Spring game to provide fans, new coach Lance Leipold first glance at Jayhawks

photo by: Andy Eisch/Photo courtesy of KU Athletics

Kansas football players Colin Grunhard and Jereme Robinson square off during a drill at one of the Jayhawks 2021 spring practices.

New Kansas football head coach Lance Leipold will get his first glimpse at the roster he’s inheriting Saturday night, as the Jayhawks wrap up their five-week offseason practice schedule with their spring game.

Led by KU receivers coach and passing game coordinator Emmett Jones since March 11, the Jayhawks have been looking forward to the final scrimmage (kickoff at 6 p.m., ESPN+) as an opportunity to show the program’s fans the progress they’ve made at their closed practices. Now their target audience includes their new leader, Leipold, who is scheduled to attend the spring game a day after he was hired to take over.

The players didn’t know earlier in this week during their most recent interviews with the media who would be their next head coach or when exactly that would come about. But a couple of KU veterans shared what they thought anyone watching the spring game would learn about the Jayhawks.

“I feel like we’re going to shock a lot of people,” safety Ricky Thomas said. “With everything going on, we’re just keeping our head down, working. And I just feel like we’re going to wake a lot of people up.”

Senior quarterback Miles Kendrick had a similar opinion earlier this week when asked what he expected the open scrimmage would reveal about the team.

According to Kendrick, fans and other observers will learn that the players have continued to improve throughout the past several weeks.

“That’s been our focus this whole spring, is just get better each and every day,” Kendrick said. “We put last year in the past and we moved on to this spring and it’s a fresh start. It’s just going 110% each and every day and looking back after that day and saying, ‘Hey, did we get better or did we regress?’ And I think for the majority of the days we’ve gotten better.”

The Jayhawks are wrapping up a crucial portion of the year with the event at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium that players often consider to be the highlight of the spring slate.

Thomas, a super-senior safety, said he’s most looking forward to competing and “trying to win the day,” as fans watch in person or via their preferred streaming devices. Thomas thinks the high-energy approach instilled by Jones will be on display.

“The coaches are taking the thinking out of the game, so (players are) basically flying around knowing their assignment and executing it,” the safety said.

According to Kendrick, now in his fourth year with the program, the energy the Jayhawks have brought to spring practices this year is “unmatched” during his time at KU.

“We’ve had a lot of energy, a lot of effort and that’s been put into practice every day. We’ve gotten 1% better every day,” Kendrick said, repeating one of Jones’ mantras, “and that’s just our focus. That’s really been my biggest takeaway, is just seeing us getting better from the start of spring to the end. And just getting 1% better each day.”

While Leipold and fans will get to see plenty of the program’s established players, spring games tend to feature a surprise breakout performer or two, as well. Both Thomas and Kendrick had ideas about which Jayhawks may catch people by surprise during the scrimmage.

“I’ve got two guys that I really expect (are) going to shock a lot of people, and people are going to get to know them pretty well, come this fall — OJ (Burroughs) and Jayson (Gilliom),” Thomas said, naming a pair of true freshman safeties.

“They’re pretty good. They’re catching on pretty well, and they’re flying around making plays every time,” Thomas said of Gilliom and Burroughs, both of whom graduated high school early in order to enroll at KU at the start of the spring semester. “It’s like every time they’re stepping on the field they’re getting better.”

Kendrick had even more players in mind when the subject came up during his media session earlier this week.

“I’d say with the wideouts one guy who might make some plays is Kyler Pearson,” Kendrick began, referencing the redshirt freshman receiver. “He’s quick-fast, makes great plays on the ball. I think he’s made some plays and surprised some people this spring.”

The veteran QB also thinks fans will see “a much better offensive line overall.”

Likewise, Kendrick said the defense as a whole has improved since the end of the 2020 season.

“They’re throwing a lot of coverage at us, a lot of looks at us, a lot of pressure,” Kendrick said of KU’s defense. “So I think you’ll just see an overall better football team, but O-line and defense for sure.”

Just as was the case during the 2020 season, KU isn’t permitting tailgating prior to the spring game. Parking lots and gates to the stadium will open an hour before kickoff, at 5 p.m. COVID-19 safety protocols used at the venue last season remain in place.

Seating will be first come, first served, with socially distanced small pods available, and all fans being asked to watch from sections 1-8.

More reaction to KU football’s hiring of Lance Leipold

• KU Sports Hour Podcast: Initial reactions to the Lance Leipold hire

• Substance-over-style approach makes Lance Leipold a great fit for Kansas football

• Lance Leipold’s versatility on offense was likely selling point for Kansas football

• No reason to expect KU’s roster to fall apart with hiring of Leipold


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