According to the most important numbers — the ones corresponding with wins and losses — 2016 didn’t look too remarkable for the University of Kansas football program, as the Jayhawks won two games and lost 10.
Using only those digits, the season seemed similar to the six before it for KU, during which three head coaches and one interim coach led the team. In a seven-year stretch from 2010 to 2016, Kansas never won more than three games in a season, and finished with an average record of 2-10.
So it’s easy to lump the latest campaign with the rest of the ugly falls that preceded it. However, doing so doesn’t take into account the context of watching David Beaty’s second KU football team far outperform his first in terms of competence and competitiveness. The numbers 2 and 10 don’t factor in the many talented players who improved this past season, positively impacting the product on the field and giving the fan base some signs of real progress
Here is a look at the 10 Jayhawks who made the biggest impact for KU football in 2016 — a year that could end up marking a turning point for a long-struggling program.
For all the work assistant coach Hull put in during practices and with game preparation for the team’s running backs, he also quickly established himself as an important individual in KU’s recruiting strategy during his first year with the program.
A former high school coach in New Orleans, Hull’s ties to the region already have helped Kansas bring in talents such as safety Mike Lee, who became a key defensive starter, and quarterback Tyriek Starks, who took a redshirt season. Hull also served as lead recruiter on Class of 2017 commitments Takulve Williams (two-star receiver) and Travis Jordan (three-star athlete). Plus, his presence has helped the Jayhawks earn consideration from still available touted prospects, such as Brad Stewart, a four-star defensive back.
With Hull in place, Kansas seems in position to target quality recruits in a part of the country where it otherwise might not have been able to get involved.
During his senior season at Kansas, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound offensive lineman played anywhere position coach Zach Yenser needed him. Banks began the year playing left tackle, because Jordan Shelley-Smith was injured and true freshman Hakeem Adeniji wasn’t ready yet. The Killeen, Texas, native even started a game at right guard at Memphis, as KU continued to tweak its O-line combinations.
The final eight games of the year, Banks returned to his rightful spot at right tackle, and down the stretch KU’s O-line became more effective, with the help of the senior leader.
True, the redshirt freshman quarterback only started three games for Kansas this past season, but Stanley’s presence on the field coincided with by far the best stretch of 2016 for the Jayhawks.
Stanley, of course, controlled the offense during the team’s overtime victory over Texas — KU’s lone Big 12 victory. The 6-foot-2, 196-pound QB actually had better individual numbers in KU losses against Iowa State (26-for-38, 171 yards, TD, interception) and at Kansas State (24-for-44, 302 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions).
With Stanley at QB, KU consistently competed, and that couldn’t be said for other stretches of the season.
In 2015, the Kansas defense routinely blew tackles and coverages, contributing mightily to a woeful 0-12 campaign. A year later, Bowen and his assistants turned the Jayhawks’ defense into a strength.
In Big 12 play this past year, KU ranked first in the conference in third-down conversion defense (37.4 percent), second in pass defense (248.0 yards allowed a game), third in red-zone defense (78 percent), and fifth in interceptions (eight), sacks (22) and opponent first downs (24.2 a game).
The work Bowen, linebackers coach Todd Bradford, cornerbacks coach Kenny Perry and D-line coach Michael Slater did with their players set the tone for a season highlighted by headway.
When the true freshman safety graduated early from high school and arrived on campus ready to play a year ahead of schedule, no one expected Lee to transform so quickly into a play-maker.
The 5-foot-11, 176-pound defensive back from New Orleans came off the bench in his first three appearances for Kansas and did not play at all in Week 2. But Lee’s hard hits became one of the consistent bright spots for Kansas, beginning with the team’s Big 12 opener at Texas Tech.
From that point on, while at times learning on the fly, the first-year safety started the final eight games. Lee, whose overtime interception versus Texas will be remembered for a long time at Memorial Stadium, finished second on the team in total tackles (77), while tying KU’s leader in that category, senior safety Fish Smithson, for the most solo tackles (70).
The Kansas offense often didn’t look pretty this past year, but when it peaked Sims often played a prominent role. The 5-foot-10, 176-pound wide receiver became someone opposing defensive coordinators had to game-plan to stop.
Sims’ breakout sophomore season included four games of 100-plus yards, as he led KU in receptions (72), yardage (859) and touchdowns (seven). His confidence and maturity showed on the field and off, as he worked to become an impact player as an underclassman while operating in a system that used three different starting quarterbacks and ranked eighth in passing (231.9 yards per game) and last in scoring (17.8 points a game) in Big 12 play.
The head coach’s first season doubling as offensive coordinator might not have gone as well as he wanted, but ultimately the notable overall progress within the program happened under his watch, and Beaty deserves credit for the strides made by the players and in recruiting.
Beaty’s undying positivity trickles down throughout the team, and that showed during the final month of the season. Although the Jayhawks struggled much of the year, they finally began playing at a higher level in the final weeks, when players under a lesser leader could have mentally and physically checked out.
Day after day, Beaty found ways to win over players and prospects, building momentum for a 2017 with increased expectations.
Speaking of positivity, you won’t meet many more upbeat players than Smithson, a defensive captain and outgoing senior. Week after week for the past couple of seasons, the safety had to answer media questions about KU’s shortcomings, and never did he let it impact him negatively.
Smithson’s personality helped his production on the field, too. Even when he made a mistake on one snap, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety would come back the next ready to demand more of himself.
As he walks away from the program, the Jayhawks will not only miss his 93 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and seven pass breakups, but also his leadership and ability to get his teammates in the right spots.
When the Kansas defense needed a stop, the man breaking through with a crucial push at the point of attack tended to be Wise, the powerful, 6-foot-3, 285-pound defensive tackle form Lewisville, Texas.
The talkative sophomore had the sills to back up any in-game (or pre-game) chatter he sent in the direction of the opposition, thanks to an offseason filled with work toward vastly improving his strength and technique. Playing a position where it can be difficult to accumulate much statistical proof of one’s worth, Wise finished seventh on the team in total tackles, with 38, while making 10 tackles for loss and three sacks, and even blocking two extra points.
Wise’s presence made it easier for his teammates around him to do their jobs, too, as offenses game-planned to limit how the tackle could impact the line of scrimmage.
In his sophomore season at KU, Armstrong transformed into one of the most feared defensive ends around, easily making him a consensus All-Big 12 first-teamer.
Fittingly, the 6-foot-4, 246-pound lineman from Houston’s most complete performance came in the Jayhawks’ victory over Texas — the program’s beacon of better things to come. Armstrong not only made 11 total tackles, but aded two sacks, three tackles for loss, while both forcing and recovering a fumble.
Armstrong’s 20 tackles for loss on the season made him the Big 12’s leader in that category, and he finished second in sacks (10) to Kansas State senior — and fellow all-league D-lineman — Jordan Willis (11.5).
If Kansas, under Beaty, can start climbing out of the ditch it has lived in since Mark Mangino left, Armstrong is the type of star player the coach needs to make it happen.