute than most first-year players.
Marcus Harris, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound redshirt freshman, also could be needed up front.
KU sorely missed Dru Prox much of last season at linebacker, and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot will be glad to have him on the field once again.
Prox was so important for the Jayhawks that he finished ninth on the team with 39 total tackles even though a season-ending injury robbed him of the chance to contribute in KU’s final eight games.
In Prox’s absence, then-freshman linebacker Gavin Potter got thrown into the fire, at least giving him some trial-and-error lessons that should help him headed into his sophomore season. Potter made 56 total tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in his debut year.
Senior Denzel Feaster and junior Jay Dineen will be expected to help provide depth in the heart of the defense.
Meanwhile, the Jayhawks have some speed at outside linebacker with senior Kyron Johnson and redshirt freshman Steven Parker, who was one of the most sought-after recruits KU landed in 2019. Johnson made 55 tackles and 5.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while starting all 12 games.
KU’s secondary doesn’t have mainstays Mike Lee and Bryce Torneden anymore at safety, but the Jayhawks’ leading returning tackler from 2019 resides at safety.
Junior Davon Ferguson figures to be one of KU’s most important stoppers again after making 57 total tackles in his first full season at the Big 12 level. A 5-foot-10, 197-pound defensive back from Baltimore, Ferguson ended up starting the final five games of the season in 2019 and now is one of the most experienced players in the KU secondary.
The Jayhawks will probably need a lot from senior Ricky Thomas at safety, too. Thomas didn’t play a great deal a year ago, but he did account for one of the team’s six interceptions for the year while playing as a backup in all 12 games.
First-year KU safeties coach Jordan Peterson said during the preseason that he expects senior Nate Betts and sophomore Kenny Logan Jr. to contribute at the position, as well.
Already with 35 career appearances and 11 starts, fifth-year cornerback Kyle Mayberry gives KU a veteran presence and a crucial position.
Defensive backs coach Chevis Jackson needs to find more corners to plug in and play, though.
It’s unknown right now whether junior Corione Harris, suspended indefinitely following an arrest earlier this year, will rejoin the team this fall.
The rest of the position group is mostly freshmen, with the exception of senior Elijah Jones, from whom KU could use a breakthrough season.
Given the circumstances, it seems the Jayhawks will have to find ways for some of their freshmen, such as Valerian Agbaw Jr. (redshirt), Karon Prunty, Ra’Mello Dotson, Duece Mayberry, Johnquai Lewis and Jacobee Bryant, to contribute, as well.
A preseason All-Big 12 specialist, senior punter Kyle Thompson enters this year as one of the few Jayhawks with impressive accolades on his resume. Thompson averaged 44.5 yards per punt in 2019, with 18 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and 17 punts of 50-plus yards.
For kickoffs, extra points and field goals, KU still has the man who handled all of those scenarios a year ago: senior Liam Jones. On extra points, Jones went 26 for 30, and he was 11 for 18 on field goals with a long of 46 yards.
Thompson and Jones have a reliable veteran setting them up, too — senior long snapper Logan Klusman.
KU football 2020 schedule
Sept. 12 — Coastal Carolina
Sept. 19 — open
Sept. 26 — at Baylor
Oct. 3 — Oklahoma State
Oct. 10 — open
Oct. 17 — at West Virginia
Oct. 24 — at Kansas State
Oct. 31 — Iowa State
Nov. 7 — at Oklahoma
Nov. 14 — open
Nov. 21 — Texas
Nov. 28 — TCU
Dec. 5 — at Texas Tech