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Kansas football’s top 25 difference-makers: No. 4, QB Peyton Bender

Kansas junior quarterback Peyton Bender throws during the spring game, on Saturday, April 15, at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas junior quarterback Peyton Bender throws during the spring game, on Saturday, April 15, at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Tom Keegan and I collaborated on a list of 25 potential difference-makers for the Kansas football team in 2017 and will release one each weekday leading up to the Sept. 2 season-opener vs. SEMO, at Memorial Stadium. We will list them in reverse order of how indispensable/potentially impactful they are for KU's hopes of having a more competitive season.

The first Saturday of the Kansas football season is upon us, and so, too, is the highly anticipated KU debut of junior quarterback Peyton Bender.

Expected to be the kind of QB the program has lacked for years, Bender, a 6-foot-1 former Mike Leach protégé at Washington State, where he spent his first two seasons, has the familiarity with the Air Raid offense to not just hit the ground running, but hit the turf throwing.

Although the hundreds of quick reads and releases he has made at KU practices through the spring, summer seven-on-sevens and preseason have come almost exclusively behind closed gates, fans and everyone else who cares enough to follow the Jayhawks closely will finally see what Bender can do to invigorate a long-stumbling offense this weekend, versus Southeast Missouri State (6 p.m. kickoff, Memorial Stadium).

Third-year head coach David Beaty hasn’t said as much publicly, but Bender is the inevitable starter entering the season, and is poised to take off with the help of first-year KU offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, a deep receiving corps and what Beaty extols as a much-improved offensive line.

No one is proclaiming Bender as a program-altering talent, but Beaty, Meacham and his teammates often during the past several weeks have referenced the ball security displayed during practices and scrimmages.

“The thing that has stuck out to me is just management of a team, and management is a lot of things,” Beaty said of what encouraged him during camp about Bender and redshirt sophomore Carter Stanley. “The number one thing is taking care of the football, not putting the ball in jeopardy and seeing us really focus on an area that we were not very good at last year, which was throwing the ball to the other team.”

And while Bender so often is characterized as a smart read-and-react pocket passer, his position coach, Garrett Riley, says the aspiring Air Raid expert can do more than put the ball on the money.

“I’ll tell you what, Bender can really make some plays with his feet, as well,” Riley said of the former juco standout’s ability outside of the pocket.”

Bender won’t be asked to play like a young Peyton Manning, but he will be charged with distributing the ball expediently to a variety of targets.

Expect to see more moving chains and scoring drives out of a KU offense than you have in nearly a decade — if you’ve bothered keeping up that long.

The Peyton Bender era is here, and for a change, the Kansas offense shouldn’t be unbearable to watch.

KU football's top 25 difference-makers

25 - Quan Hampton

24 - Ryan Schadler

23 - Taylor Martin

22 - Ben Johnson

21 - Isaiah Bean

20 - Josh Ehambe

19 - Bryce Torneden

18 - Keith Loneker Jr.

17 - Dom Williams

16 - Derrick Neal

15 - Khalil Herbert

14 - Charles Baldwin

13 - Shakial Taylor

12 - Chase Harrell

11 - Joe Dineen

10 - Hasan Defense

9 - Mesa Ribordy

8 - Carter Stanley

7 - Mike Lee

6 - Hakeem Adeniji

5 - Daylon Charlot

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Seven-plus months of competition hasn’t worn on Kansas QBs Bender and Stanley

Kansas redshirt sophomore quarterback Carter Stanley (center) throws during the Jayhawks' Aug. 1 preseason practice. Redshirt freshman Tyriek Starks (left) follows through on a throw next to Stanley, as junior Peyton Bender watches.

Kansas redshirt sophomore quarterback Carter Stanley (center) throws during the Jayhawks' Aug. 1 preseason practice. Redshirt freshman Tyriek Starks (left) follows through on a throw next to Stanley, as junior Peyton Bender watches. by Mike Yoder

Now in the eighth month of their competition to become the Kansas football team’s starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Carter Stanley and junior transfer Peyton Bender haven’t allowed the stress or length of the process get to them.

One of these days (or weeks) one of them will be named the team’s starter and the other will become a backup. Still, both say their similar personalities have allowed them to push and challenge each other on the field while also coexisting peaceably — under the same roof, no less.

Both Stanley and Bender were prep quarterbacks in Florida, and similar interests helped strengthen their bond over the past several months. Bender said they’re both into water sports and KU linebacker Joe Dineen took them and other teammates out on his boat this summer.

It’s not that the two KU quarterbacks disparage competition. Even video game sessions at their house can turn fierce. They simply both know when to turn it on and when to tone it down.

“I think when it comes to football time, as far as practice and seven-on-seven and those sort of things, we’re all-out competing,” Bender said. “We’re going head-to-head. But off the field we have similar interests and like similar things. I think that just created a friendship. And we know on the field we’re competing, but off the field we can still be friends.”

Kansas junior quarterback Peyton Bender fires a pass during a preseason practice on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017.

Kansas junior quarterback Peyton Bender fires a pass during a preseason practice on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. by Mike Yoder

That friendship, Stanley added, allows them to work well together on and off the field as they pursue the same end goal.

“We definitely work hard together and encourage each other to improve, because we know whoever it is — who knows, shoot, it might be both of us — but just for the betterment of the team we have to be at our best so this team can be at its best,” Stanley said.

Kansas quarterbacks coach Garrett Riley doesn’t know that their sound working relationship impacts the competition positively or negatively, but he sees them out at preseason practices constantly challenging each other. Plus, their position coach is pleased to see them taking on a team-first mentality above all.

“You would think maybe it’s unnatural for them to be as close as they are. But I think we talked about it a bunch in our room and job number one is to make everybody else around you better,” Riley said. “Job number two is being a great teammate. That’s in our position room and that’s with the rest of the team, and I think they’ve really embraced that and kind of bonded off the field socially.”

The quarterbacks, of course, feel their battle intensifying of late.

Said Stanley: “I think it’s amplified a little bit, just being fall camp, just knowing you’re that much closer to the season and the potential of a decision being made.”

According to Bender their competition has been escalating since the team returned from a brief July 4 holiday.

“There’s no more breaks. We’re here until the season’s over,” Bender said, explaining that’s it hit him last month that the Sept. 2 opener versus Southeast Missouri State is right around the corner. “It’s really time to start getting serious and really get down to business.”

Their head coach has noticed at August practices both quarterbacks doing all they can to reach the top of the depth chart. David Beaty said during live segments of camp both handled game-like situations well.

“Watching those guys have to play out there by themselves with blitzes coming, and understanding, recognizing coverages, different fronts that were getting thrown at them, I thought they did a really nice job of getting into the correct checks when they needed to,” Beaty said, “getting us into the right calls, and just quite honestly taking what the defense was giving you.”

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Signs of life: QB Carter Stanley exhibits dual-threat ability within Air Raid

Team KU quarterback Carter Stanley (9) throws to a receiver during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team KU quarterback Carter Stanley (9) throws to a receiver during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

In 2016, a rebuilding Kansas football team put a far more sound defense on the field than it did the year before, in head coach David Beaty’s first season. Still, KU’s offense couldn’t produce enough first downs or scoring drives to keep the Jayhawks competitive for much of the season. This coming fall, the Kansas offense will look a lot different. And it should be far more productive.

Over the next several days at KUsports.com, we will highlight some of the spring indications that signal better days ahead for the KU offense.

One of two Kansas football players will be in position this fall to establish himself as the program’s first functional, Big 12-level quarterback since Todd Reesing took his final snap in 2009.

It could be Peyton Bender. Or it could be Carter Stanley. The incumbent starter, thanks to a late-2016 shakeup at QB by head coach David Beaty, Stanley helped orchestrate the program’s first Big 12 victory in two years and showed flashes of promise with his arm, toughness and leadership.

In the offseason months since the conclusion of his redshirt freshman season, the sophomore QB from Vero Beach, Fla., has continued on the upward trajectory that earned Stanley his first three college starts.

This spring, while competing with Bender, a junior transfer who studied the Air Raid under guru Mike Leach at Washington State, Stanley drew praise from coaches and teammates for his performances at practices. During the spring game at Memorial Stadium, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound QB showed — with his arm and his legs — why the competition has been too close for Beaty and new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to decide upon a starter.

Stanley got to play a part in a little trickeration early on during the open scrimmage. After handing the ball off to running back Taylor Martin, who headed right and gave it up to receiver Kerr Johnson Jr., coming on a reverse, a flick back to Stanley set the quarterback up for a throw down the right side to an open Ben Johnson, who finished off the 27-yard gain.

Entering his third year with the program, Stanley looked poised then and at other times during the exhibition. He displayed no panic whatsoever when a snap out of the shotgun was off the mark and bounced off his left hand, landing on the turf in front of him. Stanley just picked up the ball and completed a quick pass over the middle to an open Kerr Johnson Jr.

The unrelated targets with the same last name, Ben and Kerr Johnson proved to be two of Stanley’s favorites throughout the intrasquad practice, as the QB didn’t have the luxury to throwing to frontline receivers Daylon Charlot, Steven Sims Jr. and LaQuvionte Gonzalez. Senior tight end Ben Johnson, who should get more opportunities this fall than he did as a junior, lined up in the slot on the right side within a four-receiver formation. After the snap, Ben Johsnon split defenders Derrick Neal and Keith Loneker Jr. to get open behind them and Stanley put the ball on the money, allowing Johnson to turn up field for a gain of 20 yards.

Team KU quarterback Carter Stanley (9) escapes Team Jayhawk defensive end Kellen Ash (97) during the third quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team KU quarterback Carter Stanley (9) escapes Team Jayhawk defensive end Kellen Ash (97) during the third quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Beaty and Meacham will tell you Stanley and Bender are different types of quarterbacks, and examples to back that up their statements popped up during the scrimmage, when Stanley showed his ability to make plays with his feet.

On a few occasions he looked very comfortable utilizing option reads. Once, out of the pistol formation, Stanley put the ball out for Martin for a potential hand-off, then kept it when he could see defensive linemen collapsing toward the middle of the play, leaving an open lane on the right side for the quarterback. He took off for a 6-yard gain and the play was blown dead (you know, the whole “Let’s not maim our QB” aspect of the spring game), but Stanley ran and shifted so smoothly in the open field it looked as if it would have been a much larger gain in a live game situation.

Later, Stanley made another good read out of a three-WR set, with Martin behind him. The QB put the ball on Martin’s waist, saw Josh Ehambe make a break for the running back and took off right for an 8-yard pick-up.

The lengthiest Stanley rush came via smart improvisation. He dropped back to survey the field as four receivers ran their routes. No one got open enough for the QB to convert a 3rd-and-9, so he made a quick decision to run straight ahead, through a gap that had formed in the middle of the O-line. Stanley out-ran defensive linemen Kellen Ash and Ehambe to get to the second level of the defense. Again, it looked like more yardage would’ve been attainable in a live situation, but the run was blown dead after 11 yards.

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Stanley’s passing totals in the scrimmage — 13-for-24, 114 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions — weren’t as good as Bender’s. But Stanley gained 25 yards via rushes and could have matched his counterpart’s throwing production if he had been working with the same skill players.

The redshirt sophomore won’t win the starting job just because he’s an effective runner, but that wrinkle does make him a different overall weapon as a quarterback than Bender, and Stanley’s coaches certainly won’t hold that against him while deciding on the team’s QB1.

Now that Stanley has a little Big 12 experience and growing confidence to go with increasing competence in the Air Raid system, he is on track to give Kansas a legitimate QB in 2017, should he win the job.

The best news for Beaty and the Jayhawks is both Bender and Stanley look capable of breathing life into a long dormant offense.

More signs of life:

- Expect an upgrade in KU’s depth and production at running back

- Former Alabama WR Daylon Charlot as good as advertised

- Peyton Bender proving why David Beaty had so much confidence in him

- Tom Keegan: KU offense projects as best since 2009

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