Midseason check-in: How each KU position group is faring this year

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas quarterback Jason Bean instructs teammates Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 against UCF in Lawrence.

We have reached the halfway point of the Kansas football season, if you can believe it, though the Jayhawks have a chance to displace the midpoint a little further if they can pick up one more win.

Yes, KU is not far away from adding a bowl game to its schedule for the second straight year. And while the Jayhawks have played in 13 bowls in their history, only once have they reached the postseason in consecutive years. That came in 2007 and 2008, the height of the Mark Mangino era, when KU won the Orange and Insight bowls. It has not won a bowl game since.

The Jayhawks still need one more win to ensure they can keep playing into December. They have a chance to pick that up on the road this weekend, but for now, they sit six games into a 12-game regular season.

That provides a convenient opportunity to take a quick look at how they have fared as compared to expectations thus far this year, and the best way to do so is on a position-by-position level — much as we previewed the season before it started.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas quarterback Jason Bean catches a snap during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCF, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Lawrence.


This may be the most disappointing position on the roster thus far, if only due to high expectations and circumstances largely outside of the coaches’ and players’ control — namely, Jalon Daniels, fresh off his Big 12 Conference preseason offensive player of the year nod, suffering chronic back tightness beginning a week into training camp that has already caused him to miss three games. That in turn led, in one case, to Jason Bean finding out he was starting at then-No. 3 Texas, half an hour before kickoff.

Even when Daniels has played, he hasn’t been fully unleashed. The closest he got was against Illinois when he made plays outside the pocket to escape the stout Illini defensive front, but by the next week at Nevada, the coaching staff was set on limiting his running to keep him healthy for conference play (which, ultimately, he is not).

I don’t think anyone foresaw the Jayhawks at No. 100 in the country in passing offense. One encouraging sign is that both Daniels and Bean have avoided turnovers. KU is one of just eight teams in the country to have thrown one or fewer interceptions, and just one of two to have done so in six games played.

You have to imagine at some point that the Jayhawks will need to take the top off a defense. And at least for now, Bean seems like the one who will have to do it, as head coach Lance Leipold said Monday that Daniels did not practice on that day and that he had received no additional update on the injury.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas running back Devin Neal rushes for a first down as a UCF defender gives chase during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Lawrence.

Running backs

Devin Neal is averaging 7.7 yards per carry as the lead back and Daniel Hishaw Jr. has erased any and all doubts about how he would return from last season’s severe hip injury. Neal will fake out an entire defense with a well-timed cut and Hishaw will take on every defender in his way (as UCF’s Quadric Bullard learned on Saturday). The result is a dynamic duo that ranks second in the nation in rushing yards for a pair of players.

Saturday’s 399-yard performance, which, by the way, included 91 yards and two touchdowns from transfer third-stringer Dylan McDuffie, demonstrated the full potential of a rushing attack that had already been chugging along quite nicely.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas wide receiver Lawrence Arnold, center, reaches to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Central Florida, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

Wide receivers

This position group has been dragged down statistically by the passing offense’s unremarkable production. The talk prior to the season was all about how the group was six or seven returning players deep, but beyond Lawrence Arnold, Luke Grimm and Quentin Skinner, the unit has combined for 10 catches.

The starters have played well, even if their numbers don’t pop off the page yet. Arnold’s 77 yards against Missouri State and 89 against Illinois keyed both of those wins. Grimm always seems to know where to go when a quarterback is out of the pocket, and hauled in two key touchdowns from Daniels against BYU. And Skinner’s highlight-reel, leaping catch against Nevada helped rescue the Jayhawks. Not to mention that they have all embraced the responsibility of blocking for the prolific run game.

No one in this group has taken over a game, though. No one has cleared 90 yards in a single appearance yet after the starting trio produced six such performances in 2022.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Kansas tight end Trevor Kardell (45) celebrates with Kansas tight end Mason Fairchild (89) after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against BYU Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Lawrence.

Tight ends

It’s a similar deal here, though the downfield blocking by Mason Fairchild, Jared Casey and Trevor Kardell has been even more responsible for the holes opened for Neal, Hishaw and company.

Fairchild had 20 catches in the last four games of 2022 but has tallied just 13 through six this season. Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki looked to get him involved in play-action against UCF Saturday, which bodes well for his usage as the season goes on now that KU has established a successful rushing formula. Camp standout Kardell has just four catches, matching Casey, but has shown good body control and a knack for getting open in key moments.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas offensive lineman Ar’maj Reed-Adams (55) carries the state flag as the Jayhawks take the field before an NCAA college football game against UCF on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Lawrence.

Offensive line

Even as practically everyone on the line has sustained some sort of minor ailment, they’ve managed to hold together to open enormous holes for the running backs and only allow one sack per game. Tackles Dominick Puni and Bryce Cabeldue have shone practically all year. Kobe Baynes has rotated through at guard to accompany projected starters Michael Ford and Ar’maj Reed-Adams, and all three, albeit with some rough patches, haven’t been far behind. Mike Novitsky has continued to anchor the team as a center and team captain, even after missing a lot of practice leading up to the UCF game.

Leipold said Monday he’d like to expand this rotation even further if he can. Wisconsin transfer tackle Logan Brown has been injured and hasn’t played since Illinois, though, and “we’re not quite there yet” with KU’s younger tackles, Leipold said.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas defensive lineman Austin Booker forces a fumble on UCF’s Timmy McClain Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 in Lawrence.

Defensive line

What projected as perhaps the single weakest position group on the team has transformed into an unexpected strength, highlighted by Minnesota transfer Austin Booker, who is tied for the Big 12 lead with five sacks. Even with his emergence as a game-wrecker though, KU has had success with exactly the by-committee, rotational approach it planned to use from the opening days of fall camp. In fact, KU leads the conference in sacks at 18.

It’s a good thing for the Jayhawks that they’ve already given snaps to so many players because their depth is about to be tested. Both Hayden Hatcher and Jereme Robinson, the named starters on each edge, sustained injuries late in Saturday’s game and did not practice Monday. That will mean plenty more run for Dylan Brooks, Patrick Joyner Jr. and Davion Westmoreland, who are all fairly unproven but have shown flashes in limited action.

The defensive tackles haven’t been quite as flashy but have generally done well clogging up rushing lanes, led by Colorado State transfer Devin Phillips. That said, Texas and UCF, with dramatically different personnel and offensive-line play, both managed to run on the Jayhawks, which doesn’t bode well given of the talented running backs they have left to play on the conference schedule.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

UCF quarterback Timmy McClain (9) makes an incomplete pass as he is pulled out-of-bounds by Kansas linebacker Jayson Gilliom (10) during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Lawrence.


The biggest revelation of this group has been that it is even deeper than imagined. KU knew it had a skilled top four with Rich Miller in the middle, Taiwan Berryhill Jr. on the weak side and Craig Young as the Hawk, plus JB Brown as the first man off the bench. Brown got plenty of shine with Berryhill hurt, coming off the edge as a pass rusher against Illinois, forcing a fumble at Nevada, then tallying nine tackles at Texas; Berryhill had a breakout game of his own Saturday with eight tackles and a sack against UCF.

But the Jayhawks have to be encouraged by the progress of players like backup linebacker Cornell Wheeler, who’s stacked one good performance atop another, highlighted by his interception against Texas. Jayson Gilliom, a converted safety who missed all of last season due to injury, also made an impression this past Saturday when he tracked down UCF quarterback Timmy McClain on the sideline for a big loss. Defensive coordinator Brian Borland showed the team Gilliom’s reps on blitzes in practice and in the game as a shining example.

There’s still some work to do for this group to tighten up in coverage, as BYU tight end Isaac Rex exposed some weaknesses in that area (not to mention the two wide-open touchdowns for UCF tight ends on Saturday). And the linebackers were responsible for many of the missed tackles against Texas, though that seemed a bit of an aberration.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas cornerback Mello Dotson upends UCF’s Amari Johnson Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 in Lawrence.


Cobee Bryant was at one point Pro Football Focus’ top-rated run defender in the country, produced KU’s most exciting play of the season when he leveled BYU’s Parker Kingston for a game-opening fumble return touchdown and has generally locked down opposing receivers. The rest of the unit has more boom-or-bust. Opposite corner Mello Dotson is tied for second in the Big 12 with eight pass breakups and made a memorable interception off a big hit against Illinois, but has also gotten beaten deep now and then.

Kalon Gervin and Kwinton Lassiter are the only other corners to record a stat this season because LSU transfer Damarius McGhee has been out since the Missouri State game. Leipold said earlier in the year he was dealing with a back injury.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas head coach Lance Leipold, right, talks with Kansas safety Kenny Logan Jr. before an NCAA college football game against Central Florida on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Lawrence.


Kenny Logan Jr. is not only the Jayhawks’ leading tackler with 38 stops, he has found himself ideally positioned for a number of pivotal plays at the moments KU has needed them most. He blew up a reverse on fourth down at Nevada to seal that tough road win. He snatched up an interception on a ball batted up by Gilliom that turned into a pick-six and reversed the momentum against BYU. He even nearly had a special-teams touchdown Saturday.

Marvin Grant and OJ Burroughs are listed as co-starters at the other safety spot, with Grant the nominal starter for the first six times in his KU career, but have both seen lots of time. Of course it was partly because Texas’ running backs were in the secondary so often, but Burroughs recorded a career-high 13 tackles in Austin.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World photo

Kansas kicker Seth Keller kicks a field goal to seal the game against BYU Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.


Trevor Wilson returned a punt for a touchdown against UCF, the first such score for the Jayhawks in nine years and by far the most momentous accomplishment of KU’s special teams this season. (It earned him Big 12 special teams player of the week honors.) Other than that, the KU specialists have been steady if unremarkable, which is certainly an improvement over last season. Seth Keller made his first seven kicks of the year before missing a chip shot late against UCF. Damon Greaves really hasn’t had to punt much at all since coming over from Australia but averaged more than 45 yards on six kicks at Texas.


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