The Kansas Jayhawks (0-0) have reset their program numerous times since the Mark Mangino era. After three embarrasingly unsuccessful coaching regimes, the program received a complete facelift this offseason, with KU director of athletics Jeff Long hiring Les Miles, the charismatic, enigmatic former national champion, to lead the woebegone team.
While Miles has brought a new energy and excitement to Kansas, there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered. The starting quarterback is still a mystery. There are massive holes on both sides of the ball that need to be filled, including those left by Daniel Wise and Joe Dineen on defense, plus the No. 1 wide receiver role vacated by Steven Sims on offense. What will the new offense and defense look like with entirely new coaching staffs, save for one assistant on each side?
These are important things that need to be resolved, and they’ll be put to the test in Week 1. The Jayhawks will host the Indiana State Sycamores on Saturday, the 16th-ranked team in the preseason FCS top-25 poll. The Sycamores had a top-30 scoring offense last year and finished with a winning record in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the strongest league in the FCS. As Jayhawks fans know well after going 2-2 in season openers under the last regime, buy games against lower-level programs aren’t always cupcakes.
Without question, Kansas’ offensive strength will be running the ball this season. Even without sophomore running back Pooka Williams available in Week 1 due to suspension, the duo of senior Khalil Herbert and junior Dom Williams have proven that they can carry the offensive load. That’s especially true for Herbert, who has been a bell cow featured back before (see his 2017 performance versus West Virginia as an example). That pair, along with freshman Velton Gardner (who has received plenty of praise during fall camp) will have a veteran offensive line to run behind. One that’s considered so talented by Miles, offensive coordinator Les Koenning and offensive line coach Luke Meadows, in fact, that they plan to rotate the majority of positions along the line during games.
Defensively, the secondary is the strongest unit for KU. Everyone from last year’s starting group is back, headlined by senior safety Mike Lee, as well as sophomore cornerback Corione Harris. It’s such a strong group that Harris, who had a strong debut season in 2018, wasn’t even listed atop the first depth chart for new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s unit. The question marks lie with the front seven, as Kansas is changing from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense and one without much returning experience. Senior linebacker Azur Kamara has assumed a leadership role up front, while freshmen linebackers like Gavin Potter and Steven Parker are expected to play big roles right away.
Indiana State has a ton of returning production back, including four out of five starters on its offensive line and a standout quarterback in redshirt senior Ryan Boyle, last year’s MVFC newcomer of the year. Boyle transferred to Indiana State after a couple unproductive years at Iowa and in his first year as a starter was named second-team all-conference. His top target from last year is also back in redshirt sophomore wide receiver Dante Hendrix, who averaged over 14 yards per catch last season and led the Sycamores in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
The offense is the better side of the ball for Indiana State, as the defensive finished somewhere between mediocre and below average in 2018. It was 58th in FCS in scoring defense, but ranked 89th (out of 124 teams) in total defense. Six starters will return to a defense that allowed over 28 points per game last season, but the most notable area where the Sycamores need to replace production is along the defensive line. They will have two new starters at defensive tackle against the Jayhawks’ strong rushing attack.
Can Kansas figure out its quarterback situation? Redshirt senior Carter Stanley and junior college transfer Thomas MacVitte have battled evenly throughout the offseason, and through game week Miles still has not publicly named his starter. Stanley has been around the program for years and has starting experience, while MacVittie was the top JUCO quarterback prospect in the nation in this year’s class. Miles indicated that both could see action in Week 1, but Kansas desperately needs some continuity under center. A strong performance by whoever is anointed the starter will go a long way toward establishing some positive momentum for this offense.
Can the Sycamores take advantage of a weak front line for KU? Indiana State’s top rusher last year was Ja’quan Keys, who played in just seven games as a senior and still ran for 948 yards. Junior Titus McCoy is their top returning running back in terms of production, and he’ll be running behind an experienced and talented offensive line. Kansas is lacking that experience up front, and Indiana State’s best chance offensively to stay in the game and compete could be to win the ground game against an unfamiliar defensive line.
Senior wide receiver Daylon Charlot. This likely won’t be the last time this year Charlot is the pick. Whether it’s Stanley or MacVittie who wins the quarterback job, they’ll need a reliable target to get the ball to. Charlot came to Lawrence with a lot of hype (he was a transfer from Alabama, after all) and hasn’t broken out yet. He could make life a lot easier on his quarterback and on the running game if he’s able to open up the downfield air attack.
Senior linebacker Jonas Griffith. Last season Griffith racked up 132 tackles, which helped him earn preseason FCS second-team All-American honors from HeroSports. Think of Griffith like Kansas used to think about Joe Dineen: He’s a player that’s always around the ball and will be expected to plug any and all open holes in the front seven. The Jayhawks will keep the ball on the ground with Herbert and Williams, so Griffiths need to be ready for a lot of contact.