Long considered ‘the answer,’ Kansas’ transfers still must prove themselves worthy
photo by: Zac Boyer/Journal-World
Lorenzo McCaskill was a two-year starting linebacker at Louisiana who led a conference champion in tackles and claimed second-team All-Sun Belt honors last season.
Yet as he settles in for his first game after his transfer to Kansas, McCaskill is being confronted with a reality that shows just how much change is swirling around the Jayhawks.
Accomplishments elsewhere don’t mean much if a player hasn’t proven to the Jayhawks’ coaches he has earned his role.
Of all the players who transferred to Kansas following the end of last season, only nine players, including McCaskill, have significant experience starting at a Football Bowl Subdivision program. Among that group, only three — Lonnie Phelps Jr., cornerback Kalon Gervin and safety Marvin Grant Jr.– seem likely to take their first snaps with the Jayhawks as starters during season opener against Tennessee Tech at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Friday.
The wholesale changes don’t mean that Kansas missed its mark in fortifying its roster with experienced upperclassmen. Starting, after all, is just a label given to the players who take the first snap; one could conceivably be on the field for the first play and never return to it, and the coaching staff expects to rotate many players at several positions.
But that so few of the 21 newcomers are expected to play a significant number of snaps in games early in the season shows just how much the players who were on the team last year have stepped up — and just how much time is needed for the new players to acclimate.
“I think any big transition, you have to get adjusted,” McCaskill said. “You have to learn a new scheme, new defense, you know? That was probably the biggest thing. Once you get a hang of it, you’re ready to go.”
For McCaskill, one of the Jayhawks’ marquee offseason additions, that process was uniquely difficult. He decided to leave Louisiana in January, not long after former coach Billy Napier was hired at Florida, and said he received scholarship offers from USC, Texas, Tennessee, Miami, Ole Miss and countless other schools.
But McCaskill had to finish coursework at Louisiana before he could be admitted to a new school as a graduate student, and by the time Kansas processed the sixth-year senior, training camp had already begun.
That means he doesn’t yet know what kind of role he’ll play against the Golden Eagles, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, on Friday night. He’s still trying to learn the defense, and neither he nor the rest of the Jayhawks want that lack of familiarity to make him a liability.
“I probably haven’t even been here a month yet,” McCaskill said. “I know that we’re going to have guys that are going to rotate and guys that are going to play.”
Dre Doiron, a 10-game starter at Buffalo last season, is the backup center to Mike Novitsky. Topeka’s Ky Thomas, a four-game starter and the leading rusher at Minnesota, will share snaps with potentially four other running backs. Eriq Gilyard, who started 23 games over four seasons at UCF, will vie for snaps at linebacker with McCaskill and holdovers Rich Miller, Taiwan Berryhill and Gavin Potter.
Those players may have played significant minutes in the past, but coach Lance Leipold said the perception that anyone would immediately claim a starting role upon transferring to Kansas because of their success and experience elsewhere was always mistaken.
“When we talked from Day 1, we talked about creating a culture of competition that would help our roster as a whole,” Leipold said. “It’s nothing against anyone who has transferred, but I could go back to my time as a Division III player and coach that as soon as a guy transferred from a high level, everyone was going, ‘Oh, this guy’s gonna be the answer.’ Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not.”
In fact, where the biggest impact may be for the Jayhawks is not starting but finishing. Leipold believes that because the gap between the starters and their backups “is very close” at several positions, the biggest impact may be seen late in games, as players shouldn’t be gassed from having to play so many snaps.
That may also help someone like McCaskill, who described his playing style as “110 percent effort.” Miller, who grew up playing youth football with McCaskill in Detroit and helped encourage him to transfer to Kansas, said McCaskill was told during one practice early in training camp that had to stop hitting players because nobody was wearing pads.
That effort and intensity can be focused into a shorter timeframe, rather than for a good portion of a three- or four-hour game.
“At Louisiana, I might have played 60, 70 snaps a game,” McCaskill said. “But you’re going to always rotate at that position, especially when you have other good guys in the group.”