Inside Jalon Daniels’ decision to shed his redshirt, play Kansas football’s final 2 games in 2021

Jordan Guskey
Topeka Capital-Journal

LAWRENCE — Of all the key plays that occurred in the win against Texas this past weekend, one that had Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki saying, “Hell yes,” Thursday occurred less than a minute into the game.

Jayhawks sophomore quarterback Jalon Daniels had just snapped the ball on a 3rd-and-7 play at about their own 28 yard line. Pressure from multiple Longhorns defenders forced him out of the pocket to his left. Daniels bolted forward and stayed in bounds just long enough on the football field to earn the first down, narrowly avoiding a devastating hit at the end as well.

For Kotelnicki, it wasn’t just that Daniels kept a drive alive that would eventually end in a touchdown, which provided significant momentumin a game Kansas wound up winning in overtime. It was that Daniels had a fall-forward mentality that they address each week in practice. It was exciting for Kotelnicki to see a drill translate into the game.

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And while that could have been the last game this season that Daniels made plays like that, given the initial plan to redshirt this season, it won’t be. Head coach Lance Leipold said Daniels sees the momentum this latest victory has created and what it’s done for the locker room. After conversations with the coaching staff and Daniels’ family, and with redshirt junior quarterback Jason Bean’s status unclear, it is evident Daniels wants to play. 

“I think it demonstrates (Daniels’) commitment and his understanding to what it takes to build here,” Kotelnicki said. “… Coach (Jim Zebrowski), our quarterbacks coach, talks about and he had said this to me and I think probably to the quarterbacks is, ‘Nothing’s guaranteed in this deal. You could snap your fingers and the next thing you know you’ve got a broken leg after one snap like our guy Miles (Kendrick). And go out there and relish every moment that you can.’ … It’s an illustration of his commitment to want to help turn this thing around and I really appreciate that.”

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels scores a touchdown against Texas during the first half of a game in Austin on Nov., 13, 2021.

Super-senior wide receiver Kwamie Lassiter II said he told Daniels that, when it came to the redshirt decision, Daniels had to make the best decision for himself. And when Daniels told Lassiter he was going to play, Lassiter responded that it was time to go get two more wins then. Both freshman running back Devin Neal and redshirt freshman tight end Trevor Kardell expressed support for Daniels’ decision, too.

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And while it means a lot to them that Daniels has decided to help Kansas continue to try to win now, and not just in the future, it’s important to Lassiter, Neal and Kardell that Leipold allowed it to be Daniels’ decision. It’s why Neal loves Leipold, that trust that Leipold makes the effort to build with players. It matters that the coaching staff isn’t making the decision for Daniels, who went 21-for-30 through the air for 202 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Longhorns.

“I respect that of (Leipold), because I feel like in a situation like that you shouldn’t force a player into doing something like that,” Lassiter said. “Because then (Daniels’) head space is going to be in the wrong spot and then he’s going to mess up and he’s going to mess all the other 10 players on the field up and then the score’ll look bad and we don’t want that.”

Leipold, who thought the discussions with Daniels and his family went well, said: “Though it’s a balancing act of tough decisions, the young man has to go back in the locker room and say what was said eight weeks ago is still true, that the conversations of trust and what it is, because we have to build those relationships especially with guys that you weren’t part of the recruiting process. If I break that and tell him he has to play, what does that do? What does it do to the locker room? What does it do for our future as a program?”

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels (6) carries the ball forward in overtime during the game against the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.  Kansas won 57-56 in overtime.

Lassiter, Neal and Kardell, not to mention Leipold and Kotelnicki, all talked this week about how prepared Daniels was to take advantage of the moment afforded to him. Lassiter said that’s what football is all about, opportunity.

How much Daniels will play against TCU on Saturday and West Virginia in the regular season finale, will be determined in time. Bean is still recovering from what appears to be a hand injury. Leipold said while Bean warmed up well ahead of the Texas contest, Bean hadn’t practiced much that week and only would have entered the game in an emergency situation.

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Leipold said he probably won’t name a starter before the TCU game kicks off. But he did say Daniels, who also ran for a touchdown against the Longhorns, will play. He said both Daniels and Bean practiced Tuesday.

Neal understands how meaningful these next two games can be, and what Daniels could play a part in achieving with them for their program. And don’t forget, as Leipold reiterated this week, the quarterback competition was close ahead of the opener and Daniels being “shut down” the last week and a half of fall camp due to a “tired arm” — as Leipold put it — put Daniels behind in the competition.

“You see our progression throughout the season and to come out on top … counting Texas, with the last three games, coming out with a win would be super important not only for us as a program but for the future part of the program,” Neal said, “within recruits and just the buzz around Lawrence and local support.”

Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at jmguskey@gannett.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.