(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
In eight years, the Kansas football team has gone from Orange Bowl champion to the worst Power Five program in the country — a free fall accelerated by a merry-go-round of unsuccessful coaches.
After Mark Mangino’s forced departure, Turner Gill failed while struggling to implement discipline. Charlie Weis cleaned up a bit of KU’s off-field mess, but his ill-conceived reliance on junior-college guys left the Jayhawks low on scholarship players and in a bind talent-wise.
It’s part of the reason that second-year coach David Beaty is getting plenty of patience while trying to rebuild the program.
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So what, exactly, would be considered progress for a team that went 0-12 a season ago? The question is difficult to answer.
Would it be a victory? That bar seems too low, especially with KU opening against FCS bottom-feeder Rhode Island. The Rams are 2-21 in their last two seasons and 5-41 in their last five, meaning the Jayhawks should be multiple-touchdown favorites on Sept. 3.
What about two wins? That might be a little more fair, especially with KU getting a favorable home schedule with Ohio in Week 2 and Iowa State during the Big 12 season.
Then again, there will be plenty to look for beyond the team’s record.
For one, can KU simply be more competitive in conference games? The Jayhawks were outscored by 36 points per Big 12 game a year ago, and that number could have been worse if numerous opponents hadn’t decided to take out their starters early.
Also, can the offense show signs of life? Beaty believes he can help by taking over play-calling duties, though he’s facing the reality that KU has had the Big 12’s worst scoring average for six straight seasons. One reason for hope is Texas A&M transfer LaQuvionte Gonzalez, who provides a different level of speed on the outside.
The Jayhawks still appear to have questions at quarterback. Montell Cozart’s and Ryan Willis’ battle for the starting job continued late into fall camp, and the fact that neither emerged early can’t be considered a positive, especially for a team that has been searching for QB stability since Todd Reesing’s last season in 2009.
And what about the defense? The Jayhawks surrendered 46.1 points per game last season — worst in FBS — though there appears to be some talent returning with defensive end Dorance Armstrong, linebackers Joe Dineen and Marcquis Roberts and safety Fish Smithson.
Special teams desperately needs improvement as well. KU hired former West Virginia special-teams coordinator Joe DeForest in the offseason, and while Beaty has been pleased with the progress, the Jayhawks have plenty to clean up after ranking 127th in Footballoutsiders.com’s all-encompassing special-teams measure.
At a base level, maybe the season should be judged simply on this: Does KU look more like a Big 12 team? Strength coach Je’Ney Jackson didn’t fully understand the challenge when he arrived in Lawrence a year ago, as only three players had 40-yard dash times under 4.6 seconds and most offensive linemen were unable to bench press their weight.
Jackson has helped change those numbers. In August, he reported that 32 players had hand-clocked 40 times under 4.6 seconds, while all of the returning offensive linemen could bench 315 pounds.
Beaty often talks about there not being shortcuts when building a football program, and this year is likely to be further evidence of that. KU should win its opener, and it should be better than last year, but it also likely will be chasing the rest of the conference in both talent and experience.
In other words, the worst Power Five program isn’t likely to remedy all its issues overnight, with Beaty continuing to work through mistakes made by those who came before him.