LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas may be one of the only schools in the country where three wins was a sign of progress.
That’s how dire of a situation Les Miles walked into a year ago.
But the former national championship-winning coach at LSU put together a coaching staff, threw together a last-minute recruiting class and managed to match the Jayhawks’ most wins in a season this decade. And with some returning talent on both sides of the ball and continuity among his staff, Miles is confident that more progress will be made this season.
“There is no question that I have, you know, an excess of energy and a want to be with this team,” Miles said after a recent practice. “This team is working hard. It’s doing the things we want them to do, and it’s pretty special. This place is pretty special as well. And we’re enjoying the day, the style of people, and I like my team. They’re getting ready to fight.”
That may be the biggest thing that Miles instilled in his team last year: They learned to fight.
Whereas the Jayhawks essentially rolled over against their Big 12 brethren under Turner Gill, Charlie Weis and David Beaty, they at least put a scare into the rest of the league last season. They barely lost to West Virginia, dropped a 50-48 decision at Texas and hung 31 points on Iowa State in a losing effort.
They also beat Texas Tech for a rare Big 12 win.
That’s not to say everything was perfect. Miles had to switch offensive coordinators midway through the season, though that side of the ball finally flourished under Brent Dearmon. They received inconsistent quarterback play from the departed senior Carter Stanley, and their defense gave up points in astounding quantities all season.
Settling on a new quarterback — Miles Kendrick and senior Thomas MacVittie have been the leading candidates — and working on the defense would have been the priorities this offseason. But with summer workouts curtailed by COVID-19, that work has pushed into the fall, and it could push right up to the opener against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 12.
“The one thing we’ve done,” Miles said, “is taken the time to understand our assignments. We’re after it, and this team wants to win. Here we are after practice and they’re out there on their own, throwing balls and catching balls.”
The Jayhawks would have loved a non-conference schedule that included lower-level New Hampshire, rebuilding Boston College and Coastal Carolina. But with only one game available before Big 12 play, they’ll make do with the Chanticleers — no easy task, considering Coastal Carolina beat the Jayhawks in Lawrence last season.
The conference schedule begins with Baylor and includes a back-to-back test of Oklahoma and Texas in November
Regardless of who wins the quarterback job, they will have the fortune of some elite playmakers. Pooka Williams is among the most dynamic running backs in the Big 12, and a wide receiver corps led by Andrew Parchment, Kwamie Lassiter II and Stephon Robinson Jr. give the Jayhawks the kind of speed they’ve been missing on offense for years.
Williams will be even more important after second-leading rusher Khalil Herbert left for Virginia Tech and Dominic Williams transferred to Northern Iowa. Velton Gardner will back him up after showing flashes as a freshman.
The Jayhawks allowed a league-worst 36.1 points per game last season, and the rebuild of their historically bad defense won’t be made any easier by the loss of key playmakers Bryce Torneden, Mike Lee and Hasan Defense.
“I think were going to be phenomenal this year,” Kansas linebacker Kyron Johnson insisted. “The way we have been playing all throughout fall camp, I think we’ll be real good. Better than last year for sure.”
The Jayhawks have avoided any major outbreaks of COVID-19, allowing them to continue working through fall camp. The biggest problem it has caused has been on the mental side, where players — like those at colleges across the country — felt powerless as school officials determined whether they would play at all.
“There’s a fatigue that it takes to fight through a series of, you know, decisions made on your behalf that you have no way to affect,” Miles said, “and I think our guys have really just powered through some difficult crises.”
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