Three things to watch as Kansas football prepares to kick off spring practices
With daylight savings, March Madness and warmer weather all on the horizon, it definitely feels like spring is making its way to Lawrence.
On Tuesday, you can add another indicator to that list — the start of spring practices for the Kansas football program.
Just eight weeks removed from playing in its first bowl game in 14 years, Lance Leipold’s squad will kick off their first of 15 spring practices bright and early on Tuesday.
For the most part, the spring schedule will follow a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday format. There will be no practices during spring break — March 13-17 — and the spring session will wrap up on Friday, April 7 with the newly named Spring Showcase, a final session that will be part spring game, part fan fest.
Kansas is coming off of its most successful season in the post-Mark Mangino era, with the Jayhawks finishing above three wins for the first time since the 2009 season.
On its way to a 6-7 record, Kansas rolled to five consecutive wins to open the 2022 season. That put the Jayhawks on the national map, bringing a national ranking and ESPN’s College GameDay to Lawrence.
The question now is how well Lance Leipold’s program will be able to capitalize on and build on the momentum that last season delivered. Fan interest is at an all-time high again, the KU players are driven, confident and motivated and the new culture under Leipold and his staff seem to be solidly in place.
While the answer to that question won’t be fully available until this fall, when the Jayhawks return to the field, there are a few other questions worth tracking as spring practices get under way.
Here’s a quick look at those:
• How do the newcomers fit in? Given what Kansas lost from last season’s team, which wasn’t a ton but was important, at least a few of the new faces the program brought in this offseason figure to play key roles on next season’s team. That’s particularly true at offensive and defensive line, where KU will look to replace Earl Bostick Jr. at left tackle and nearly all of their defensive linemen, including edge rusher Lonnie Phelps Jr.
Interior linemen Gage Keys (Minnesota) and Devin Phillips (Colorado State) along with edge rushers Patrick Joyner Jr. (Utah State) and Austin Booker (Minnesota) are expected to provide competition and depth on defense. And Wisconsin transfer Logan Brown, as well as Spencer Lovell, of Cal, will do the same up front.
A handful of early enrollees in the 2023 recruiting class also will be going through spring ball for the first time. Included among them is former Free State offensive lineman Calvin Clements. While none of these players will win or lose jobs this spring, their ability to get acclimated with the program, the culture, the playbook and their teammates will be a big part of the spring.
• Can the defense make progress? – Taking a step forward on the defensive side of the ball will be critical for Kansas if it wants to compete in the Big 12 Conference next season. While the Jayhawks did win six games and reach a bowl game in 2022, they also lost seven of their last eight games, with many of those losses coming because the defense could not string together enough stops to give the offense a chance to win.
Safety Kenny Logan Jr. will miss spring practice with a shoulder injury, but his absence could actually wind up helping. It will give others in the secondary — especially at safety — the chance to take on more of a leadership role that could pay off big time when the season rolls around. Getting those new defensive linemen key reps will also be an important part of the next several weeks.
KU ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense in 2022 and also was eighth in passing defense and eighth in sacks.
Defensive coordinator Brian Borland is as even-keeled as they come and he stayed steady throughout the 2022 season, believing that the team’s defense was better in Year 2 under Leipold than it was in Year 1, even if that didn’t always show up on Saturdays. Now it’s time for Borland and the players to come together to take another step forward, one that can be seen by fans who show up in the stands on game days.
• QB situation – We all know that Jalon Daniels is KU’s leader and unquestioned starter at the quarterback position. And you can’t say enough about what an advantage it is to have a returning starter at that position, let alone one who is as driven and hungry to improve as Daniels. But there is intrigue at the QB position beyond the talented senior-to-be. In part because of the injuries Daniels has dealt with of late and also because of the return of 2022 back-up Jason Bean.
People have wondered aloud for the past couple of years what Bean might be able to bring to the offense if he’s able to play a position other than quarterback. The only way KU will feel comfortable even tinkering with that idea is if Ethan Vasko can show enough growth and development to hand him the job as Daniels’ primary backup.
Because Daniels doesn’t need all of the reps the way he did a couple of years ago and even last year, when he was fighting for the job, Vasko can be given a longer look and his performance and production can be compared directly to what Bean brings the offense in the same role.
Don’t expect a final decision to be made on this by April 7, but pay attention to what you’re hearing here, especially if you’re interested in seeing if Bean can help this already productive offense become even more dangerous and explosive.