With a new staff, scheme, and buzz around the program, what should Jayhawks fans expect from Kansas football in 2015?
It has truly been an eventful offseason for Kansas Jayhawks football. First came the extensive coaching search, which resulted in the hiring of David Beaty over native son Clint Bowen, though Bowen is now the team’s defensive coordinator. Then signing day, where many high school seniors and junior college transfers signed on to play for the Jayhawks, even in a very uncertain time for the program. There have been rumblings of Big 12 expansion resulting from TCU and Baylor being left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. With all this noise around the program and conference, what should KU fans actually look for with the 2015 edition of the Jayhawks?
1. Quarterback play. Quarterback may be the most important position in all of sports. The quarterback, especially in Beaty’s Air Raid, is instrumental in offensive production. He is even responsible for calling some plays at the line of scrimmage. In the spring, quarterback was supposed to be a strength of the team. Senior Michael Cummings was coming off a strong junior campaign, leading KU to a Big 12 victory over Iowa State and a near-upset of conference power TCU. But, during the Spring Game, Cummings went down with a knee injury, and is out for the season. The staff announced an all-out competition for the starting position. Junior Montel Cozart, freshmen Ryan Willis and Carter Stanley, and junior walk-on Deondre Ford competed for the job, with Cozart winning out. Over the last two seasons, Cozart has been woefully inconsistent and struggled with accuracy. With poor coaching and lack of talent around him, Cozart’s confidence appeared to be nonexistent. Perhaps with a new supporting cast, coaching and a more quarterback-friendly scheme, Cozart can regain some confidence and make marked improvement in 2015. Maybe not to TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin’s level, but certainly to the caliber of a Big 12 starting quarterback.
If Cozart falters, who steps in? The backup competition appears to be between Ford and Willis. Both have shown flashes of great potential during summer workouts and fall camps. Willis has a very strong, accurate arm, but is inexperienced. It could be in the long-term interest of the program to redshirt him this season. Ford is a good athlete and dual threat at the position. He also possesses a strong arm, but can be inconsistent. At this point, it would seem likely that Willis would be the guy to take Cozart’s place, and become the quarterback of the future.
2. Who steps up on defense? With defensive coordinator Clint Bowen returning, the Jayhawks hope to put a defense on the field capable of competing, similar to last season. Bowen and his defensive staff are hoping to improve a defense that gave up 6.1 yards per play last season, good for 104th in the country. Also remember that the Jayhawks defense gave up a NCAA record 427 yards rushing to Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine at the end of last season. Bowen and company also have to replace eight starters, including NFL draft picks JaCorey Sheperd and Dexter McDonald at corner and Ben Heeney at inside linebacker. In response, Bowen is switching to a 4-2-5 scheme from last year’s 3-4, hoping to get more athletes on the field and be more stout against the run. KU did not release a formal depth chart for the first game, but there are a few names to watch. Word from practice is the defensive line is thin and young, but talented. It’s headlined by senior captain Ben Goodman. At linebacker, South Carolina transfer Marcquis Roberts is looking to anchor a linebacking corps that struggled last season. The secondary could be the Jayhawks’ best defensive unit. Even after the dismissal of Matthew Boateng, there are still many talented defensive backs on the roster, including safety Bazie Bates IV, corner Tyrone Miller, Jr., and senior captian Fish Smithson. I will be watching how these units come together over the course of the season, and how the less experienced players come in to provide depth on a defense that could spend considerable time on the field.
3. Do the Jayhawks improve over the year? The mark of a great coaching staff is evaluating how talent develops into football players over the course of a season, spring football, and offseason. Beaty and company have had the opportunity to evaluate every single player on the roster, from fifth year seniors down to freshmen who have only been on campus for a few weeks. I am watching to see how this team gels, unit by unit, and phase by phase. Teams under Charlie Weis and Turner Gill folded under pressure and got worse as seasons went on. The Jayhawks got appreciably better after Weis was fired, rallying around interim coach Clint Bowen. Will Beaty have that same effect? Can he rally the Jayhawks like Bowen last season? And can this staff develop this very young and inexperienced team to compete in a difficult Big 12 conference? I will not look at simply final scores (some will be crooked, and not in KU’s favor), but I will look at things like mental mistakes, including penalties, how the team competed (did we cave in the fourth quarter, or stay hungry?), and if the team does the little things right, like snap the football on time, maintain proper technique in routes and blocks, and maintain positive body language. If Beaty can get the Jayhawks to compete and do the little things right, upsets can happen.
2015 looks to be another trying year for the Jayhawks. With a depleted roster (only 63 scholarship players out of a possible 85), a new staff, and a difficult schedule, I do not expect many wins this season. I do expect KU to be competitive in more games than in years past, simply by virtue of a better coaching staff and a hungry roster. Unfortunately, I have to predict this season’s record as 1-11. Fans should definitely attend the first game Saturday at 11 AM against South Dakota, because I am predicting it to be the only victory for the Jayhawks this season. Other upsets are certainly possible, as this is college football and anything can happen, but this will be the only game in which the Jayhawks are favored. I do have faith in the staff to keep working, both on the field and in recruiting, to reload the Kansas football roster with talent and compete in the Big 12. However, it will not be this year.