Thomas MacVittie was only two-thirds of the way through spring football when he plopped down in one of Mrkonic Auditorium’s numerous seats inside Anderson Family Football Complex.
The University of Kansas quarterback and his teammates had just wrapped up their 10th practice and MacVittie had yet to take off the wristband he uses not to wipe sweat away from his forehead, but as a convenient reminder of the offense’s available play calls.
“These are pretty long,” MacVittie told the Journal-World at the time, glancing down at two laminated notecard-sized lists attached to his wristband, with the name of a different play call printed out on each line.
Although the Jayhawks kept much of the offensive details for Year 1 of the Les Miles era under wraps during media sessions this spring, MacVittie was glad to at least shed some light on the process of learning it all.
KU quarterbacks, MacVittie explained, often reference their wristbands when they’re lined up under center. But the usefulness of the uniform accessory isn’t limited to that situation. The wristbands are most useful for what MacVittie, a junior who joined the program this year as a transfer, described as “the long plays.”
In some situations, the KU offense has two possible plays to run when they line up and the one they choose before the snap depends on what they see from the defense in front of them.
“And we’ve got to check to the right play,” MacVittie explained. “That is what the wristband is for. Those are pretty long.”
How many plays were on there at the moment, with 10 of KU’s 15 spring practices completed?
MacVittie flipped the top flap of plays out of the way and eyed the second card beneath it.
“Umm. Let’s see. We’ve got 34,” the QB replied. “Adding to it every day.”
Throughout the spring, KU’s offensive coaches installed new plays for every practice. And for the Jayhawks who relay those calls to the rest of their teammates before every single snap, that meant huddling up in the QBs room before each of those practices to learn the details.
“This is what we’re gonna go do on the field in an hour,” MacVittie related of offensive coordinator and QBs coach Les Koenning’s typical message during those pre-practice meetings.
“It makes you learn fast, adapt fast and really kind of play on your feet,” MacVittie said of why he appreciated the process. “You can’t be back there thinking. You’ve just kind of got to do. And that comes with preparation, as well.”
Of course, MacVittie took other necessary steps to familiarize himself with the offense, through reviewing practice footage and other measures.
“Every day I come in,” the 6-foot-5, 215-pound QB shared of his spring football study routine. “I think I’m at the facility for probably five hours outside of needing to be. Asking coach to quiz me. Pulling up the film from practice. Kind of getting an edge on any new plays coming in.”
According to MacVittie, quizzes proved to be a valuable factor in his progress. What felt like almost every day throughout the spring, he said, Koenning provided the quarterbacks with brief tests of their playbook knowledge, with the help of senior offensive consultant Brent Dearmon.
Every KU quarterback would be handed a sheet of paper with specific play calls listed. The QBs then had to show off their X’s and O’s abilities by drawing up the plays correctly.
A former reserve QB at Pittsburgh and a starter in 2018 at Mesa Community College (Ariz.), the potential KU starter for Miles’ first season with the Jayhawks, MacVittie said he took pride in doing well on the quizzes, preparing for them by studying the playbook every night.
“They’re random,” MacVittie said of the plays that would show up at test time. “They could be from Day 1, they could be from Day 6. So you’ve really got to know it all.”
By the time the Jayhawks finished up spring football, Miles said they had gone through “at minimum” 50 percent of the offensive playbook. Obviously much more will be installed during preseason camp in August.
Just as he did throughout March and April, MacVittie expects to memorize it all, and prove his knowledge on quizzes and the practice fields. The expectation, he said, is to master the assignments for all 11 offensive players on every play call.
“The reads, the steps, what everybody’s doing,” he said, “to a ’T.’”
After two years as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Auburn, a historically successful SEC football program that routinely plays in the postseason, Chip Lindsey arrived Tuesday at Kansas, where the Jayhawks haven’t been to a bowl game since 2008 and have won three or fewer games each of the past nine seasons.
So how did Les Miles sell Lindsey on the idea of coming to KU?
A Journal-World request to interview Lindsey has not yet been granted, but the team’s newly hired offensive coordinator answered that question and more during a one-on-one interview with KU director of broadcasting and play-by-play voice of the Jayhawks Brian Hanni.
During conversations with his new boss, Lindsey shared, he learned why Miles is a “great recruiter,” as KU’s head coach laid out his vision for the program, one that involves the Jayhawks competing for “championships” in the future.
“I think he’s the guy to take us to the next level,” Lindsey said, “and just the opportunity to work with him hand in hand, I think, was too attractive and really made it an easy decision for me.”
Of course, now that Lindsey, the former offensive coordinator at Auburn, Arizona State and Southern Miss, is at KU, he will play a significant role in how the Jayhawks’ fare under Miles.
While Lindsey didn’t paint a vivid picture of what his offense will look like in 2019, the first coordinator to sign on with Miles plans to build the Jayhawks’ attack around their playmakers. He said, in the spring, he will get a better sense of who those players are and what they’re capable of bringing to the field.
“We want to create an exciting brand of football,” Lindsey said, “exciting brand of offense, try to create explosive plays and make us an offense that’s fun and exciting to watch — one that recruits want to come play for — and really put our identity in this league and on this university.”
Although at this point Lindsey said he only has watched “a little” footage from the Jayhawks’ 3-9 2018 season, he obviously signed on knowing what kind of weapon KU has in running back Pooka Williams, who rushed for 1,125 yards and seven touchdowns in his freshman season.
“I know about Pooka for sure,” Lindsey said of the All-Big 12 back from Louisiana. “Everybody in the country seems to know about him.”
In the days, weeks and months ahead, KU’s OC plans to get acquainted with the rest of the roster and identify the four or five best playmakers so that he can design creative ways to get them the ball.
At this point it is hard to predict who will be KU’s starting quarterback in 2019. Carter Stanley and Miles Kendrick both have eligibility remaining, while 2018 starter Peyton Bender’s college football career is over.
Given that Lindsey coached current San Francisco 49ers starting QB Nick Mullens at both Spain Park High (Ala.) and Southern Miss, Hanni asked KU’s newest assistant how he would go about getting a “great” QB to Kansas.
“Obviously. quarterbacks are special people, because they’re going to get too much credit, they’re going to get too much blame,” Lindsey began. “They’ve got to be guys that are tough-minded, and those guys that I’ve had in the past, that’s what those guys are. They’re very tough mentally. I think we’re going to create a product here that I think quarterbacks will want to come play in our system, a quarterback-friendly system that I think will be an exciting brand of football to watch. We’re looking forward to finding guys that want to be here at Kansas and do something special.”
On the same day Lindsey said those words, during his first day on the job no less, he extended a scholarship offer to dual-threat QB Robby Ashford, a four-star prospect in the Class of 2020 from Hoover, Ala. — where Lindsey was the head coach in 2007.
The past two years at Auburn, Lindsey coached Jarrett Stidham, who was a four-star dual-threat QB in his high school days. Lindsey said he likely will be on the lookout for mobile quarterbacks he can recruit to KU.
“I think, the way the game’s played today, the defenses are so good, so talented, you’ve got to have a guy that can escape, you know, and make plays in and out of the pocket. I think that’s important,” Lindsey said. “But the number one thing for me is, we want guys that are tough, that are smart, that are intelligent, accurate throwers and, obviously, be able to bring something with their feet, as well.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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:
Clint Bowen’s second weekly press conference as the Kansas University football program’s interim head coach didn’t provide anything ground-breaking on what’s next for the Jayhawks (2-3 overall, 0-2 Big 12).
Bowen didn’t announce who will start at quarterback or divulge any other immediate changes. The depth chart, in fact, looked exactly the same as it did a week ago. But he gave some insight on the vibe within the football facilities those days, and shared a little bit about some of his philosophies on playing time.
Here are the highlights from Bowen’s Tuesday afternoon media session:
• The players did a great job in the first week of the transition from Charlie Weis to Bowen. KU played a “very good” West Virginia team on the road and he thought the players performed for four quarters, which was a goal.
• Oklahoma State has some youth but is playing at a very high level, having only lost to Florida State.
• KU held WVU to a field goal on four first-half drives. On each of those, the defense gave up one big play, then settled back down.
• Kansas held the WVU offense in check in the second half. (The Mountaineers’ only TD came on a kickoff return.) Players showed they would compete for four quarters. There are no moral victories, but that was positive.
• There is no negativity or animosity between the relatively successful defense and the at times inept offense.
• KU will make a decision on one of its three quarterbacks this week: sophomore Montell Cozart, junior Michael Cummings and sophomore T.J. Millweard all will get a chance to prove themselves at practices. They’re all in this to win, too. KU has backups at other positions who get pulled, but that doesn’t get written about. The players understand they are all working together.
• The offensive coaches are looking for anything they can do in the system, with their personnel to make sure they can sustain drives and move the ball down the field.
• Bowen talked with the offensive coaches and coordinator John Reagan without getting in their face or in their business about it, following another slow day for the KU offense. There are some things Bowen thinks could help the offense out.
• One offensive solution for Kansas would be making sure senior receiver Tony Pierson gets his touches. There will be an effort to make that happen. A lot of time at WR, him getting the ball is dependent on other people.
• Junior receiver Nigel King had his number called at the right times on Saturday. Bowen didn’t see any extra focus on Pierson from WVU leading to King’s productivity.
• As a defensive coach, you have to stop/take away the run first. That makes life difficult offensively if you can’t throw the ball and loosen up the defense. That has been one of KU's major issues. KU’s offense has to find a way to make defenses honest.
• This is college football. It’s fair to your team to have the mentality that if one guy is playing better, he will play Saturday. Competition is never-ending. It doesn’t stop.
• Junior RB De’Andre Mann was injured at WVU. But he will be fine, and is expected to play.
• Everyone thinks it is simple to run down and cover a kickoff, but that is a decision-making process on the fly. KU has to get better in that aspect of the game in order to not give opponents an edge.
• Being a true freshman corner, like Matthew Boateng, is like carrying a big, red flag around with you. Offenses will pick on him, but he will develop. Boateng has a bright future.
• On the unexpected in his first week: Game day was a little more exciting and his heart was pumping, but he has been in the business long enough to feel very comfortable.
• On KU’s running backs: Corey Avery, a true freshman, is holding up well. Mann checked out pretty well after getting hurt. They have freshman Joe Dineen, too, and there are things they can do to take the burden off of the “two starters.” Pierson lining up in the backfield is always an option.
• Avery is handling things well. He has some “God-given ability” and has some size and natural instincts to run the ball.
• Millweard has been at No. 3 on KU’s QB chart for a reason. Cummings and Cozart better fit what the offense wanted to do from a game plan standpoint each of the previous weeks of the season, and that is why Millweard has been No. 3 on the depth chart to this point.
• Senior corners JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald came through against some pretty good wide-outs at WVU. They didn’t need help in coverage. They handled their business and that was a big part of why KU was successful in the second half.
— Hear the complete Q&A: Bowen: Competition will determine who plays for KU