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4 crucial questions Les Miles must answer to get Kansas back on track

The Jayhawks have a long road back to bowl eligibility, but at least they’re worth paying attention to now.

Jeff Jacobsen, Kansas

The Jayhawks made a splash when they hired a coach with a national championship ring to take over their moribund program. The Mad Hatter is coming to Lawrence to sample the field turf and try to awaken a program that’s gone 6-41 (2-33 in the Big 12) under David Beaty.

The move seems to have been mostly brought about by a desire to hire a big name who can generate excitement, combined with Miles’ desire to coach again despite being 65 and largely unsought after by most P5 programs.

Obviously he has some major challenges in order to turn the Jayhawks into a team that even competes for bowl eligibility. Kansas hasn’t been relevant since it fired Mark Mangino in 2009 after his first losing season in five years (due to allegations of player abuse). In 2015, Beaty inherited a roster with something less than half of its 85 allowed scholarships allotted, due to some quick-fix JUCO recruiting by Charlie Weis. Beaty then failed to get the program on track.

1. How to rebuild this roster?

There will be some hopes that the Jayhawks will hit Miles’ beloved Louisiana hard for talent, particularly given that Kansas’ best player is a freshman RB (Pooka Williams) from the Boot in 2018.

Back when Mangino was taking the Jayhawks to the Orange Bowl, their recruiting rankings were decidedly unimpressive. They recruited the players you’d expect, two-/three-star leftovers from Texas metro areas and overlooked gems from Kansas and Oklahoma. Mangino’s knack for hiring good staff, organizing an efficient program, and his embrace of then-novel hurry-up spread offense were game changers.

Miles’ recruiting history is interesting. As the head coach at Oklahoma State, he had OSU in the middle of the Big 12 recruiting rankings, and they got their fill from Texas and Oklahoma. At LSU, Miles regularly recruited in the top 10 nationally, still about what you’d expect, given the exceptionally deep pool in Louisiana, LSU’s status in the state, and the profile of LSU in Houston and across the South.

The regional recruiting situation for Kansas is perhaps a tad underrated. The state of Kansas produces several Power 5 signees per year from its population of three million people, the majority from the Kansas City metroplex, within an hour of campus. There’s also plenty of access to the booming Oklahoma City and easy enough flights to DFW and Houston.

The sell is the hard part, given the Jayhawks’ lack of pizzaz or tradition. A winning model is unearthing good two-/three-stars for whom playing at KU represents one of their best offers, then building enough credibility to keep the rare blue-chips from within the state home.

There’s one other feature that presents risks and opportunities for Miles: the Kansas Jayhawk community college conference. Anyone familiar with Last Chance U will be familiar with the program names. There are quick-fix tactics available, if the 65-year-old decides he wants immediate success. Both of his predecessors seized on that option, which left their successors with thin rosters.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to work a 500-mile radius and we’re going to get to those, and we’re going to win in that group,” Miles said at his intro presser. “And then we’re going to pick some cities in Texas that we hit. We’re going to get to the West Coast at the need of the program. With the proximity of the JC’s that we have in this state, I’m going to certainly look at those guys, as they would be emergency need style of guys.”

2. What philosophy to embrace?

Miles’ hire at defensive coordinator is going to be crucial for winning in the offense-first Big 12, but the most talked-about hire will be his OC. At Oklahoma State and LSU, Miles preferred “Neanderball,” under-center offense that would punish opponents with fullback lead runs and the occasional play-action bomb. Miles has since expressed an interest in running a spread offense such as Baylor’s.

The formula would be for Les to hire an established OC in the mold of Philip Montgomery (should Tulsa fire him as head coach) or perhaps Hugh Freeze and give them broad leeway. Miles would execute a quality control role, organizing practices to ensure sound fundamentals. Miles’ LSU always played physical ball and fierce defense, and often beat teams with special teams playmaking.

Against Big 12 offenses, though, you have to score. There are too many opponents that will chuck the ball around. A commanding 21-7 lead — the sort LSU used to nurse with toss sweeps — could be erased in three minutes in the Big 12 as the opponent loads everyone into the box and dares Miles’ Jayhawks to either throw or run it three times and punt. If you want to play ground-and-pound in the Big 12, your defense has to be ready to play 80 snaps without yielding points over a nine-game slate, a tall order for a Kansas team that hasn’t played good defense in many a year.

Producing high-scoring offenses was rarely Miles’ forte, so that OC hire will be crucial to realizing a CEO coach vision.

3. Can both Miles and Kansas finally find a QB?

In the 21st century, Kansas has had three winning seasons. All came under Mangino, and two came when Todd Reesing was the quarterback. Kansas’ record with Reesing from 2007-09 was 25-13 (.658), while its record with every other QB in that time was 46-132 (.258).

LSU usually had similar QB issues under Miles, although the ceiling without a difference-making QB was obviously higher than KU’s.

This is another reason all eyes will be on Miles’ OC hire. In the Big 12, games are regularly determined by the QBs’ ability to produce in high-paced shootouts. The Jayhawks might aim to be much more balanced than some of their brethren, but again, it’s hard to win without a QB who can direct an efficient offense that scores in the 40s from time to time.

For whatever reason, none of the unheralded kids who went on to blow up as college QBs over the last 20 years did so at Kansas, save for Reesing. There’s little reason to believe Miles can find such a player to build Kansas around, but he has to hire someone who can do it for him.

4. Can a CEO Head Coach have success at Kansas?

As programs are hiring increasing numbers of support staff, assistants, and analysts to help run massive programs, it makes more and more sense to have someone at the top who can command a big-picture view and execute quality control over the culture while delegating responsibilities, rather than personally drawing up plays.

It famously worked at Texas, it’s working wonderfully at Clemson, and it’s basically what Arizona State is attempting.

There’s a chance Miles can help maximize whatever potential Kansas might have. It’s obvious enough that Kansas has failed to leverage even what resources it has. Miles’ LSU rosters aren’t walking through that door, but the goal is bowl eligibility within a couple years or so.