LAWRENCE — For the fourth time in the last decade, Kansas football is entering a new era.
Will Les Miles provide the kind of change his predecessors couldn’t?
Miles, who won a national championship during his 12-year stint at LSU and boasts a 142-55 career head coaching record, was hired this offseason to replace David Beaty, who went 6-42 in four years with the Jayhawks. Others have attempted and failed — spectacularly. Charlie Weis, hired ahead of the 2012 season, went 6-22, and Turner Gill, hired before the 2010 campaign, went 5-19 during his brief tenure in Lawrence.
Miles arrived with an impeccable résumé and a BCS championship ring but took over a dire situation, with KU going 23-97 in the 10 years since its last winning season and behind on scholarships on hand following last-ditch tactics by Beaty (who himself had to clean up a similar mess left behind by Weis).
With that in mind, and considering the Jayhawks’ projected last-place finish in the Big 12 preseason poll, one of Miles’ first public declarations about his new gig may have taken some by surprise.
“I think it’s a challenge, but I think it’s something we can do,” Miles said last November on the final episode of his “Les Is More” podcast. “I think we will win in the first year.”
Here are two key questions, players and matchups for this year’s Jayhawks:
1. Can KU finally find a quarterback?
It didn’t take Miles long to defend his offensive philosophy, using his introductory news conference to cite Zach Mettenberger (2011-13) as an example of a quarterback who thrived in his system.
Still, even the most casual college football fan likely remembers that part of the messy split between Miles and LSU was the perception that the head coach was overseeing an archaic offense — despite an embarrassment of riches hauled in on the recruiting trail, the Tigers’ offense ranked 118th nationally in passing yards per game (155.7) in 2014 and 103rd in that statistic (180.4) in 2015, Miles' final two full years in Baton Rouge, La.
Saying KU has had pedestrian quarterback play over the last decade would be sugarcoating it. Is Miles’ coaching staff the crew to help Jayhawk signal callers finally break through?
2. Can the defense replace two All-Big 12 producers?
Given the Jayhawks’ anemic records, it’s easy to overlook stars from the Beaty era.
Joe Dineen and Daniel Wise were two that shined brightest, but now both are gone.
Dineen, a linebacker, and Wise, a defensive tackle, both earned All-Big 12 first team recognition in their senior seasons, shoring up a KU defense that jumped 40 spots from the previous season to finish ranked 82nd nationally in yards allowed per game (426.8). Dineen and Wise finished 1-2 in program history in tackles for loss, with Dineen alone accounting for 142 total tackles in 2018.
Where KU turns to replace that production is unknown. Juniors Sam Burt (6-foot-4, 293-pound defensive tackle) and Kyron Johnson (6-1, 230-pound inside linebacker) have slid into leadership roles this fall, with true freshmen DaJon Terry (6-4, 245-pound defensive tackle) and Steven Parker (6-4, 225-pound outside linebacker) also earning rave reviews from coaches.
1. Sophomore running back Pooka Williams
Any potential success this season likely rides on the production of Williams, the Jayhawks’ most dynamic player but a piece suspended for the 11 a.m. Aug. 31 opener against Indiana State at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
Williams, who was charged with domestic battery in December but is on track to clear that from his record through a diversion agreement reached with the Douglas County District Attorney’s office, needed just 11 games as a true freshman to carve out his spot as perhaps the most electric player for the Jayhawks in at least a decade — the New Orleans native and former four-star recruit rushed for 1,125 yards on 7 yards per attempt and amassed 10 total touchdowns as a first-year player, earning All-Big 12 honors along the way.
When Williams returns in Week 2, will there be any physical rust or mental fallout following the seven-month suspension he served this offseason? If the answer is no, the 5-10, 170-pound highlight reel could be the face of a KU running attack that stands among the best in the Big 12, if not the country.
2. Senior wide receiver Daylon Charlot
Another unsung producer from the Beaty era was Steven Sims, a wide receiver who finished his KU career with 214 receptions for 2,582 yards and 19 touchdowns despite the game of musical chairs that occurred at quarterback during Sims’ collegiate career.
Like Dineen and Wise, Sims is gone, and much of the pressure of picking up that lost production falls on Charlot, a former four-star recruit and Alabama transfer who hasn't done much since his arrival.
Charlot took the high road at KU media day earlier this month, blaming injuries rather than disagreements with former coaches for his lack of playing time over the last two years. But the fact remains that as Charlot’s playing time saw an uptick last year following offensive coordinator Doug Meacham’s midseason firing, the 6-foot, 193-pounder did quite well for himself down the stretch.
Can Charlot stand out in a wideout room high on intriguing pieces but low on career production?
1. vs. Indiana State (11 a.m. Aug. 31)
For a second year in a row, one of KU’s most intriguing matchups comes in a season opener against an FCS-level program.
The Jayhawks, of course, are hoping this one plays out differently.
KU suffered a crushing 26-23 overtime defeat to Nicholls State in last year’s first contest, an outcome that did more than perhaps any to seal Beaty’s fate. Include a 6-3 defeat to North Dakota State (2010) and a 41-38 setback to South Dakota State (2015) and the Jayhawks have lost three times this decade to FCS-level opponents, an almost unheard-of happening for an FBS-level program.
Early lines have KU as a 3½-point favorite over Indiana State. Can the team survive the absence of Pooka Williams and start the Miles era off on the right foot?
2. vs. Kansas State (TBD Nov. 2)
If the Wildcats — also under a new head coach in Chris Klieman — are at all in a vulnerable point in the Sunflower Showdown rivalry, the Jayhawks’ narrow defeat in last year’s edition may be Exhibit A.
KU fell 21-17 in Manhattan but controlled the game from start until the fourth quarter. Coaching blunders, quarterback mishaps and a painfully bizarre fumble at the finish squashed any chance of a Jayhawk victory, but a win this season in Lawrence would end a 10-year losing streak in the series and make any unsightly record KU is likely to finish with more digestible.
Is the state of Kansas big enough for two winning FBS-level football programs?
QB — Thomas MacVittie, Carter Stanley
RB — Pooka Williams, Khalil Herbert
TE — Jack Luavasa, Mason Fairchild
RT — Kevin Feder, Clyde McCauley
RG — Chris Hughes, Andru Tovi
C — Api Mane, Andru Tovi
LG — Malik Clark, Api Mane
LT — Hakeem Adeniji, Clyde McCauley
WR — Daylon Charlot, Evan Fairs
WR — Andrew Parchment, Ezra Naylor
WR — Stephon Robinson, Kwamie Lassiter
DE — Darrius Moragne, Willie McCaleb
DT — Sam Burt, DaJon Terry
DE — Codey Cole, Caleb Sampson
ILB — Kyron Johnson, Hayden Hatcher
OLB — Steven Parker, Najee Stevens-McKenzie
N — Azur Kamara, Bryce Torneden
S — Bryce Torneden, DeAnte Ford
S — Mike Lee, Jeremiah McCullough
S — Ricky Thomas, Shaq Richmond
CB — Corione Harris, Elmore Hempstead
CB — Hasan Defense, Kyle Mayberry
K — Liam Jones, Jacob Borcila
P — Kyle Thompson, Donovan Gagen
KR — Pooka Williams, Jamahl Horne
PR — Kwamie Lassiter, Jamahl Horne