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KU football interim HC countdown: No. 10, A.J. Ricker

First-year Kansas offensive line coach A.J. Ricker watches over his position players during warmups at practice on Monday, April 23, 2018.

First-year Kansas offensive line coach A.J. Ricker watches over his position players during warmups at practice on Monday, April 23, 2018. by Nick Krug

In the event Kansas decides to turn to an interim head coach at some point this season, I'm doing a series of blogs counting down to the most assistant coach on David Beaty's who would make the most sense to take on interim duties, should it come to that.

The last thing first-year Kansas offensive line coach A.J. Ricker needs on his plate is adding head coaching duties to trying to build a cohesive unit on the fly with graduate transfers starting at three positions. Ricker has the toughest job in the Big 12 as it is, trying to mold an offensive line in a program that didn’t have enough blockers to play a spring game.

As long as he isn’t asked to also become the head coach, which he won’t be, Ricker will teach and motivate this line, which had a terrible opener, to improvement.

As Missouri offensive line coach in 2014, Ricker coaxed enough in-season progress out of his unit that an offensive line with one starter returning to play the same position as the previous season performed well enough for Missouri to make it to the SEC title game.

If Ricker were promoted to interim head coach, which again he won’t be, either director of recruiting Tyler Olker or defensive analyst Dirk Wedd could take over as offensive line coach, at which point Wedd might be allowed to do interviews.

Then again, maybe not. Under the current policy, Beaty is the only football coach who will do interviews this season, unless and until he is relieved of his duties or changes his mind.

Unlike most programs and at Kansas in previous seasons, the offensive and defensive coordinators and the rest of the coaches on Beaty’s staff are blocked from talking to the media. Not only do analysts not do interviews, no assistant coaches do interviews starting with the first game week.

Reply 18 comments from Rob Byrd Titus Canby Cora Smith Joe Ross Msherby1013 Bryson  Stricker Robert  Brock Len Shaffer Table_rock_jayhawk Jasontodd and 5 others

Saturday’s football opener pits global roster vs. hyper local one

Kansas tight end Mavin Saunders snaps his helmet during practice on Tuesday, April 17, 2018.

Kansas tight end Mavin Saunders snaps his helmet during practice on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. by Nick Krug

Since accepting the job as Kansas football head coach, David Beaty consistently has believed in competing for jobs continuing right into the brink of the season and beyond.

The thinking is that it keeps everyone battling every day as if their job depends on it because it does.

That’s one approach, but what if a coach had the confidence to know that he can motivate players to give their best in practice without it seeming as if they can work onto or fall off the depth chart with one or two good or bad practices? There would be an upside to that. Fewer players on the depth chart means more reps for those who are on it.

That’s one of several differences between KU and Nicholls, an FCS school, heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. kickoff at Kansas David Booth Memorial Stadium.

Kansas has 31 names on its offensive depth chart, 31 on defense for a total of 62. Nicholls has 22 listed on offense, 24 on defense for a total of 46.

It’s reasonable to draw the conclusion then that Nicholls players who will appear in games get more practice reps than KU’s.

Another difference: KU’s roster has a global feel to it, whereas Nicholls has a hyperlocal one. KU has players on its depth chart from 15 states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. The Bahamas (tight end Mavin Saunders) and Canada (center Alex Fontana) also are represented.

The Colonels on the depth chart for offense and defense come from two states: Louisiana and Mississippi.

Reply 9 comments from Michael Maris Halogenlampss Dirk Medema Blogthis Dale Rogers Bryson  Stricker Len Shaffer Pius Waldman

KU football MVP Countdown: No. 6, Pooka Williams

Kansas freshman running back Pooka Williams scoots past senior linebacker Osaze Ogbebor during practice drills on Aug. 4, 2018

Kansas freshman running back Pooka Williams scoots past senior linebacker Osaze Ogbebor during practice drills on Aug. 4, 2018

The Kansas football newcomer I most look forward to seeing in Saturday's 6 p.m. season opener vs. Nicholls is, without question, running back Anthony "Pooka" Williams, for a variety of reasons.

Stories told about him spinning, cutting so sharply, even leaping over a linebacker in practice make me more excited than I can ever recall being about a newcomer in 14 seasons of covering KU football.

And the fact that he does this all without any toes on his left foot makes him all the more intriguing a story. He lost them in a lawnmower accident at about the age of 7, Williams told the New Orleans Advocate.

At first, Williams told the Advocate, “It was hard to make cuts and stuff. But after a while, I just got used to it. Now, I plant soft. I don’t plant hard. I can plant hard. But when it first happened, I wasn’t able to plant hard on it. Now, I can do anything on (the foot) now."

Pooka — how many athletes don't need their last names, just their nicknames, for most to know who you're talking about before making their college debuts? — made an early verbal commitment to Kansas, but at the same time said his recruitment was wide open. LSU, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Nebraska, UCLA and others wanted him, provided he was cleared academically. KU was the first to offer, back when his chances of gaining academic clearance looked iffy, and in the end, he remained loyal to KU and running backs coach Tony Hull.

As a senior, the muscular Pooka rushed for 3,118 yards and 37 touchdowns, leading Hahnville High into the 5A state title game.

"He's the kind that can change a program," Hahnville coach Nick Saltaformaggio told the Advocate on signing day. "If he's got good football players around him, he can be electric. Going into that conference, it fits his skill set. It's a conference not known for playing defense and playing wide-open offense and that's what he wants. It's almost like they are playing Canadian football so he'll fit right in with his skill set."

The key words in that quote are "if he's got good football players around him."

Pooka can't do it alone and will need run blocks and accurate passes followed by good blocks to showcase his elite speed when rushing, receiving and returning kickoffs. Williams and fellow sprinter Ryan Schadler are listed at the top of the depth chart for that special teams unit.

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KU football MVP Countdown: No. 7, Hakeem Adeniji

Kansas offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji runs through warmups on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017 at the grass fields adjacent to Hoglund Ballpark.

Kansas offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji runs through warmups on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017 at the grass fields adjacent to Hoglund Ballpark. by Nick Krug

An allergy to cashews denied Hakeem Adeniji his medical waiver at the Air Force Academy so he had to find a new school at the last minute.

That little stroke of luck for Kansas landed the Jayhawks an offensive lineman who has started all 24 games of his career, most of them at left tackle.

A torn labrum in each shoulder didn’t keep Adeniji from playing last season and he had both injuries addressed in offseason surgery. He didn’t participate in spring practice but was at full speed for fall camp.

He’s smart and he cares about becoming as good a football player as possible. The next steps for him will be to continue to get stronger, to use that strength aggressively and to use his intelligence to communicate more aggressively.

Adeniji has a better stable of veteran leaders to model as a junior than he did during his freshman season, thanks to a slew of graduate transfers beefing up the KU O-line.

It’s difficult to say whether a player who doesn’t bring a nasty streak onto the field can develop one, but even if Adeniji doesn’t, his ability to play through pain and move his feet make him KU’s best option at left tackle. He has a shot to leave Kansas after the 2019 season having started all 48 games of his career, which would be quite an accomplishment.

Reply 2 comments from Dirk Medema Mlbenn35

KU football MVP Countdown: No. 8, Mike Lee

Team Jayhawk running back Ryan Schadler (33) is hit after the catch by Team KU safety Mike Lee (11) during the fourth quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team Jayhawk running back Ryan Schadler (33) is hit after the catch by Team KU safety Mike Lee (11) during the fourth quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Not all safeties play alike. Some blend brains and speed. Think: Ed Reed and Darrell Stuckey.

Others live to tee off on the man holding the football. Think: Rod Harrison and Mike Lee.

A junior who graduated high school a year early to get a jump start on his Kansas football career, Lee truly enjoys delivering punishing blows. That’s a good thing. He sometimes goes too far out of his way to search the next victims of his bruising tackles. That's not always so good.

The coaching staff appreciates the way Lee’s hard hits can shake opponents, but forever want to see more discipline out of him. If it doesn’t come by now, it’s not likely to develop.

Lee’s best game in a Kansas uniform came in KU’s best game in years in 2016, late in his freshman season. Lee intercepted a pass in overtime to give Kansas the ball for its game-winning possession vs. Texas. Earlier, he had forced a D’Onta Foreman fumble, setting up KU’s game-tying field goal.

He plays with athleticism and a fearlessness, making him a fan favorite. More consistency and soundness is needed, but even if that is slow in coming there is a value to having an enforcer no Big 12 offensive player looks forward to facing. He’s one of KU’s most exciting players and has a lot Cajun charisma as well.

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KU football MVP Countdown: No. 9, Dom Williams

University of Kansas running back Dom Williams

University of Kansas running back Dom Williams by Carter Gaskins

All practices in fall camp were closed to the media, but word seeped about a few things here and there, such as Dom Williams having a very good camp.

A shoulder injury and a lack of blocks slowed Williams during his freshman season, but he showed potential, making sharp cuts and showing good speed.

He has added a layer of muscle this season, which could help him break more tackles and become more durable.

Williams rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns last season and averaged 3.5 yards per carry, not a great average but second on the team only to Khalil Herbert (5.5) among running backs. He combined for 105 rushing yards in the first two weeks of the season and then rushed for just 71 yards for the rest of the season.

Reply 1 comment from Pius Waldman

KU football MVP Countdown: No. 10, Evan Fairs

Kansas wide receiver Evan Fairs (19) has a pass in the end zone knocked away by Texas Tech defensive back D.J. Polite-Bray (3) and Texas Tech defensive back Octavious Morgan (5) during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas wide receiver Evan Fairs (19) has a pass in the end zone knocked away by Texas Tech defensive back D.J. Polite-Bray (3) and Texas Tech defensive back Octavious Morgan (5) during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

If the Kansas offense is going to sizzle in a way it hasn’t in several years, better blocking will need to be there, of course. But that’s not the only area that needs to improve.

The Jayhawks need a receiver to have a breakout year so that Steven Sims isn’t the only consistent target for the quarterback.

Evan Fairs, son of former Houston Oilers linebacker Eric Fairs, is best equipped to become that guy.

At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he’s a big target and should be a good blocker as well. Fairs ranked third on the team in receptions last season behind Sims and graduated tight end Ben Johnson with 24 receptions. Fairs averaged 13.96 yards per reception and scored one touchdown.

He made bringing more consistency to practice daily his goal after coaches let him know he wasn’t cutting it in that regard and feedback on his progress in that area has been good. Fairs showed flashes last season. Now he needs to show consistency and improve a great deal on last season’s production (24 receptions, 13.96 average, one touchdown).

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KU football MVP Countdown: No. 11, Corione Harris

Kansas cornerback Corione Harris picks off a pass to Kansas wide receiver Kerr Johnson Jr. (14) during an open practice on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas cornerback Corione Harris picks off a pass to Kansas wide receiver Kerr Johnson Jr. (14) during an open practice on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

He’s not there yet, won’t start in the opener, and in fact is one of two players listed on second team at one cornerback position, so there is a chance Corione Harris won’t be on the field for long stretches early in the season.

Yet, Harris was rated higher in high school than any Kansas recruit since websites started ranking the top 100 players, so he obviously has a lot of potential.

Most cornerbacks this early in their careers are doing too much thinking about technique and where they’re supposed to be on the field and aren’t yet playing with free minds. Once Harris reaches the point where he’s reacting and not thinking so much, he could make a big impact.

Nobody describes him as a freak athlete, just a good one. He also has a reputation for liking to hit, so the ingredients are all there. He just needs time.

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KU football MVP Countdown: No. 12, Peyton Bender

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender throws during the Jayhawks' second practice of preseason camp, on Aug. 4, 2018.

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender throws during the Jayhawks' second practice of preseason camp, on Aug. 4, 2018. by Carter Gaskins

Kansas doesn't have as much speed at receiver as most Big 12 schools so getting separation from the defense consistently is a challenge. Windows seldom open wide, so when one does crack open, it's imperative the ball is delivered quickly. Therein lies the biggest difference between Peyton Bender and Carter Stanley. Bender has a very quick release, noticeably quicker than Stanley's.

Stanley can buy time better with his feet, as can Miles Kendrick. Both reserve quarterbacks have enough running ability that they can be used for scripted runs and they both have peppier body language than Bender, all important factors, yet none of which outweigh Bender's ability to deliver passes to all areas of the field in timely fashion.

Bender needs pass protection to be effective and that is as good an explanation as any as to why his production dropped off so severely once the nonconference portion of the schedule gave way to Big 12 play. He averaged 343.3 yards passing in the first three games of 2017 and never reached 200 yards in a Big 12 game.

During those back-to-back weeks when the Kansas offense stalled into a state of inertia vs. Iowa State and TCU, a pair of shutouts, Bender threw a combined 35 passes and averaged 1.6 yards per attempt.

There certainly is reason to believe he will be protected better this season, which should lead to better production. Still, it's not as if he'll have tons of time or will have the luxury of throwing to wide-open receivers. Playing quarterback for Kansas remains a daunting challenge. All indications are that head coach David Beaty and offensive coordinator Doug Meacham are in agreement that Bender gives the offense its best chance to compete.

Facing Nicholls State, ranked No. 17 in the nation by FCS coaches, in Week 1, and a rebuilding Central Michigan squad in Week 2, gives Bender a chance to get off to a quick start. He should have quite a bit more time throw in both games than he had during the Big 12 season and might even develop strong chemistry during that time with a receiver in addition to star Steven Sims. Evan Fairs maybe?

Reply 7 comments from Ronfranklin Bryson  Stricker Steve Corder

KU football MVP Countdown: No. 13, Kevin Feder

Kevin Feder

Kevin Feder

Ohio State recruited Kevin Feder out of a New Jersey high school and had high hopes for the offensive tackle, hopes that never were realized because a foot injury sidelined him for two seasons. He was cleared to play in 2017, but never made his way onto the depth chart.

Feder announced in a tweet in January his intentions to leave Ohio State as a graduate transfer at the end of the 2018 school year. He likely will start Saturday at right tackle against Nicholls State.

In his tweet announcing his transfer, Feder made it clear he has no ill will toward Ohio State and he thanked a big coaching name from KU's recent football past.

3:46 update: Good news: Feder and Alex Fontana were made available for interviews Tuesday for the first time. Benton interviewed Feder for a story later in the week. I'll be putting up column on Fontana later today.

"Also, huge thanks to coach Warinner for recruiting and believing in me when I first made my decision to attend OSU," Feder tweeted of former Kansas offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, now working as offensive line coach at Michigan.

Feder is listed at 6-foot-9 and 300 pounds. The current KU football media policy precludes players who have not yet played in a game from doing interviews, although that wasn't the policy in the spring. So juco transfers at the semester were able to do interviews in the spring, but the college graduates who joined the program in June have been restricted from doing interviews.

Feder did an interview with Foxsports.com during his freshman season at Ohio State.

"I was always too big to play football when I was little so I went to wrestling," Feder told Foxsports.com. "So I would always work on my footwork, my leverage, my speed and cardio and all that stuff."

In that same story, Warinner said of Feder: "They love him in the weight room.He got an award this summer for maybe being the hardest working freshman. He loves to grind.”

Reply 5 comments from Dirk Medema Pius Waldman Tom Keegan Ronfranklin Chrisdeweese