There was steady rain, traces of hail, and a 30-minute lightning delay.
The Kansas football program endured some miserable weather on Tuesday while opening spring football practice. But after the first of 15 spring sessions, first-year coach David Beaty was still feeling upbeat and energized.
“It was a lot of fun,” Beaty said. “We got to throw some adversity at them quick.”
It’s another time of great transition for Kansas football, which is coming off a 3-9 record last season. New regime. New offense. A roster still in flux. Beaty, the program’s fourth head coach in the last seven seasons, will spend the spring trying to lay a foundation for his first season. For now, there are more question marks than certainties.
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With that in mind, The Star is offering five story lines to track as Kansas works toward its spring game on April 25 at Memorial Stadium..
1. The quarterback position. Senior Michael Cummings — yes, Cummings is really a senior — claimed the starting spot last year after replacing Montell Cozart midseason. Cummings offered a brief spark to a moribund offense, completing 56 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,715 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions. But Kansas will spend the spring installing a new spread system. Offensive coordinator Rob Likens, who came from Cal, has roots in the Air Raid offensive tree. Will Cummings be a fit?
Cummings is one of six quarterbacks on the spring roster — a group that doesn’t include incoming freshmen Ryan Willis and Carter Stanley, two high school quarterbacks who signed earlier this spring.
“The thing that we’re looking for in our quarterback is very simple,” Beaty said. “We want a guy that can manage the game, that can take care of the football, that can move our team, a can do it effectively.”
Cozart, a gifted athlete who could be a candidate for a position switch, is still listed as a quarterback. The Jayhawks also list junior T.J. Millweard and three walk-ons at quarterback. The walk-ons: Redshirt freshman Keaton Perry, the son of co-defensive coordinator Kenny Perry; junior Frankie Seurer Jr., a former Olathe South quarterback; and junior Brock Gilmore, a Chanute native who spent last season at Coffeyville Community College. Sophomore Jordan Darling, a former Shawnee Mission East quarterback, is now listed at tight end.
2. Jayhawks face roster crunch. Kansas lists 93 players on the spring roster, and more than 20 percent of the roster is composed of walk-ons. Former Kansas coach Charlie Weis loaded up on junior-college players in his second recruiting class and the move backfired. While the Jayhawks saw little improvement in the win column, they were also left with a murky numbers situation.
Division I FBS football programs are allotted 85 scholarships, but can only sign 25 players in each recruiting class. As a result, it could take Beaty multiple years to build up to a roster that features 85 scholarship players. Beaty said he’s stopped counting scholarship players — the number can put him in a bad mood — but he said KU has just more than 50 scholarship players at spring practice.
Beaty has emphasized the importance of building an impact walk-on program at Kansas. For the next few years, it could be even more critical.
3. Can Kansas fill holes on defense? Earlier this month, Kansas announced that senior safety Isaiah Johnson, a two-year starter, was leaving the program. It was the latest hit for a defensive unit that also lost All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney and three other starters in the secondary — JaCorey Shepherd, Cassius Sendius and Dexter McDonald.
Heeney and Shepherd will likely be on NFL training-camp rosters this year, while Sendish and McDonald were capable players. The Jayhawks finished just 3-9 in 2014, and the defense had its share of struggles.
Still, it’s never a good sign when a 3-9 football team must replace its two best players (Heeney and Shepherd).
4. Bring on the Air Raid era. During his first three months on the job, Beaty continually emphasized that Kansas was going to play “fun” football under his watch. The focus on fun, in part, stems from a new offensive system that will look similar to the spread schemes run by West Virginia, Texas A&M and Baylor. Rob Likens, the Jayhawks’ first-year offensive coordinator, spent many years learning under Cal offensive offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, a godfather of the turbo-charged — yet simplified — offense.
For now, the emphasis is on tempo. On Tuesday, Beaty said KU ran more than 90 plays in 44 minutes during an offensive session — a solid first step.
One question: Who will catch the ball in this offense?
The Jayhawks lost senior receiver Nick Harwell (44 receptions) and senior tight end Jimmay Mundine (45 receptions). Junior Nigel King (30 catches) also declared for the NFL Draft. The Jayhawks’ leading returning pass-catcher is sophomore running back Corey Avery, who had 18 receptions last year.
5. Reinforcements at running back? The Jayhawks’ backfield was decimated last season when both Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox suffered season-ending injuries during preseason practice. That left true freshman Corey Avery and junior-college transfer De’Andre Mann as the only legitimate options at running back.
Avery and Mann are both back, and Cox was granted an extra year of eligibility through a medical redshirt. Bourbon, meanwhile, transferred to Washburn for his final season. The Jayhawks, though, added depth in the form of juco transfer running back Ke’aun Kinner.