Kansas football is likely to have a play that makes ESPN’s SportsCenter. It has a backup receiver to thank for that.
Chase Harrell wowed with a first-quarter touchdown catch, pulling it in with only his left hand as KU rolled to a 38-16 victory over Southeast Missouri State in Saturday’s home opener.
It was a skill he’s worked on frequently after practice.
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“I do catches every which way,” Harrell said. “I’ll stick one hand out, and I’ll just start catching like that, just trying to get it routine.”
The reception was only one example of a resuscitated offense with new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and transfer quarterback Peyton Bender.
KU, for a night, schemed its way to receivers running open all over the field. It also featured improved depth on the outside, with Steven Sims, Jeremiah Booker and Ben Johnson each adding 30-plus-yard receptions.
The most impressive highlight, though, came from Harrell, who impersonated Odell Beckham Jr. midway through the first quarter. Feet dangling in the air, Harrell raised his left arm and cushioned the football with only the fingertips of his left hand, landing just inches inbounds for the 8-yard score.
“It was sick,” Johnson said.
KU’s big-play ability was a refreshing change for a fan base that has seen many attempted fixes but few results offensively since Mark Mangino’s forced resignation in 2009. The Jayhawks have finished last in the Big 12 in scoring offense in each of those seven seasons, never eclipsing 23 points per game in an era in which other conference schools were routinely doubling that.
There were numerous past attempts to cure the offense. KU once hired a non-Power-Five offensive coordinator with previous ties to the program after he beat the Jayhawks the previous season. Two five-star transfer quarterbacks in Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps failed to live up to expectations, and current coach David Beaty even mixed things up himself, taking over play-calling duties last season after the 2015 offense underperformed.
Could Meacham — in his first year as offensive coordinator after arriving from TCU — be part of the solution? One game against an FCS school won’t answer that question completely, but for a day, he certainly provided some optimism.
Bender, who was the expected starter even though Beaty refused to name him that before game time, finished with 364 yards and four passing touchdowns. Both were the most by a Jayhawk since Todd Reesing in 2009.
“I thought we showed glimpses on offense of how explosive we can really be,” Bender said. “We’ve just got to get more consistent overall.”
The win came on a night when KU paused to celebrate its past. Kansas added cornerback Aqib Talib and offensive lineman Anthony Collins to the Ring of Honor, while Mangino — inducted to the school’s hall of fame this weekend — received a standing ovation at halftime with members of the 2007-08 Orange Bowl team standing behind him.
For a few hours, they were treated to a thriving offense — and also a play good enough to put KU football on SportsCenter for the right reasons.
“It should be (on there),” Johnson said of the catch. “If not, they’re cheating him.”