It appears the Kansas football team’s starting quarterback question is finally resolved: Barring an injury or any other unpredictable turns, freshman Jalon Daniels should retain his spot atop the depth chart, KU coach Les Miles said Monday.
“If he stays healthy, I think he’ll be the guy that starts,” Miles said. “With some experience, he’s going to be very special.”
Daniels already has started three of KU’s five games. He likely would’ve started a fourth, too, if a left foot injury that he suffered against Oklahoma State hadn't kept him out of the lineup for KU’s game at West Virginia.
A 6-foot, 203-pound dual-threat QB from Lawndale, Calif., Daniels returned to his starting spot Saturday in a 55-14 road loss against Kansas State. Still just 17 years old (Daniels turns 18 on Thursday), he became the first FBS true freshman this season — and the only one so far — to throw for at least 200 yards and rush for two touchdowns.
“It’s pretty special what he’s getting accomplished right now,” Miles said.
Daniels completed 22 of his 39 passes (56.4%) at the K-State game for 207 yards. He was intercepted once, and that mistake turned into a pick-six for the Wildcats in the second quarter.
Playing every offensive snap in two KU games and appearing in a more limited capacity in two others — Daniels was the third-string QB in the opener and had his start versus OSU cut short by his foot injury — the young QB is 45-for-79 passing (57%) thus far, with 381 yards, one interception and no TD passes.
Miles said Monday he and the KU coaching staff want to play the youngest QB on the roster exclusively for the rest of the season.
“The opportunity for him to get the majority of the snaps in practice is going to happen anyway. So we might as well,” Miles said. “Miles Kendrick is a good quarterback and a guy that is going to compete. And we’re going to watch him through the week. And I’ll not ever make a promise of who I’m starting, who I’m not. But I can tell you that Jalon has done the things that we needed.”
Though Daniels has been sacked 12 times in his four appearances, he often has shown his mobility as a QB. He ran for gains of 4 or more yards six times at K-State, with a long of 11.
Dating back to his first start at Baylor, Daniels also has proven he can take some nasty hits from defenders without those encounters slowing him down.
“The kid is definitely tough, man,” senior right tackle Adagio Lopeti said. “He’s a baller for sure. He’ll go out there; he’ll take the blame. But at the same time he’ll work for every inch that he can get.”
In the Jayhawks’ most recent setback, Daniels completed passes to eight teammates. Two of his completions went to sophomore tight end Mason Fairchild, and both of those picked up first downs.
A year ago, Fairchild first arrived on campus at KU before his 18th birthday, so he can relate to some of what Daniels is going through.
“Getting used to everything, especially playing against guys that are 22, 23 years old, it’s something you’ve got to take in stride,” said Fairchild, a 6-5, 250-pound sophomore. “And he’s done a really good job of adjusting to it.”
Leading up to this week’s home game versus No. 23 Iowa State (3-2 overall, 3-1 Big 12), Daniels remains a work in progress. KU had a few chunk plays through the air at K-State, with Daniels connecting with Kwamie Lassiter II for 15 yards, Fairchild for 27, Ezra Naylor II for 19 and Luke Grimm for 28. But two of those didn’t come until the fourth quarter, when the game was out of reach. Daniels also had a string of seven consecutive incompletions in the second half.
Miles said a lot goes into preparing a game plan with an offense that uses run-pass option plays. The coach said KU (0-5, 0-4) needs to take advantage of passing situations when they appear.
“That’s the thing that Jalon’s got to get done,” Miles said. “And he’ll get that done. He’s bright as a whip and still provides us with quick feet and the ability to get down the field.”
KU was without its top two punters by the end of the K-State game on Saturday, and Miles still isn’t sure whether starter Kyle Thompson or backup Donovan Gagen will be back for this week’s game.
“Thompson, I think he’s probably closest to being on the field and ready to go. He’s a guy that we need,” Miles said. Thompson, a senior, averaged 39.9 yards per punt in KU’s first four games.
“And Gagen, as a backup punter, is going to put himself in position as best he can to be ready in the back end of this week,” Miles said.
Freshman Reis Vernon punted five times, averaging 34.6 yards, at K-State after Gagen got injured trying to make a tackle on one of Phillip Brooks’ four long returns.
Gagen also typically serves as the holder on KU’s extra points and field goals. Miles said running back Daniel Hishaw Jr. has experience holding and can fill in.
Also at Monday's Big 12 coaches teleconference, Miles reiterated that running back Pooka Williams Jr., who last week opted out of the rest of the season, was “firm” about returning to KU when the 2021 spring semester begins.
Miles, however, acknowledged that circumstances surrounding the star running back could still change: “But again I think that’s January and there’s a ways to go between now and then."
The Jayhawks’ run of three consecutive 11 a.m. kickoffs will end when they face Iowa State this week.
The Big 12 announced Monday that KU’s Nov. 7 game at Oklahoma will kick off at 2:30 p.m. and air on either ESPN or ESPN2.