Leaders lining up left and right for still-building Kansas football program

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels (6) gives thanks before a play during the third quarter on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022 at Memorial Stadium.

Tuesday marked the opening day of spring football at the University of Kansas, the first of 15 practices spread throughout the next five weeks designed to advance the key components of the KU way under head coach Lance Leipold.

While building chemistry, adding speed and size and using reps to develop and improve will be an important part of all of it, the Jayhawks set the stage for the spring by putting a huge emphasis on leadership, as well.

That began this offseason, when KU strength coach Matt Gildersleeve and the rest of the KU coaching staff saw the need for providing the Jayhawks with the how of leadership as much as the why.

With that in mind, Gildersleeve opened up the team’s weekly leadership council meetings to everyone on the roster instead of just the 16 players who were required to attend. What came next shocked him.

“We’ve had over 50 guys come every single week,” Gildersleeve said Tuesday. “I was totally blown away. I knew we needed it. I just didn’t know they’d be that interested. It’s a leadership class. And most college kids ain’t signing up for extra class time. We were even doing make-ups. We had to start doing a Wednesday morning make-up for some of those guys.”

The reason was simple: This bunch understands the importance of quality leadership and believes in where it can take them.

“That’s what driven teams do,” KU running back Devin Neal said. “You see that with the best teams like the (Kansas City) Chiefs and with other teams in college football that are the best. That’s really special, and it wasn’t always like that (at KU). People always viewed themselves as (playing) a role.”

Now, whether they’re four-year veterans, first-year freshmen or transfers who just joined the team, the opportunity to lead is open to everyone.

Gildersleeve said the tools provided in that leadership curriculum included how to be confrontational, demanding and encouraging with an emphasis on how to connect to each other and build trust.

Both quarterback Jalon Daniels and defensive lineman Jereme Robinson said the uptick in the interest in leadership demonstrated to them that the long-range forecast was strong.

“That means that we’re going to be able to build this program for the future,” Daniels said. “We’re not just building it for the present. The more leaders that we have on the team, the more we’re going to bring everybody up to that standard. Honestly, I’d love it if all 115 guys came to the leadership council meetings.”

Added Robinson: “The more we can teach our young guys how to keep us accountable, the better they’ll do it once they’re older. It’s like a generational thing.”

Daniels said the number of underclassmen in the leadership meetings was one thing that caught his attention. Gildersleeve pointed out that back-up quarterback Ethan Vasko was one of them.

“How much is that going to pay off in the long run,” Gildersleeve asked on Tuesday.

All of it is built on the premise that this program hasn’t done anything yet. Sure, getting to six wins and playing in a bowl game felt good. But this team’s goals are much bigger than either of those two accomplishments. And, backed by their coaches, these players are willing to put in the work to reach the next level.

As Gildersleeve put it, complacency is a culture killer, and the Jayhawks, he said, want to “continue to press the gas as hard as we possibly can and continue to set new standards.”

There will be tests and challenges and goals that illustrate clearly how well the Jayhawks are doing in their pursuit of those climbing beyond last season’s accomplishments.

“That’s what it’s all about,” KU safety Kenny Logan Jr. said Tuesday. “Of course it’s going to build confidence and I feel like that’s what we’ve got now and we’re kind of finding our swagger. But we’re not there yet. We haven’t arrived. There’s always still more work to be done.”

For Gildersleeve, that work is as much about what happens in the hearts and heads of his players as anything they do at a workout or practice.

“I could give you guys a bunch of weight room data and where we are getting because we are trending in some pretty cool places,” he said. “But, to me, (quality leaders) are the things that impact the process the most, and the process is what gives us the results we want.”

Said Leipold of Day 1 of that process for the 2023 Jayhawks: “There’s a lot going on out there, that’s for sure. But it’s great to be back out there.”


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