The new offensive coordinator sat inside a spacious room called the Chancellor’s Lounge, sunglasses on his head, a swath of dark black hair contrasting with a crisp blue shirt. A few months ago, Rob Likens could not have envisioned this, sitting here in the middle of the country, taking a job in a town, where until this month, he had never stepped foot in.
But as Likens, Kansas’ new offensive coordinator, sat in the Anderson Family Football complex on Wednesday afternoon, he turned his head and yelled across the room at KU offensive line coach Zach Yenser.
“C’mon, man!” Likens yelled. “Yankees? Why?”
Likens and Yenser have spent the past two seasons as colleagues on the football staff at Cal. Likens was the receivers coach; Yenser was the offensive line coach and Likens’ unofficial protégé. They are colleagues, of course, but friends first, and just moments earlier, Yenser had offered a little dirt on his old friend.
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“He’s a freak about the Yankees,” Yenser told a collection of reporters. “It’s really weird.”
Likens, sensing that his Yankees fandom might not go over well in his new home, smiled and shook his head.
“I’m a Yankees fan,” he said. “I have to admit. Don’t write that.”
When you are taking over a new job, it’s always important to ingratiate yourself with the locals. When you are taking over one of the toughest assistant-coaching gigs in major college football, you definitely want everything to start perfect. So, no, Likens was not happy that Yenser had outed him as a Yankee diehard on day one in Kansas. But Yenser suspected he would live.
“That’s what I love about him,” Yenser said. “He has confidence. He knows what he wants.”
In the past month, new Kansas football coach David Beaty has assembled a staff and put together a blueprint for the future. But perhaps no hire was more important than Likens, a former receivers coach at Cal who will take over a KU offense that has been moribund and boring for most of the last three seasons. The Jayhawks ranked 118th nationally in scoring in 2014, averaging 17.8 points per game. And that was actually an improvement. Kansas put up just 15.3 points per game in 2013.
Likens understands that he is inheriting a house that will require heavy renovation, but he has also spent most of the last decade being involved with offenses that usually displayed two important characteristics. They scored points — and they were fun.
Beaty hired Likens to implement a version of the Air Raid offense, an up-tempo spread system popularized in different iterations by Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Kevin Sumlin at Houston and Texas A&M and Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia. It’s a scheme that is predicated on speed and simplicity. At Texas A&M, where Beaty spent the past three seasons as receivers coach, the Aggies didn’t have a playbook. Likens says his offense will share some of that simplicity. Plays will have one name. The assignments will be easy for players to learn.
“If you make the verbiage simple,” Likens said, “that’s a good starting point. And if you don’t have a lot of reads on your routes and all that stuff, that’s even more simple.”
From the outside, the Air Raid is also a system in which its practitioners can be cast as free-thinkers or eccentrics. Leach, who is now at Washington State, is one of college football’s most nonconformist figures. Holgorsen, meanwhile, can give off a similar mad-genius vibe. Yenser says that Likens is a little more main stream, but his persona also appears to cut against the grain of coaching stereotypes. Likens is affable. He is active on social media. His path to major college football was slightly different.
“Rob is weird in his own way,” Yenser says. “I don’t really know how to explain it.”
Let’s start at the beginning. In the mid-1990s, Likens served as an assistant coach at Division II North Alabama. The program won three national titles, but Likens was intrigued by the offensive fireworks at rival Valdosta State, where Hal Mumme, Leach and Holgorsen were developing the Air Raid before taking it to Kentucky. Likens remembers being happy at North Alabama, where the program ran the triple option. But he also remembers having an epiphany of sorts.
“I’m going to go learn what those guys are doing,” Likens recalled. “That guy just went from Valdosta State to Kentucky … I’m going to go learn that offense.”
Likens would later spent four seasons as the offensive coordinator at Central Connecticut State from 2006 to 2009, before hooking up with Sonny Dykes, another Air Raid disciple, at Louisiana Tech in 2010. Three years later, Likens followed Dykes to Cal, and his indoctrination in turbo-charged offensive football continued.
Two years later, Beaty called with an offer. Why not come to Kansas and put up some points?
For the moment, Likens says, he’s just beginning to evaluate the Jayhawks’ roster, which is perhaps for the best. Kansas will return starting quarterback Michael Cummings, sophomore running back Corey Avery and little else on offense. Likens, though, believes in the system, believes in its simplicity, and believes it can work at a place like Kansas. On the field, the pace will be breakneck. For now, Likens can afford to be patient.
“Everybody wants to know how fast it’s going to take,” Likens says. “I’ll be able to answer that question a lot better after spring practice.”