One player to watch at each position ahead of spring practice

photo by: AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Kansas offensive lineman Calvin Clements (75) during the first half of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl NCAA college football game against UNLV. Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023, in Phoenix.

Spring practice is just a few days away for the Kansas football team, and head coach Lance Leipold has already suggested it could be pretty light at times for some of KU’s more experienced players.

And the Jayhawks have quite a few this time around, particularly on offense, where ESPN ranks them 16th in the nation in returning production.

Some less heralded players will have a chance to make an impression this spring and summer, and so here’s one prospect in every position group to keep an eye on as KU returns to spring practice on Tuesday.

Quarterback: Isaiah Marshall. Kansas coach Lance Leipold has said he doesn’t push freshmen to enroll early, reflecting on his experience with his own daughter going away to college: “I think we’re in such a hurry all the time to speed through life.” But six members of KU’s 2024 class made the move to Lawrence at the semester break, and perhaps none more important than the freshman Marshall, who won’t face particularly high expectations this year, but has already earned numerous comparisons to starter Jalon Daniels and a sort of de facto “quarterback of the future” status. Getting a lot of reps this spring before most of his classmates have even arrived could help him reach that potential sooner.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World photo

Kansas running back Sevion Morrison breaks the plane for a touchdown Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, against Missouri State.

Running back: Sevion Morrison. This is another forward-looking pick because when the regular season comes around, Devin Neal may find a way to become even more of a workhorse in Jeff Grimes’ system than he has been in years past. But Leipold mentioned Morrison as a player likely to get plenty of opportunities in the spring, which is noteworthy considering he played just 15 offensive snaps in 2023 — a few as a wide receiver, actually, against Kansas State. Morrison and Hishaw are both redshirt juniors and could form an intriguing sort of thunder-and-lightning duo in 2025, but Morrison has to show he can hold up his end of the bargain.

Wide receiver: Keaton Kubecka. For the third year in a row, KU’s wide receiving corps is going to be virtually unchanged in terms of its top contributors. That said, Doug Emilien, who blocked on 80 of his 128 snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus, has shown it’s possible to carve out value and playing time by doing the dirty work at the receiver position. Kubecka earned playing time as a freshman because he’s what Leipold called “a big body who’s willing to help us block on the perimeter and loves playing special teams.” Spring will provide a chance to monitor his physical development with another year in the program, and his chances of getting on the field even more after a rookie season in which KU didn’t initially plan on redshirting him but was able to do so anyway.

photo by: AP Photo/Justin Hayworth

Iowa State tight end DeShawn Hanika (83) during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Ames, Iowa.

Tight end: DeShawn Hanika. The tight end position is pretty wide open, not only because the group has a new position coach in offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes (who may not use them in the same wacky ways that Andy Kotelnicki did) but because longtime contributor Mason Fairchild is gone. Jared Casey is, for lack of a better phrase, his own thing as a 6-foot tight end, but Hanika and Trevor Kardell have the size and experience to establish themselves as prototypical red-zone threats for Daniels. Hanika has seen more game action in his career than Kardell, but also didn’t play in a game all last year as a result of the Iowa sports betting investigation (his case was ultimately dismissed). Even so, he should be one of the few KU newcomers stepping into prominent roles this season.

Offensive line: Calvin Clements. The 6-foot-7, 315-pound freshman and Lawrence native dazzled teammates and coaches from as soon as he arrived on campus, to the point that he started and played 72 snaps in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against UNLV after Dominick Puni opted out of the game with an eye toward the NFL Draft. But it’s one thing to start a one-off game after playing 11 career snaps and another to step into the role of starting left tackle and blind-side protector after playing 83 snaps — which looks quite likely for Clements this year. Not to mention that he’s doing it with a new offensive line coach now in Daryl Agpalsa. There may be some growing pains for Clements along the way, but a smooth spring could allow him to make those as mild as possible.

Defensive line: Dylan Brooks. The refrain all last offseason was that KU did not have on its roster a go-to, top-line pass rusher in the vein of Lonnie Phelps Jr. But despite minimal collegiate experience, Austin Booker was able to emerge as that go-to guy, tormenting opposing linemen, tallying eight sacks and two forced fumbles and fashioning himself into an NFL Draft pick in just one season. Now that he’s gone, it seems KU again does not have a go-to, top-line pass rusher. Jereme Robinson will likely be a defensive leader, and sixth-year Youngstown State transfer Dylan Wudke is a valuable addition and probable starter. But Robinson had only 4.5 sacks last year and Wudke is averaging just under that over the course of his three and a half seasons as a starter. In short, there’s space for someone to step up as a passing-down edge rusher, and Auburn transfer Brooks is as good a candidate as anyone; he was one of the top defensive end prospects in the nation coming out of high school and is running out of years to live up to that potential. Last year he had five quarterback hurries on 56 pass-rush downs.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World photo

Kansas linebacker Cornell Wheeler knocks the ball loose for a fumble against BYU Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Linebacker: Cornell Wheeler. The linebacker position is full of players who need to make a leap this year after Miller and Craig Young exhausted their eligibility. Wheeler and Jayson Gilliom are at the top of that list and both played their way onto the field at times last season, but Gilliom has a bit more experience under his belt. Still, Wheeler flashed enough potential with a strong early-season stretch — a forced fumble against BYU, an interception at Texas — to suggest that he could slide directly into the starting middle linebacker role. It’ll be an adjustment, certainly, though, for a player who has played more than 25 snaps in just three games to become the anchor of the KU defense.

Cornerback: Damarius McGhee. The LSU transfer dealt with a back injury and played in just one game. Considering that he once started a bowl game for the Tigers and the rest of KU’s back-end depth at this position consists of three underclassmen with a combined six career defensive snaps, McGhee should be the favorite to pick up the slack behind Cobee Bryant and Mello Dotson. New defensive backs coach D.K. McDonald has expressed optimism about molding members of this group into valuable contributors. That list should start with the redshirt junior McGhee.

photo by: AP Photo/Tyler Tate

Utah State safety Devin Dye (23) motions to teammates on defense during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 in Logan, Utah.

Safety: Devin Dye. KU has shown that it gives three safeties considerable action — last year that meant O.J. Burroughs, Marvin Grant and Logan — and not four. Jalen Dye, who was next in line behind that group, got approximately 4% of Grant’s playing time by snap count. He would seem to be next up for that third spot with Logan’s graduation, assuming Burroughs and Grant can start at one position each, but now he has to compete with his brother Devin, a transfer from Utah State. Devin Dye has more of a proven track record as an all-conference honorable mention who racked up 81 tackles last year, but undoubtedly both of the sons of former Kansas City Royals outfielder Jermaine Dye will push for roles.

Special teams: Owen Piepergerdes. The Jayhawks did not acquire anyone new at kicker in the offseason to replace Seth Keller, which makes Piepergerdes the presumptive starter. That comes after a season in which he stepped in for Keller periodically due to ineffective performance, long range or occasionally just to get a rep in blowouts. The native of Kansas City, Missouri, is technically 1-for-2 in his career on field goals and 15-for-15 on extra points, although there were multiple extra point attempts intended for Piepergerdes last season that didn’t even get off the ground due to issues with the snap or hold. Piepergerdes clearly has a strong leg as he has posted multiple videos of 60-yard field goals he’s made in pregame warmups. If he can at least make kicks from beyond 40 yards — and get extra points above the line, which Keller struggled with and which cost KU against Oklahoma State and Kansas State — that would change the dynamics of the Jayhawks’ offense for the better.


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