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Well, Kansas will give football another shot

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David Beaty needs a miracle.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Listen to a coach talk for more than five minutes, and you’re bound to hear the word “culture” at least once. The analytics-minded among us begin to tune the word out because we can’t measure it.

Except, we sort of can measure it. Just count the wins.

There’s a reason why winning teams usually keep winning and losing teams usually keep losing. You’re dealing with players 18 to 22 years old, and to sustain the level of execution and effort required, they tend to need evidence that what you’re preaching will work.

The longer you go without evidence, the harder it is to get the ship turned around. Guys leave at a much higher rate, and you struggle to come close to filling the 85-man scholarship limit. During adverse moments, your players have no base of experience to lean on.

The Kansas football job is always going to be pretty tough. You don’t have a fertile recruiting base — Kansas City is nearby, but everyone from Oklahoma to northern Big Ten schools considers KC a home base of sorts — and your athletic department is always going to be centered around basketball. You can win, as evidenced by the Jayhawks’ three top-10 finishes in the last 50 years. But maintaining success is always going to be an issue.

Over the last decade, there hasn’t been any success to maintain. Kansas has recruited near the bottom of the power conferences, but even that hasn’t been the problem. They recruit at a top-70 level; they haven’t played at a top-70 level since 2009.

Even a great hire would need a while, and there’s never been any indication that Beaty was the right guy. His hire, based primarily on his recruiting ability (at Texas A&M, an infinitely easier school to recruit to) and three years as a Kansas assistant, seemed tenuous to me from the start. Three years and three wins later, that hasn’t exactly been proved wrong.

With KU bringing in a new AD, you figure this is Beaty’s last chance. The odds are obviously against him, but he’s got more things going for him than at any point in his tenure. He has decent continuity on his coaching staff, more scholarship players than ever, and most of last year’s two-deep.

Offense

2017 Kansas offensive radar

A year ago, Beaty made some waves by luring TCU offensive co-coordinator Doug Meacham, who had been a part of quite a few awesome offenses at Oklahoma State, Houston, and TCU. He allowed me to write, somewhat optimistically, about depth and potential in last year’s preview.

What did all that potential provide? A drop from 108th to 127th in Off. S&P+. Whoops.

Kansas had by far the least efficient offense in an efficiency-dependent conference, and despite the presence of a legitimately explosive running back in Khalil Herbert, the Jayhawks didn’t have nearly enough big-play potential to bail themselves out.

2017 Kansas offensive efficiency & explosiveness

After barely playing in the first two games of the year, Herbert erupted when handed a larger opportunity. He went for 137 yards in 19 carries against Ohio, 291 in 36 carries against WVU, and 65 in 10 carries against Texas Tech. But he battled nagging injuries, rushing for just 160 yards (3.1 per carry) from then on out.

Herbert wasn’t healthy, and neither was a line that started 10 different guys at least once each; only one lineman, honorable-mention all-conference tackle Hakeem Adeniji, managed to start in all 12 games.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Kansas
Khalil Herbert
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, Meacham could have a steadier ground game if the injury bug backs off. Herbert and every (far less successful) backup returns, as do Adeniji and six other linemen with starting experience. And while Beaty’s 2018 signing class wasn’t a program changer, it did produce 330-pound JUCO transfer Reuben Lewis up front and four-star running back Pooka Williams Jr.

Meacham wants to pass, though, and the passing game was problematic, even when Herbert was running wild.

Last year’s QBs, Peyton Bender and Carter Stanley, both return, but a third candidate emerged in spring ball: Miles Kendrick. The 5’10 JUCO transfer completed 58 percent of his passes at the College of San Mateo last year but also provided a rushing threat that neither Bender nor Stanley (combined: 3.5 yards per non-sack carry) could.

A backfield of Kendrick, Herbert, and perhaps Williams, running behind a less combustible line, is pretty exciting. But you still need to pass, and we don’t know if Kendrick can. That keeps the door open for either Bender or Stanley.

The receiving corps has some pop but boasts minimal efficiency. Leading returnees Steven Sims Jr., Jeremiah Booker, and Evan Fairs combined for 13.7 yards per catch, and both Sims and Fairs fared well in marginal explosiveness. But only Sims had an even tolerable catch rate. The Jayhawks desperately need some possession options.

There might be hope if either sophomore Quan Hampton (75 percent catch rate but only 6.9 yards per catch), positionless Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot (one reception for zero yards before a switch to safety and, evidently, a switch back to WR), or JUCO transfer Stephon Robinson Jr. (1,274 yards at El Camino CC) breaks through.

It’s hard to imagine a high ceiling, considering just how woeful KU has been. But there’s power in numbers, and KU isn’t relying on a single guy for improvement. There are now quite a few newbies and returnees to choose from.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Oklahoma State
Steven Sims Jr.
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Kansas defensive radar

As wrong as I was about the KU offense, I was even more wrong about the defense. Fifth-year coordinator Clint Bowen had a bit of a rebound in 2016. The Jayhawks had a truly fearsome pass rush and a top-40 pass defense overall. And with end Dorance Armstrong Jr. (10 sacks in 2016) and just about everyone else returning, it appeared the front seven could improve further as long as a rebuilt secondary didn’t implode.

The front improved. The Jayhawks ranked 14th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and KU improved from 103rd to 62nd in Rushing S&P+.

Unfortunately, the secondary very much imploded. Safety Mike Lee was the only of KU’s top six defensive backs returning, and depth issues were magnified by injury and shuffling — 11 KU DBs averaged at least about 0.9 tackles per game, and only three of them played in all 12 games. Of those three, one was a walk-on (DeAnte Ford) who got far more playing time than intended.

The Jayhawks fell from 35th to 108th in Passing S&P+, negating the improvement in run defense. Overall, KU fell from 82nd to 104th in Def. S&P+.

To address this, Beaty is leaning on JUCO transfers. After trying to avoid them at first, he’s now signed 22 in his last two classes; that is a gamble that can sometimes pay off, but it makes you an addict — the more you lean on JUCOs, the more you have to continue leaning on JUCOs, since you only get these guys for a couple of years and you don’t have many five-year players.

Beaty brought in four JUCO defensive linemen and five JUCO DBs in this class; considering the Jayhawks return five of last year’s top six linemen (everyone but Armstrong, basically) and all but one defensive back, that should create competition, at least.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Kansas
Tyrone Miller Jr. (22) and Daniel Wise (96)
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Nose tackle Daniel Wise was a breakout star last year, recording 16 tackles for loss and taking part in a team-leading 18 run stuffs. His return, along with that of senior end Josh Ehambe, gives KU some pop up front, especially if one of the three incoming JUCO ends, or perhaps senior tackle Isi Holani (injured in 2016), can help out.

The main job will be freeing up what could be a dynamite pair of linebackers. Joe Dineen Jr. exploded for 25 tackles for loss and took part in 34 run stuffs last year; he could be the best linebacker in the league, and while all of last year’s dance partners return (primarily seniors Keith Loneker Jr. and Osaze Ogbebor), Beaty is bringing in another exciting option: senior Brian Lipscomb, who’s taking a graduate transfer from VMI after recording 18.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks for the Keydets last year.

Despite the loss of Armstrong, this is a truly exciting front six. Now the Jayhawks just have to hope quantity produces quality in the back.

  • At cornerback, you’ve got junior Hasan Defense (easily the best play-maker in the secondary last year, with 11 passes defensed and a TFL), Kyle Mayberry, and Julian Chandler, senior Shakial Taylor, redshirt freshman Robert Topps III, JUCOs Elijah Jones, Elmore Hempstead Jr., and Ricky Thomas, and four-star freshman Corione Harris. Harris had an excellent spring, evidently.
  • At safety, you’ve got juniors Lee, Bryce Torneden (5 TFLs from the nickel position last year), Shaquille Richmond, and Ford, seniors Tyrone Miller Jr. and Emmanuel Moore, and JUCOs Jeremiah McCullough and Davon Ferguson.

That’s a lot of names. Now five of them need to break through. You can talk yourself into Defense and Harris at corner and Torneden at nickel, at least.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Oklahoma State
Joe Dineen Jr. (29) and Shaquille Richmond (4)
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams was all-or-nothing last year. Kicker Gabriel Rui made an excellent debut, and Ryan Schadler and Steven Sims Jr. were efficient and semi-explosive in the return game; KU ranked 16th or better in FG, kick return, and punt return efficiency.

The Jayhawks also ranked 121st in punt efficiency and 122nd on kickoffs. Considering how much they punted, that was a bit of a net loss.

Punter Cole Moos is gone, while Rui, Schadler, and Sims all return, so that could be a positive. But those coverage units still need to be shored up.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Nicholls State NR 16.0 82%
8-Sep at Central Michigan 116 1.2 53%
15-Sep Rutgers 84 -2.6 44%
22-Sep at Baylor 50 -14.5 20%
29-Sep Oklahoma State 19 -17.6 16%
6-Oct at West Virginia 43 -15.6 18%
20-Oct at Texas Tech 47 -14.7 20%
27-Oct TCU 22 -17.0 16%
3-Nov Iowa State 46 -10.3 28%
10-Nov at Kansas State 61 -12.5 23%
17-Nov at Oklahoma 9 -30.1 4%
23-Nov Texas 27 -15.2 19%
Projected S&P+ Rk 103
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 116 / 69
Projected wins 3.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -12.4 (119)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 63 / 70
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -17 / -8.3
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 91% (91%, 92%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 1.9 (-0.9)

In last year’s preview, I wrote, “the Jayhawks have some pieces now. We get to find out if Beaty can coach.” I thought KU was ready for a bit of a step forward, and I was woefully incorrect. Then I was shocked that Beaty got a fourth year in charge.

Again I find myself applying some positive spin, if only because of competition. KU has three QBs to choose from, a legitimate star (if healthy) at running back, a bunch of potential possession receivers, experienced lines, one of the best linebackers in the country, and about 26 defensive backs, from which Bowen needs to choose five. There’s a chance that Beaty and company find a recipe.

With games against Nicholls State, Central Michigan, and Rutgers, the schedule provides a slight chance of a 3-0 start. (S&P+ says there’s only a 19 percent chance of that, and there’s a 5 percent chance of 0-3, but go with me here.) Any Big 12 win will require a significant upset — per S&P+’s 130-team rankings, the Jayhawks project at least 42 spots below everyone else in the league — but if they go 1-8 or 2-7, that could mean four or five wins overall and give Beaty a “See? We’re clearly on the way up!” card.

It probably says something that my attempts at positive spin took Kansas only to 4-8, though.

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