The most intriguing aspects of KU’s first depth chart of the year

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas defensive end Hayden Hatcher runs through drills during practice on Aug. 14, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

The first game week of the season has arrived, and Kansas football has released something resembling a concrete indication of who will take the field when the Jayhawks host Missouri State Friday.

I will go no further than to say that KU’s game notes feature “something resembling” a starting lineup because like so many of its peers across college football, this Week 1 depth chart makes heavy use of the dreaded “or,” resulting in a density of conjunctions that would make Nathaniel Hawthorne blush. The one-page document features 15 instances of “or,” indicating multiple potential options at a given starting spot or reserve position. Five of those “ors” apply to starting roles, three of those coming on special teams.

Even with all the uncertainty that sort of thing introduces, there remain plenty of insights to be gleaned from this initial depth chart, particularly with the added context head coach Lance Leipold provided in his press conference Monday.

Here’s what stood out to me as I perused the Jayhawks’ personnel.

An unlikely freshman slips in on offense

KU only included one backup spot for the vast majority of positions on the roster, including the “Z” and “Slot” starting roles at wide receiver. But the “X” receiver personnel runs three deep: Behind starter Lawrence Arnold are redshirt sophomore Tanaka Scott and, in something of a surprise, freshman Keaton Kubecka.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound wideout from Austin, Texas, got a rather odd shoutout from wide receivers coach Terry Samuel midway through fall camp when Samuel compared him to former Atlanta Hawks small forward Dominique Wilkins.

“He has that ability, that knack to be able to put himself in a position to make a play on the ball,” Samuel added, somewhat but not totally clarifying the equivalency.

For Leipold, who also confirmed that receiver Kevin Terry has left the program, Kubecka took advantage of extra reps offered to him during fall camp and showed a particular aptitude for playing on special teams. Leipold said he had seen that quality shine through when he went to watch Kubecka play last year.

“To watch him on special teams really caught my eye, because for a young player to some of the positions he played on special teams, and his passion about it, I had a feeling he could help us somewhere down the line,” Leipold said. “I didn’t anticipate it being this quickly, but it’s good to see, and I think as he continues to develop through the season he’s going to have a chance to help us on the offensive side as well.”

The other freshmen listed on the two-deep are right tackle Calvin Clements, the local standout from Free State who impressed throughout August and earned a backup role behind Bryce Cabeldue — though it’s somewhat less likely he’ll find himself in the top eight that will actually get playing time — and Australian punter Damon Greaves, who is listed as a co-starter with Grayden Addison.

Special teams still played close to the vest

Observers, including me, have long viewed Greaves and Seth Keller, both newcomers, as favorites for their respective starting spots (punter and kicker), but KU’s coaching staff has in its depth chart stopped short of committing to either. Owen Piepergerdes, who made one field goal and nine extra points for the Jayhawks last year, is listed as a co-starter with Keller, and Addison, who punted five times with a 37.2-yard net average, shares a top spot with Greaves.

That latter development, though, does put former starter Reis Vernon out of the running for the punter job. Addison and Vernon are still listed as the top two options, in that order, at holder, however, meaning Greaves will definitely not be thrust into that role even if he starts at punter.

Receiver Trevor Wilson is the sole starting punt returner, a new role for the speedster. As for last year’s two punt returners, Leipold said that Luke Grimm (currently listed as the backup to Wilson at that role) was doing well with punt returns until a previous injury, and that OJ Burroughs is still taking some as well. Kick-return duties are split between Wilson, Kenny Logan Jr. and Sevion Morrison.

Starting spot, with symbolic value, up for grabs on the D-line

Tommy Dunn and DJ Withers are still competing for one defensive tackle spot adjacent to Colorado State transfer Devin Phillips. That was the only “or” included on the depth chart for a starting role, except at safety, where OJ Burroughs and Marvin Grant will both play a lot regardless.

Leipold made that same point about defensive tackle, noting that it’s a particularly rotation-intensive position — “It could be by amount of snaps, could be down and distance, all those guys will play.”

However, he acknowledged that earning the start will be meaningful for either Dunn or Withers.

“(We’ll look at) who’s maybe had the best week, and locked in and been doing some things that might get the chance to go out there for the first snap,” Leipold said.

Both worked extensively with Director of Sports Performance Matt Gildersleeve in the offseason on cultivating their strength.

“Tommy and DJ have really come a long way as players but also maturing as people,” Leipold said, “and it’s really neat to see, and I’m glad they got a lot of snaps left in our program.”

It was a mild surprise not to see an “or” on the defensive end spot opposite Jereme Robinson, because I thought returner Hayden Hatcher and newcomer Austin Booker were neck and neck there. But Hatcher, who was once a juco walk-on, has seized the starting role, and in fact Booker is listed in an “or” pairing with fellow transfer Patrick Joyner Jr. for the backup spot.

Jalon Daniels is the listed starter

That is only intriguing given the following context: Asked if Daniels, who has grappled with back tightness for the last three weeks, would start Friday, Leipold merely pointed to the depth chart on which Daniels, the preseason all-conference offensive player of the year, is positioned as the starting quarterback ahead of Jason Bean.

“We just released the two-deep, and that’s kind of where we’re at right now, and where we’re going,” Leipold said, essentially confirming that starting Daniels Friday is at least the plan at present for the week ahead.

He also said that Daniels practiced Monday and “we’ll plan on playing everybody that’s available,” later adding that the staff is “confident” and “in a really good spot with him.”

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