There are still so many unknowns about Kansas’ revamped Air Raid offense. Can junior Montell Cozart be the long-term solution at quarterback? How much will the Jayhawks lean on their rushing attack? Will head coach David Beaty and offensive coordinator Rob Likens back down from their stated goal of flooring the gas pedal for four quarters?
As Kansas braces for its season opener against South Dakota State at 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, this much is clear: The Jayhawks won’t be saving anything for later in the year.
“Once the game starts, you do everything that you have,” says Likens, who will debut as Kansas’ offensive coordinator. “Every bullet in the chamber, everything. There’s no holding back.”
From a numbers standpoint, it’s safe to say that few Kansas teams have ever entered a season with a greener offense — especially at the skill positions. After an exodus of receivers, the departure of leading rusher Corey Avery, and an injury to quarterback Michael Cummings in the spring, Kansas is tasked with replacing 70 percent of its passing yards, 64 percent of its rushing yards and 93 percent of its receiving yards from last season.
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For Likens, the situation sparks memories of two past rebuilding jobs. Five years ago, Likens was on the staff at Louisiana Tech, when head coach Sonny Dykes took over a program that had finished 4-8 the year before. Two years ago, Likens followed Dykes to Cal, where the staff installed an up-tempo offensive system and weathered early growing pains. Cal finished 1-11 before improving to 5-7 last season.
“We had no idea who we were,” Likens says, “(or) how good we were.”
The same, perhaps, could be said about Kansas. The Jayhawks will unveil a cast of newcomers against South Dakota State. Junior receiver Joshua Stanford, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, will make his KU debut. So will sophomore receiver Quincy Perdue, a UAB transfer, and junior running back Ke’aun Kinner, a junior-college transfer who projects as a major fixture in the running game.
But for now, the unknown trumps the proven. The Jayhawks have questions at quarterback, at offensive line, and at receiver. So many questions that conventional wisdom might suggest employing a controlled offensive attack that shortens games and minimizes risk.
Beaty and Likens, though, have promised the exact opposite — a relentless up-tempo style that will try to keep defenses on their heels. An offensive attack that won’t hold anything back.
“We won’t shorten the game,” Beaty says. “That’s not how we play the game. We’re going to continue to stay who we are because that’s how we practice every day. It’s who we say we are and we’re going to continue to do that.”
South Dakota State at Kansas
▪ WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
▪ WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Lawrence
▪ TV: Fox Sports KC
Three story lines
▪ 1. A first look at David Beaty’s Texas influence: Beaty, a former high school coach in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has put an emphasis on mining the fertile recruiting areas in Texas. When Beaty took over last December, there were 17 players on the roster from the state of Texas. Nine months later, Beaty has brought in 27 recruits from the state of Texas, including walk-ons. While KU has not released a depth chart, there are nine Texans slated for the starting lineup, according to KU’s official pregame notes.
▪ 2. A revamped linebacking corps: How much will Kansas miss All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney? We’ll find out on Saturday. Heeney, who patrolled the middle of Kansas’ defense for three seasons, is now with the Oakland Raiders. The Jayhawks have moved to a 4-2-5 base defense, meaning they utilize just two linebackers on many downs. For now, junior linebacker Courtney Arnick and junior linebacker Marquis Roberts, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, will be asked to replace Heeney’s production.
▪ 3. Can the passing game be productive? For the first time since 2009, a Kansas quarterback will start consecutive season openers. The recent track record of performances in opening games is not great. The last KU quarterback to crack 200 passing yards in an opener was Todd Reesing in 2009. Last year, Montell Cozart started hot, throwing three touchdowns against Southeast Missouri State. But he finished just 12 for 24 for 196 yards as the Jayhawks held on for a 34-28 victory. Before that, Dayne Crist (17 for 36 for 169 yards) and Jake Heaps (10 for 20 for 110 yards) offered underwhelming first impressions.