Teams & Conferences

2015 College Football Preview: Kansas Jayhawks

In the immortally pretentious words of Tyler Durden, “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

Welcome to Kansas football in 2015 – the true working definition of starting from scratch.

New head coach David Beaty knows the program after serving as both a receivers coach and a co-offensive coordinator, and he knows high-octane offenses as a part of the Texas A&M coaching staff over the last four years. And now he has a totally blank sheet of paper of a program to work with.

It was a mere eight years ago that Kansas was within a late season loss to Missouri and a Big 12 championship game away from playing for the national title, finishing 12-1 with an Orange Bowl win. But the total program meltdown after the Mark Mangino fiasco was fast and it was brutal.

Turner Gill parlayed one planets-aligned-correctly MAC title season at Buffalo into the Jayhawk job. If it’s possible to sink lower after a 5-19 two-year coaching tenure, Kansas did with the hiring of Charlie Weis.

Weis was a bad hire. Everyone said Weis was a bad hire, and everyone knew the Kansas job wasn’t for him, and vice versa, but it was even worse than going 6-22 with three of the wins coming against FCS teams. If Gill wasn’t able to do much right away to turn things around, Weis took the program to a whole other level, relying almost solely on transfers and JUCO players to try for the big quick fix. That means there was no talent development, no depth, and almost nothing in the cupboard for Beaty to cook with.

Not only is Beaty taking over a team with few real players to build on – all six players who earned some form of All-Big 12 mention are gone – he lost most of the key parts who could’ve at least made this season interesting. Nigel King left early for the NFL, meaning there’s absolutely nothing coming back in the receiving corps. The team’s best returning defensive player – S Isaiah Johnson – took off to become a South Carolina Gamecock. Top LB Jake Love left the team for medical reasons. RB Corey Avery is the right fit for the high-octane offense, but he was booted from the team along with WR Rodriguez Coleman. Michael Cummings appeared ready to take the reins of the attack to start winging it around as KU’s version of Michael Football, but he suffered a torn ACL in the spring game.

So now it’s up to Beaty to see what he has to work with for the future.

44 total lettermen are back, and there’s absolutely no pressure whatsoever to win anything right away. If Kansas goes 0-12, okay – that’s to be expected, and that includes the opener against a South Dakota State team that won nine games and made the FCS playoffs last year. This season is all about developing the players and the system so the program can start to function again next year and down the road.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: Get ready for Kansas to try to open it up a bit more as head coach David Beaty tries to turn the attack into Texas A&M’s. The problem? Where are the players? The O line returns just two starters from a group that didn’t generate much of a push, leading rusher Corey Avery was suspended from the team this spring and is done, and the top four wide receivers are done from a passing game that couldn’t keep up the pace. It’s going to be a faster offense that tries to keep defenses on their heels, but it might take a while to get there.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: The defense didn’t get much help from the offense, but it didn’t do much to come up with stops, either. The Jayhawks finished 106th in the nation in total defense and couldn’t figure out how to stop the run. That’s not going to get much better without heart-and-soul LB Ben Heeney around and his running mate, Jake Love, who left the team due to medical reasons. However, the linebacking corps should be the team’s strength early on, and the secondary has a nice safety in Fish Smithson, and he’ll need to shine with Isaiah Johnson gone. The line needs to learn how to get into the backfield more and the corner situation is a concern, but compared to the offense, the defense should be ahead of the game.

What to watch for on offense: For all the gloom and doom personnel-wise, this could be fun if the offense functions in any way like it’s supposed to. Beaty and offensive coordinator Rob Likens are going to try turning Kansas into Texas A&M in terms of explosion and offensive pop, but they don’t have the receiving corps to do it and they don’t have a Johnny Manziel at quarterback. However, the up-tempo style should eventually fit the Big 12 in shootout after shootout. For now, though, if it doesn’t work, then the offense is on the field for 30 seconds and gives it right back to the defense.

What to watch for on defense: Third down stops are going to mean everything. The offense is going to have more than its share of very, very fast three-and-outs, and that means the defense is going to be on the field for a long time if it can’t be more effective against the high-powered Big 12 attacks. The Jayhawks have to start with being better against the run after allowing 5.4 yards per carry and getting crushed on first and second downs. They have to force teams to work a lot more to move the chains, otherwise the time of possession will be a disaster and the fourth quarter points will be given up in bunches.

The team will be far better if … this offense actually works a bit. Kansas won’t have a Charlie Weis-like decided schematic advantage over anyone, but it would be nice if the O could put some points up on the board after scoring 21 or fewer eight times. How bad did things get for the Jayhawks? They failed to hit 200 yards of total offense in each of the final two games, and only came up with 400 yards or more twice against FBS teams. The offense has to figure out how to keep up the pace.

The schedule: Considering South Dakota State is no FCS pushover, where’s the sure-thing win going to come from? The Jayhawks should be stronger, but Memphis is going to be good and going to Rutgers will be a tough non-conference game.
– The run of three road games in four weeks comes in the middle of the season with Oklahoma the home game. Going to Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU isn’t going to be fun.
– Closing out with West Virginia and Kansas State at home might help. If the Jayhawks get better as the season goes on, they might be able to come up with an upset.
– KU has to take advantage of the mid-year run of three home games in four weeks. Beating Baylor, Texas Tech or Oklahoma won’t be easy, but this is what counts as the easy stretch.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Memphis. Kansas has to beat the FCS team, even one as solid as South Dakota State, and it needs the Memphis win at home or else there might not be any prayer of a good season.

Key player to a successful season: Junior CB Brandon Stewart and/or Junior CB Marnez Ogletree. There are several paper-thin areas – receiver and running back the most obvious – but the corner situation is in desperate need of new and better talent in a league that bombs away at will. JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald are gone, and now the hope will be for former JUCO transfer Ronnie Davis, green underclassman Colin Spencer, and two new parts to make the situation better. Stewart joined the team in the midterm, while Ogletree was the team’s top recruit, coming in from the JUCO ranks.

The season will be a success if … Kansas wins three games. It’s going to take a few big upsets to get it done, and it’s not going to be easy. Three of KU’s nine losses were by seven points or fewer – win those three and it’s a 6-6 season and the narrative is far different – but it’s a totally new ballgame now. If Beaty can win three games to match last year’s total, it would be a nice start to build off of.

Key game: Nov. 28 vs. Kansas State. Kansas isn’t going to come up with a winning season and it’s not going bowling. All that matters is that the team improves as the year goes on, so for now, forget about the record and just care about how things look against West Virginia and Kansas State to close out the year – especially considering the last two games of last season were losses by a combined score of 95 to 20. Not only has Kansas lost its last six games to Kansas State, it’s been blown out badly in almost all of them.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Second Quarter Scoring: Opponents 97 – Kansas 27
– Fourth Down Conversions: Opponents 13-of-20 (65%) – Kansas 4-of-20 (20%)
– Kickoff Return Average: Opponents 26.9 yards – Kansas 19.9 yards

Players You Need To Know

1. S Fish Smithson, Jr.
With Isaiah Johnson leaving for South Carolina, Smithson is the lone main option in a secondary that’s going to be a big, big concern. The 5-11, 193-pounder didn’t do much when the ball was in the air, but he provided a good pop after coming in from the JUCO ranks, starting out his career at Hartnell College. Very fast and very athletic, he gets around the play making 49 stops and does a good job in the open field, but the secondary will need him to come up with interceptions – he broke up just one pass last season.

2. QB Michael Cummings, Sr.
He might be the best quarterback option on the roster, but he’s also going to be out for a long, long while after suffering a torn ACL in the spring game. While it’s not like losing a Heisman-caliber superstar, he’s a very smart, versatile playmaker who appeared to take to the new offense. While he’s only 5-10 and 212 pounds, he’s a tough runner scoring four times, and he has a solid, live arm throwing for 235 yards or more five times in his seven starts while giving TCU a scare with 332 yards and two touchdowns. The talent is there to put up big numbers in the attack, but if he comes back this season, it’s not going to be until late.

3. QB Montrell Cozart, Jr.
With Michael Cummings out with a torn ACL, Cozart will get the longest look at getting his starting gig back. However, he has to be far better after completing just half of his passes for 701 yards and five scores with seven picks. The 6-2, 193-pounder is an academic all-star and has the mobility, but he needs to be more of a consistent passer. The 2011 Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year has a nice arm to go along with his mobility, but he has to become more of a passer and has to show he can get the offense moving. The skills are there, but now he has to put it all together and be the team’s leader in Cummings’ absence.

4. LB Courtney Arnick, Jr.
Only 6-2 and 207 pounds, Arnick isn’t a big defender, but he’s not afraid to mix it up and he returns as one of the defense’s most experienced options. A good all-around factor, Arnick made 45 tackles with a sack and four tackles for loss with two broken up passes. He’s quick, a good tackler in the open field, and smart in the classroom. While he came up with ten stops against Oklahoma, he should be a steadier statistical force this year.

5. TE Ben Johnson, Soph.
With the wide receiver situation a total mess, the tight ends will be a big part of the passing game early on with Kent Taylor looking terrific at times this spring and with Ben Johnson the right type of prospect to shine in the new attack. The 6-5, 234-pound Johnson was a good get for the program a few years ago but he only caught eight passes for 80 yards last season. Can he be the focal part of a passing game? He could be.

6. CB Marnez Ogletree, Jr.
Brandon Stewart was another very, very important JUCO transfer who could see starting time right away after coming up with 19 broken up passes in his two years at Trinity Valley CC. At 6-0 and 171 pounds he’s not huge, but he can move and he’ll hit. While Stewart got to the program early, Ogletree will be the best newcomer this summer. The 5-10, 190-pounder from Fullerton College is ultra-quick who can hit and be used as a return man if needed.

7. LB Kyron Watson, Soph.
Could this be his linebacking corps now? The 6-0, 235-pounder spent last year working behind Ben Heeney in the middle, and he’ll get every shot to show what he can do as the next man up. A terrific recruit for the program last year, he made four tackles and served as a special teamer. He has the size, the range, and most importantly for this year’s defense, he has the talent to become the main man.

8. RB De’Andre Mann, Sr.
The Miami native got a start last season and saw a little bit of time throughout the season after coming in as a key JUCO transfer. With Corey Avery’s situation up in the air, Mann could become the main man for the running game. A possible workhorse even at just 5-9 and 205 pounds, he has decent hands and can cut on a dime. However, he missed a little time hurt last season finishing the year with 399 yards. When he gets his chances, though, he should produce.