Seven steps to a 3-0 start for Kansas football
The three-game, nonconference portion of the Kansas football schedule features no fewer than three must-watch games, each one packed with the potential to be decided on the final drive.
Think about it: Which of the three games can you say with any degree of conviction that Kansas will win with relative ease? None, if you’re being brutally honest with yourself.
Now, which of the three can you say with any degree of certainty the Jayhawks will lose? None, if you’re forgetting all the years of empty promises and looking at this season in a vacuum.
Given those parameters it’s well within reason to think that fourth-year Kansas coach David Beaty can win as many games in the first three weeks of 2018 as he won in his first three seasons combined.
That’s right, it’s possible Beaty could win as many games (three) in his next three games as he won in his first 36 games.
But it won’t be easy.
A look at seven factors that, if they all break right for KU, would make it reasonable to expect the Jayhawks to knock off Nicholls State, Central Michigan (on the road) and Rutgers in succession:
1 - Quick winner in quarterback competition: If it drags on it could be because of any number of factors, none of them good. It could mean that none of the three candidates is performing well enough to make it obvious he needs to be the leader of the offense. Or it could mean that offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and head coach David Beaty don’t agree on either what the QB needs to show or who is looking the best. Either way, that disharmony would be counterproductive to developing a winning chemistry.
The sooner one of the quarterbacks — listed alphabetically Peyton Bender, Miles Kendrick, Carter Stanley — wins the job, the better.
2 - A commitment to slowing the tempo and emphasizing the run: Meacham tried to bring the fast tempo Air Raid offense he taught elsewhere to KU but the personnel to execute it wasn’t there and the faster the offense tried to get off snaps, the quicker the gassed defense had to return to the field. He pulled the reins on the hurry-up, but still didn't use as much of the play clock as could have been used. The more incomplete passes KU threw, the slower the clock moved, which enabled the opposition to run more plays.
KU has three talented running backs in Khalil Herbert, Pooka Williams and Dom Williams. Let them eat yards and clock and let the defense breathe.
3 - The development of a solid interior offensive line trio: All it would take for a bar owner to know he wants to hire new offensive line coach A.J. Ricker to serve as bouncer is to take one look at the man. Listen to him talk football and it’s obvious he loves linemen who lead with their faces, grunt a lot and love run-blocking. Ricker’s predecessor, Zach Yenser, had more experience with pass-happy Air Raid offenses.
Now the challenge for Ricker becomes finding competent blockers. If he can identify three interior O-linemen and coach them up in time for the Sept. 1 season opener, a running game that moves the chains might be on deck.
The three keys to making that happen: Guards Chris Hughes, a sophomore, and junior Andru Tovi, and center Alex Fontana, a senior graduate transfer from University of Houston. They're the leading candidates to nail down those positions and guard Malik Clark will try to win a job too. Hughes, who missed the final two games of his redshirt freshman season with an injury, showed enough potential to indicate he might have the best career of any O-lineman currently in the program.
4 - Evan Fairs emerges as tall target: At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Fairs brings more size than top receiver Steven Sims, and he’s no slow poke either. Son of former Houston Oilers linebacker Eric Fairs, Evan showed enough in a few road games last season to suggest he’ll be a big part of the offense this season.
He had three catches for 77 yards at Ohio, seven for 104 yards at Texas, and two for 44 yards and a touchdown in the season finale at Oklahoma State.
5 - Elijah Jones doesn’t need an adjustment period: Cornerbacks, even very talented ones, can arrive from junior college lacking in fundamentals and need time to tighten up their games. Every once in a while, a corner is ready to go right away. Jones, agile and fast, 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, would have been recruited by perennial powerhouses if he had cleared earlier all of the academic hurdles that created doubt in the minds of recruiters. As it was, he committed to UCF, then switched to Kansas, rejecting an offer from Iowa State. He could make a huge difference if he’s ready immediately for the move up in competition.
6 - Mike Lee turns experience into polish: There is a value to having a safety who rocks receivers and running backs so hard he pitches a tent in the backs of their minds, but Lee’s value at times has been curtailed by not always being in the right place at the right time. If this is the year he becomes as sound as he is exciting, that will toughen up the defense against the run and pass.
7 - An edge rusher shows a knack for sacks: A maniacal quarterback hunter is a secondary’s best friend. Kansas needs someone to show he has that capability early in order to occupy special attention from opposing offenses. Could it be sophomore outside linebacker Kyron Johnson? One of the junior-college defensive ends: Foster Dixson, Azur Kamara, Najee Stevens-McKenzie? Plenty of candidates to believe at least one will become a force.