It's no secret turnovers have been a massive issue for the Kansas football team. And it's been that way for quite some time.
The Jayhawks have held the regrettable distinctions of...
- Leading all of FBS with 36 turnovers in 2016
- Committing two or more turnovers in 16 straight games
- Failing to win the turnover battle in each of their last nine road games
KU coach David Beaty has spoken at length about the turnover issues several times in the past.
He was asked about them again at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, and noted that while the road-losing streak, which sits at a whopping 41 games, has been out of his mind, the turnover issues certainly have not been.
"Well, I've said all the other things. I've already talked to you about every drill that could have been created. Anything that's ever been done, we've done, and we've done it twice on Sunday," Beaty said. "We've studied with the Cowboys, we've studied with the Rams, we've studied with Seattle. I mean, just everywhere we can go trying to prevent that, right? That's the death of you in a football program."
Putting aside the 22 interceptions Kansas threw last year — a mark that ranked 126th out of 128 teams — and the four that new quarterback Peyton Bender has already thrown this year — no quarterback in FBS has more — the 14 fumbles KU lost last season were a massive issue, and it's one the team has attempted to thwart with just about everything, even clothing.
"It's a lot more difficult than people think to keep that ball up high and tight. But it's a learned trait," Beaty said. "When we toss them a pair of socks, they've got to tuck it. Doesn't matter what we throw them, that thing better be tucked. Wrist has to be above the elbow, back nose has to be covered, and that front nose ought to be gripped. That ball never comes away."
As amusing as it might seem, the players have at least taken to the strategy.
Junior wideout Jeremiah Booker, one of the team's captains, says he understands the reasoning for the drill, which Beaty reminds the players of during every practice.
Booker has also caught himself practicing his ball security outside the football complex, namely when his instincts as an athlete start to take over.
"High and tight. It's with anything and everything, whether it's a pencil or something," Booker said. "When I'm relaxing, not really, but if I'm rushing to class, I catch myself like (clutching) my water bottle or something."
Fellow wideout Steven Sims, who was limited in the Jayhawks' last game with a right-ankle injury, is another who has taken to this strategy, though he's hardly been part of the problem.
Sims has been charged with one lost fumble some 20-plus games into his college career, which came on a late drive of a 43-7 blowout loss to Memphis back in 2016.
With the game already out of reach and KU having already committed five turnovers on the day, Sims caught a pass down the left sideline and dove for a first down. At the same time, a Memphis defender dove at Sims and managed to knock the ball loose about an instant before he hit the ground.
Regardless, Sims is as sure-handed as just about anyone on the team.
That's in part why he's back returning punts this year. LaQuvionte Gonzalez, who handled the punt return duties for much of 2016, is not back with the program, but he had already been removed from that spot on several occasions after a host of lost fumbles and muffed punts.
As for Sims, he takes ball security pretty seriously.
"Yeah they'll throw anything at you, a water bottle, anything they can find. You have to look it in and tuck it like it's a football," Sims said. "I'll always hold my imaginary ball. Like I'll be doing moves and things while I'm walking through a crowd. I'll be juking students and things like that. That's just how I am. I'm working on my game 24-7."
Some players develop a seamless chemistry from the first time they meet. That was not the case for Ben Johnson and Peyton Bender.
In fact, the first time the senior tight end laid eyes on his new quarterback, he never expected to catch a pass from him — at least on a football field.
“Peyton?” Johnson said, starting to laugh. “My first time meeting Peyton I thought he was a baseball player.”
As the story goes, Johnson walked up to a building on campus and saw Bender and his brother outside.
Locked out of the building, both Bender and Johnson tried to get in with their codes and then walked down to another door in an unsuccessful attempt to get inside.
At that point, Bender took action, pulling out his cellphone to make a call. As Johnson recalled, the two had a brief back and forth leading to the realization that the person standing next to him might be an important one to remember.
“Are you calling your academic advisor or something?” Johnson asked.
“Yeah, I’m calling Shanda,” Bender said, referencing Shanda Hayden, KU football’s academic and career counselor.
“Oh, shoot. Are you a football player?” Johnson asked.
“Yeah,” Bender said. “I’m the new quarterback.”
Since then, the two have worked on their chemistry and the results have shown on the field.
In the Jayhawks’ 38-16 win over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday, Johnson caught three passes for 90 yards and a touchdown, making it by far his best collegiate game since joining the program.
But as was noted after the game — by both Johnson and KU coach David Beaty — it could’ve been even better.
“If he’d have run the route on the first play,” Beaty said, “he might have scored another touchdown.”
The first play
So let’s take a look at what David Beaty was talking about.
On its first offensive play from scrimmage, KU split four receivers out wide with Ben Johnson attached at the top of the line. The plan was for Johnson to start outside and get behind the linebacker. Then he would open up over the middle of the field with the hope being that the safeties would be occupied with the outside receivers.
“Oh, they were gone. They were gone,” said Johnson, watching the play unfold on a computer screen. “It would have been a touchdown. No question. Yep.”
Simple enough. Only it wasn’t.
With the linebacker so far up on the line of scrimmage, Johnson thought he could push him outside and then slip by him down the middle of the field. In theory it wasn’t a terrible idea, but Johnson admitted he should’ve just “jabbed him inside and then broke out.”
Looking at the GIF, you can almost see the moment Bender made up his mind to abandon that route and throw short to Jeremiah Booker. It’s right after he realizes Johnson isn’t going to be in the right spot, having gone to the inside of the linebacker rather than the outside.
It's also worth noting, the SEMO defensive back reacted pretty quickly to Bender in his attempt to get into the passing lane. If he had been just a step or two quicker, he might’ve even had a chance to intercept the pass, and all when the play probably should've ended up as a touchdown in the first place.
A second chance
Even though it only gained a few yards on the first attempt, the play itself actually proved quite effective. So it shouldn’t have been any surprise when the Jayhawks went back to it in the second half.
This time Johnson broke the right way and got behind the linebacker. Once again, the safety was occupied by the streaking receiver, and Johnson was able to slip down the middle of the field.
The straight-on view is even more telling.
After getting behind the linebacker, Johnson had plenty of space to make the catch and sprint down the field untouched. And the result was not only a 57-yard touchdown, but Johnson’s first ever 50-yard catch and 90-yard receiving game.
"It felt good, but at the same time I left a lot of play on the table," Johnson said. "I'm hungry. I want to go get it."