Significant conference-wide questions, KU storylines at play during Big 12 media days

Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark speaks at the opening of the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

At last year’s Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, newcomers BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF were the talk of the town, as various coaches and players from the league’s longtime schools faced numerous questions about the new ones joining the conference.

Four more programs are making the move to the Big 12 this time around, and this week’s media days, which begin Tuesday, will likely attract an even greater level of interest for several wide-ranging reasons.

For one, the relocation of media days from Arlington to Las Vegas places the event squarely in the southwestern territory formerly occupied by the Pac-12, from which Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are joining the league this year; there should be plenty of media representatives on hand covering each school. More broadly, given the symbolic meaning of such a substantial geographic shift — particularly as the SEC, with now-former Big 12 schools Oklahoma and Texas in the fold, takes up residence in Dallas for its own event this summer — Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark may well get asked about the decision to relocate, and whether it could portend further westward movement for Big 12 championships and the like.

In addition, the Big 12’s four newcomers were part of a highly publicized and dramatic wave of conference realignment — much more so than last year’s moves — that has seen geographical affiliations fall by the wayside as schools like USC and UCLA join the Big Ten and Cal and Stanford the ACC.

However, the Big 12 specifically has also been in the news for a pair of rather unconventional widely reported attempts to create new and unusual revenue streams: potentially selling its league-wide naming rights to a corporation (namely, Allstate) and allowing private-equity investment in the conference. While on-the-record comments on these prospects have been sparse since they were first reported in mid-June, Yormark will certainly face extensive questions about these possible initiatives and their repercussions from the assembled media on Tuesday.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark addresses the media during the NCAA college Big 12 women’s basketball media day Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo.

Those reports began to surface against the backdrop of the proposed settlement in the House v. NCAA case, which is not yet finalized but would allow schools to designate a pool of up to approximately $20 million to pay their student-athletes directly. The NCAA would also need to withhold some revenue from member schools in order to help pay billions in back-pay damages as part of the settlement. Big 12 member school TCU has already formally announced that it plans to allocate the maximum amount of money possible to revenue sharing, with Texas Tech’s athletic director suggesting it would also do so. Even with the formal conclusion of the settlement a ways away (and with one Division I school, Houston Christian, having objected to its terms), these actions bring the discussion to the Big 12 in particular and create a looming question for others in the conference to answer.

photo by: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File

FILE – Colorado head coach Deion Sanders, left, talks with his son and starting quarterback Shedeur Sanders (2) prior to an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. Colorado coach Deion Sanders said the fracture in the back of his quarterback son, Shedeur, has healed and he’s gearing up for the spring game on April 27, 2024. Shedeur Sanders missed the final game last season due to the fracture.

Finally, these media days could receive particularly thorough scrutiny on a national scale because of one specific team on hand at Allegiant Stadium that has attracted an outsized level of attention over the last year. The Colorado football team has been a lightning rod for criticism, adulation and everything in between since Deion Sanders took over as head coach prior to the 2023 season. With the famously quotable Sanders alighting in Vegas (in fact, he takes the podium immediately before Kansas’ Lance Leipold on Wednesday) along with his sons Shedeur and Shilo and the preseason Defensive Player of the Year Travis Hunter, the Buffaloes could receive as much attention as last year’s four new teams did combined.

As all of those external factors are in play, there will also be plenty of KU-specific, lower-level storylines to watch as Leipold, Jalon Daniels, Mello Dotson, Devin Neal and Jereme Robinson speak on Wednesday.

New blood

A few freshmen from KU’s much-anticipated 2024 class enrolled early, so the likes of quarterback Isaiah Marshall and defensive end Dakyus Brinkley received plenty of assessments from coaches and media attention in the spring.

But many of the players who earned that class such plaudits have only recently made their way to Lawrence. That includes the likes of cornerback Austin Alexander and the class’ headliner, defensive end Deshawn Warner. As it happens, media day participants Dotson and Robinson play those same positions and have front-row seats for those players’ development (not to mention the additional freshmen who play cornerback and defensive end), while Leipold can speak to the class as a whole.

The addition of Bryce Foster

The center Foster’s transfer commitment came at a late enough stage in the summer that some of his teammates who were also new to KU had already been on campus for two weeks at that point. It was also sufficiently late that it came after the last time Leipold spoke to media (at a Topeka Jayhawk Club event on June 3), meaning that Big 12 media days will provide Leipold’s first chance to discuss the recruitment, adjustment process and future prospects of his likely starting center. In addition, Leipold can touch on the track-and-field element of Foster’s commitment, which lends it a unique character unlike others during Leipold’s tenure.

The man who will take snaps from Foster, Daniels, will also have the opportunity to share his own first impressions of the 6-foot-5, 330-pound lineman, not to mention the rest of the Jayhawks’ reshaped offensive line.

photo by: Carter Gaskins/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas tight end Jared Casey gets ready to haul in a pass from Jalon Daniels during practice on Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Lawrence.

Questions at tight end and elsewhere

Daniels also has a unique perspective to offer on Jared Casey, a player with whom he has been inextricably linked ever since the two connected on a fateful conversion to beat Texas in 2021. And Casey is a key part of one of the more intriguing position groups for KU this year: tight end.

He is the most experienced player among the group, but also does not fit the profile of a typical tight end at 6-foot and 255 pounds. His role will be interesting to watch on its own, as he works with a new offensive coordinator and position coach in Jeff Grimes, but also in the greater context of the position, which will likely have to rely on infrequently used returnee Trevor Kardell and unproven Division II transfer Leyton Cure as pass catchers.

Daniels and Leipold can shed light on how this group is developing as it hopes to fill the void initially left by the graduation of Mason Fairchild, briefly filled, and then vacated again after DeShawn Hanika got injured in the spring.

There are other positions on offense and defense where KU will need players to step into larger roles, but most have been discussed at length, particularly defensive end.

However, even though Leipold and special teams coach Taiwo Onatolu talked about the ongoing position battle at kicker during the spring, that position group (and the staff’s decision not to add a player to it in the offseason) remains shrouded in mystery, given that KU did not acquire a new kicker in the portal. Owen Piepergerdes, Charlie Weinrich and perhaps even kickoff specialist Tabor Allen could all factor into the field-goal-kicking picture. With three months’ distance from the spring, perhaps Leipold could provide some clarity on where that position — which has cost KU some games over the course of his tenure — is headed.

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