If there was ever a reason to be excited for the second half of the season for the Kansas Jayhawks (2-4, 0-3 Big 12) it’s the fact they may have a wildly new-look offense this Saturday against the Texas Longhorns (4-2, 2-1 Big 12). Les Koenning is out and Brent Dearmon is in as coach Les Miles’ offensive coordinator, with the latter’s debut coming this week.
Whether or not that actually leads to an improvement in the offense is yet to be seen.
Texas, meanwhile, comes into this weekend’s matchup off a tough loss to rival Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout. The Longhorns have lost their two toughest games of the year so far, but both were close bouts and that doesn’t mean this isn’t still a strong program under Tom Herman. Both teams are looking to prove something and should be motivated, but there’s also yet another clear talent disparity bearing down on the Jayhawks.
Get ready to hear all about RPOs until you can’t stand the phrase anymore this weekend. Dearmon literally wrote a book on them and will, in all likelihood, implement far more of them in his play calls than Koenning did. That bodes well for senior quarterback Carter Stanley, who has been clear on his comfort level with such plays. That’s not to say Stanley will be a whole new passer with more RPOs in the offense, but putting him in more comfortable situations could lead to better ball protection and smarter decisions than we’ve seen at some times this year. Sophomore running back Pooka Williams is also going to be an interesting piece to watch this week. In a recent episode of ESPN+’s Miles To Go, Dearmon spoke to Williams about getting him out on the edge more. We’ll see if that plan comes to fruition.
This will be a challenging game for the KU defense, there’s no doubt about it. The defensive backs in particular will have a tough assignment defending passes from one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12, Sam Ehlinger, to a fantastic crop of wide receivers headlined by Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson. Forcing the Longhorns to run the ball would be something of a win for the Jayhawks on defense.
Not only is Ehlinger one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 12, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in nation. He’s not perfect as a pure passer, but he’s still above average and is a killer with his legs. He gets plenty of help from his aforementioned receivers, Duvernay and Johnson, both of whom will play in the NFL. The offensive production has been impressive all year for Texas, as it’s averaging 39.3 points per game with a low of 27 last week against OU. Even if the Jayhawks have a strong defensive effort in general, expect the Longhorns to put up plenty of points in Austin.
On the defensive side of the ball is where UT struggles. It’s allowing 27.8 points per game for the year overall, but in Big 12 games that number bounces up to 31.7 points per contest. That unit is banged up or other wise being kept on the field as well, which could open some opportunities for the KU offense. Defensive end Malcolm Roach will miss the first half due to a targeting ejection last week while Caden Sterns, one of the best safeties in the conference, remains out with a knee injury. Cornerback Jalen Green is also out once again this week. There’s still talent on the Texas defense, but it’s never great for a unit that has already struggled to be without several starters.
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How much freedom will Dearmon have to run his offense? It’s been a common school of thought that Koenning was just running Miles’ offense without adding much, if any, of his own flavor, something that was brought up several times on 580 Sports Talk. Things won’t be completely different this week, given that the Jayhawks only had two weeks to adopt his schemes and designs, but there’s a chance it could still look somewhat new and unique compared to the recent past. A lot of KU’s offensive success will hinge on how much Miles allows Dearmon to run his own stuff versus how much he has to stick to the typical game plan.
Can the defense tackle? It’s hard to tackle any skill position player for the Oklahoma Sooners, which Texas showed constantly a week ago. But this is a group that hasn’t looked particularly good all season against Power 5 teams, and KU does have a couple decent offensive weapons. Most notably, Williams. He’s a focal point for the Jayhawks and will have the ball in his hands constantly. One season ago he rushed for 103 yards on just 16 carries against the Longhorns, including a run over 50 yards. If UT can tackle him quickly or before he’s already broken several other attempts it will severely hinder KU’s offensive plans.
Stanley. Just like the RPO horse will be beaten to death all day Saturday, we’re beating the “What will the offense look like?” horse to death here. It’s relevant though, because there’s a lot more at stake in this game than just a win or a loss. Kansas is a three-touchdown underdog for a reason, but a positive offensive showing, at least compared to the regular offensive output, would be a great sign. Stanley has a great relationship with Dearmon, his skills fit his O.C.’s system well and he even has a good past history against Texas (Nov. 19, 2016, never forget). If Stanley is able to get in a rhythm, takes care of the ball and makes the correct reads consistently the Jayhawks should be able to cash in several times on Saturday.
Roschon Johnson. As mentioned above, if KU will want to force Texas to run the ball to avoid letting Duvernay and co. in the receivers group make plays. Johnson is a converted quarterback who pressed into service as a running back because of a bevy of backfield injuries. He’s been solid this season and is coming off of a 95-yard, 12 yards per carry effort against Oklahoma. If the Longhorns are able to out together a strong ground attack then the Jayhawks are going to struggle that much more to make any number of stops.
It’s a cumbersome hashtag but it’s a necessary one. The picks haven’t gone so well this season, so follow along at your own risk.