Lest we forget that athletes are human, too, the announcement of a 7 p.m. CT, primetime matchup featuring KU football and TCU on FOX this Saturday brought a little joy to the KU locker room.
The Jayhawks are coming off back-to-back-to-back-to-back 11 a.m. (CT, of course) kickoffs, starting at Ohio in a game that was technically played in the eastern time zone.
The Jayhawks' schedule on those days involved a 7 a.m. wakeup — which can be as early as 5:30 or 6 a.m. for players who require treatment — followed by a 7:30 a.m. offensive meeting and walkthrough. Then the players eat a meal and head to the stadium, all before 9 a.m. on a Saturday.
"Everyone's different. Some people like to sleep in, some people are early-morning risers," said quarterback Peyton Bender.
Anyone stand out in that second group?
"Not that I know of," Bender said with a laugh. "They kind of force us to be morning people, though."
It shouldn't come as any semblance of a shock that players relish the chance to sleep in.
It's also no excuse for the Jayhawks' performances over the last four weeks of the season, since their opponents have to wake up at the same time.
Still, the change is welcome.
"One thing that we've learned through our years is that you can't get them to take the rest on the front end. Kids just don't do it. Neither do we," said KU coach David Beaty. "They'll sleep in the morning, but they won't sleep at night. They're going to bed when they go to bed. That's just the way it is."
Some players handle the schedule better than others.
Redshirt junior Joe Dineen identified junior wideout Jeremiah Booker as someone who consistently brings energy no matter what time it is.
Dineen admittedly isn't much of a morning person himself, though he still manages to make it to the field on time.
"The thing with me is I get really nervous and I get anxiety so it's hard for me to sleep the night before a game anyways, let alone if I have to wake up early," Dineen said. "I'm not tired before the game, though. I'll tell you that. I get up and ready to go before the game. But maybe when I first get up I'm a little sleepy."
On the road, Dineen rooms with former Free State High teammate Keith Loneker Jr. — "Loud. Loud. Snores. Loud. Phone is loud," Dineen jokes of Loneker's morning habits — but that isn't where the biggest problems happen.
The night before a game, especially on the road, the coaches can just about guarantee players have their lights turned out by 10 or 10:30 p.m., depending on the schedule.
The rest of the week, however...
"It's critical," said defensive coordinator Clint Bowen. "That's where sometimes having older, mature kids is a little bit better. You know these guys in their first, second, even third year of college, it's still kind of fun for 'em."
The coaches address that very thing with the players. In addition to conversations about sleep and decision-making throughout the week, players can also read articles posted on the wall of the weight room with studies relating sleep to peak performance, reaction time and memory, according to Dineen.
That being said, the coaches aren't blind to the idea that college kids are going to be, well, college kids.
"You know what I mean," Bowen said with a smile. "You remember those first few years."
The KU defense has already had its fair share of problems in 2017.
The young secondary has been exposed by a trio of MAC quarterbacks, while a pass rush featuring the preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year has been widely held in check.
Then there's the injury bug, something that hits just about every team at some point and has, for the second straight year, ended the season of a starter in KU's front seven.
"Isi Holani, unfortunately his injury is going to be a season-ending injury," said KU coach David Beaty. "He injured his knee in the game a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately he's not going to be available for the rest of the year."
The silver lining, Beaty noted, is fairly obvious.
Holani will get the chance to return for a redshirt senior season in 2018 and should help mitigate the void left by the potential early departures of Daniel Wise and Dorance Armstrong. But there's also the other side.
Holani, along with J.J. Holmes, impressed the coaches throughout the fall. So much so, in fact, that it helped afford KU the luxury to shift the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Wise to the outside of the line on occasion, creating a rather physically imposing defensive line configuration.
"I thought it was going to be a really big year for (Holani)," Beaty said.
But while KU won't be able to go with that specific pairing anymore, Beaty seems confident others can step up.
At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, the coach mentioned Jacky Dezir, DeeIsaac Davis and, of course, Holmes and Wise as the players that could continue to fill in on the inside.
"In a lot of years, boy, (it'd) really devastate you, really devastate you," Beaty said. "Luckily, fortunately, we actually have some depth at the D-tackle area."
It hasn't played out quite as well so far.
Even though the numbers haven't been pretty, the KU defensive line has had its moments. Just look at this series from Week 3.
Wise and Armstrong are the edge rushers, while Dezir and Holmes are slotted inside. As the play progresses, both Ohio's left guard and tackle focus on Holmes and the right guard tries to pull around the line and block Armstrong.
Instead, Armstrong singlehandedly blows up the play.
Even though the running back was trying to get outside on the counter, Armstrong’s quick step inside forced the right guard to try and come back and grab him. That opened up space for Joe Dineen to burst past the line of scrimmage and ultimately chase Dorian Brown down from behind.
The whole back end of the KU defense actually does a pretty solid job of staying disciplined, too. Tyrone Miller Jr., Mike Lee and Shakial Taylor are all around where Brown is taken out of bounds.
And that discipline continued into second down.
The defensive line configuration is the same here, and the play is simple enough. It’s an option, so the quarterback can hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself if nothing opens up.
Unsurprisingly, Wise garners a ton of attention at the edge rusher spot. Two Ohio linemen come over and basically hug him to keep him from being involved in the play. Dezir and Holmes do a solid job maintaining the line of scrimmage and not getting pushed back and linebacker Osaze Ogbebor fills the remaining space up front.
Since there’s no hole for the running back, quarterback Nathan Rourke has to keep the ball. On the other side of the line, Dorance Armstrong and Joe Dineen are waiting to bring him down for a loss.
"Me and Daniel, we've been together since the start of this thing," Armstrong said. "The more comfortable you are with somebody, the more trust you have in them. And there's no doubt that I really trust Daniel."
And it doesn’t work without that trust.
The very next play, KU shifts its alignment, moving Wise to the inside of the line and swapping Dezir out for Josh Ehambe.
The Jayhawks blitz, but the Bobcats actually have more blockers (seven) than the Jayhawks do pass rushers (six).
The extra blocker on the right side of the offensive line does a decent job trying to help block Wise while forcing Ogbebor to the outside, but once he commits, Wise is left one-on-one with the right tackle, who he blows by.
In the meantime, Ehambe draws the attention of the right guard and Holmes plows his way through a double-team, setting up what happens next.
Wise is first into the backfield, forcing Rourke to step up in the pocket as he applies pressure. Holmes comes away with the sack, and even if he hadn't, Ehambe was there to finish off the play.
Simple enough... at least in theory.
Not all of the Ohio touchdowns were on the KU defensive line. The secondary was picked apart by Ohio's quarterbacks, and even when KU was able to dial up the pressure, it only took a second or two for the ball to come out.
Still, KU was in the game in the third quarter. After cutting the lead to 11, the Jayhawks had the chance to hold the Ohio defense to a field goal, but needed to come up with a stand as the Bobcats had the ball at the eight-yard line.
Holmes wasn't in on the first-down play and Holani wasn't available for the game, so Davis and Dezir were the two interior linemen. It didn't go so well.
The line did an OK job of not getting pushed back, but there was no penetration or disruption or any sort of resistance to keep Ohio’s A.J. Ouellette from running from the right hashmark at the 10-yard line to the corner of the endzone on the opposite side of the field untouched.
This play didn't fall on any one player, but if Davis was able to push his man back at all, Ouellette would've had to take a wider route and Lee would've had the chance to catch him near the line of scrimmage.
The same goes for Wise, but with the tight end having the sole job to keep him inside, it really fell on Davis to win that one-on-one matchup enough for someone else to come in and make the tackle.
Here’s an example of what it might have looked like if he had.
In this play from the season opener against SEMO, Wise and Armstrong are the edge rushers with Holani and Holmes on the inside.
From the snap, Holani shoves the right guard deep into the backfield and actually into the path of both the running back and his lead blocker, tight end Logan Larson.
"Isi is a guy that you'd love to have there because he's a big A-gap body," Beaty said. "You like to have that big old rear-end right there in that A-gap and it's hard to move."
Because of the narrow running lane, Larson isn't able to get a solid block on Joe Dineen, and Dineen instead drives him back into the path of the running back. From there, Lee comes up to the line of scrimmage and makes the tackle.
Things worked just as smoothly on the next play.
The configuration here is a little different. Armstrong and Ehambe are the edge rushers, while Wise joins Holani on the inside.
Holani doesn't blow things up by himself, but he is able to shove the guard back a couple steps. Armstrong does his part, getting in the way in case the running back tries to bounce outside and Wise finishes the play off.
Now, it's worth pointing out the level of competition has gone up since Week 1. But KU hasn't been able to get that same level of penetration consistently against MAC opponents, and that doesn't bode well as things figure to get even tougher with the start of Big 12 play looming.
If things don't improve, it may end up costing the Jayhawks' one of their best defensive assets.
Wise's versatility filling in at different spots on the defensive line has been a wrinkle that has aided the pass run and earned him some early honors as well. Pro Football Talk named him to the Big 12 team of the week with a grade of 86.1 against Ohio.
PFF Week 3 - Big 12 Team of the Week - Defense pic.twitter.com/hElOsNoceP— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 19, 2017
But while Wise's speed and track background — "I've never seen a guy with his body size be able to move as fast and as quick as he does," Armstrong said — creates problems for opponents, KU may be forced to keep him inside if the defensive tackles behind Holmes can't step up.
That being said, the coaches maintained their confidence in the line throughout the week, even if, as defensive coordinator Clint Bowen said, Holani has left a big void to fill.
"It definitely does hurt. Isi was doing some really good things for us and allowed us another big body in the middle. And he was playing well," Bowen said. "The combination of him and J.J. in the middle was something that we were excited about doing and keeping Daniel on the end and having that bigger package.
"There are some other guys that just have to step up and replace those reps."
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."