Kansas receiver Steven Sims changed his number from 16 to 11 in the offseason. Part of that is because he likes NFL wideout DeSean Jackson.
And part of it is just because he likes the thought of a fresh start.
“I think that I’m going to have a more explosive year this year,” Sims said. “That’s really it. I hope to put up big numbers.”
Much of the draw of a season-opener — KU takes on Rhode Island at 6 p.m. Saturday — is fans dreaming on freshmen, wondering if a young skill position player might become the next Johnny Manziel or Samaje Perine.
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Perhaps just as vital for KU this year will be players like Sims, sophomores who were rushed into action last year.
“He’s dedicated himself and put the work in and committed himself to football and getting better,” KU receivers coach Jason Phillips said. “I’m excited to see him play.”
To be clear, Sims’ true freshman season wasn’t awful. His 30 catches and 349 yards ranked second on the roster, while his two receiving touchdowns were also one off the team lead.
When he went home to Houston this summer, though, Sims reflected on his year and realized it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t pleased with his spring practices, and he and Phillips had a long talk prior to summer break about areas where he could improve.
“I needed to take another step,” Sims said. “I just want to have a better year than last year to help this team win.”
Sims started to do more. When Phillips gave him a packet of drills to do in the offseason, he followed the workouts on his own.
He also dedicated himself to film, watching tape of NFL players Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to pick up additional pointers.
“They’re monsters. We’re like the same-sized guys,” Sims said. “They use their quickness to their advantage, and they know how to use their hands real well.”
Both Phillips and cornerbacks coach Kenny Perry have been impressed by Sims’ improvement during fall camp, as the 5-foot-10 wideout has refined his route-running while also lowering his 40-yard dash time from 4.56 to 4.50 seconds.
“I think when a kid makes his mind up he wants to be great, then he becomes coachable,” Phillips said. “You can start giving him tools and stuff he can start using and applying in his game. He’s done a tremendous job of doing that.”
KU’s passing game has lacked dominant receivers of late. The Jayhawks’ last 600-yard receivers were Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier, who both accomplished the feat in 2009. To give some context, Baylor and Oklahoma State had three 600-yard receivers last season alone.
The Jayhawks appear to have candidates who could break the drought. One is Texas A&M transfer LaQuvionte Gonzalez, who has drawn frequent praise from KU coach David Beaty through fall practices.
Another is Sims, who hopes to prove that he’s better than what he showed a season ago.
“Steven’s made a commitment to Steven Sims and the University of Kansas, and I’m excited about that,” Phillips said. “He’s going to be fun to watch.”
Rhode Island at Kansas
WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Lawrence
TV: Time Warner Cable SportsChannel
Three story lines
A decision at QB: KU coach David Beaty has skirted questions about his starting quarterback all week. On Monday, he hinted he knew who the starter would be but didn’t want to say to keep an advantage over Rhode Island. On Tuesday, he said the competition was ongoing and he didn’t know at the time who would start. Then, on Friday in an interview with 810 Sports Radio, Beaty said he and the players knew who the starter would be, though he again was keeping that secret. The mind games will end when either Ryan Willis or Montell Cozart take the field for KU’s first drive.
A fast debut? One of the biggest reasons for optimism with KU’s offense is receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez, who ranks as one of the fastest players on the team. After catching passes from Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M his freshman season, Gonzalez transferred to KU after his sophomore year, sitting out in 2015 because of NCAA rules. Beaty has vowed to not overuse Gonzalez — the coach believes he overworked a similar player in Sam McGuffie during his first year at Rice — but the junior still should receive plenty of touches that could come on receptions, end-arounds or in the return game.
Pressure … please? Beaty said that his team’s defensive line did not live up to his expectations a year ago, and that unit has an early opportunity to show it’s improved against an inexperienced Rhode Island offensive line. KU, which ranked ninth in the Big 12 in sacks per game a year ago (2.2), was young at the position in 2015, giving extended time to then-freshmen Dorance Armstrong, Daniel Wise and D.J. Williams. All three of those players are projected starters Saturday, with Armstrong serving as the pass-rush specialist after posting 3 1/2 sacks as a true freshman.