Norman, Okla. — It’s rare to find Kansas safety Mike Lee in a bad mood.
The junior from New Orleans loves to talk, and that makes him all the more affable in a postgame interview setting. Unless you’ve just asked Lee about a specific mistake he made on the field he’ll respond to most inquires with an honest answer and a smile.
Even though the Jayhawks lost at No. 6 Oklahoma, 55-40, Saturday night at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Lee’s mood perked in the interview area near KU’s locker room because he got to spend a chunk of it discussing the exploits of fellow Louisianan Pooka Williams.
“That guy is tough. I ain’t even gonna lie to you,” Lee said after Williams, KU’s true freshman running back, rushed for 252 yards and two touchdowns, averaged 16.8 yards per carry and even threw a TD pass to Jeremiah Booker.
Naturally, I thought Lee might have an opinion on another prominent man with Louisiana ties. So I asked him what he thought of the growing speculation that Les Miles will become KU’s next head coach.
“I don’t know,” a grinning Lee replied. “I ain’t worried about it. If he come, he come. If he not, he not.”
With contract negotiations between KU and the former LSU head coach reportedly in the final stages as of Friday, speculation only increased Saturday, with the help of Miles’ pal, Tim Brando, who was on the call for FOX’s OU-KU broadcast.
Nothing is official. But it sure seems as if Miles could soon be in charge of KU football. Is that good news?
“We’ll see,” Lee responded, this time laughing.
As much as he wanted to play it off, and surely had been instructed not to talk about the Miles-to-KU smoke, Lee’s face beamed during his answers. Read into his body language what you will.
As for Joe Dineen, KU’s redshirt senior hometown linebacker, who grew up watching winning football in Memorial Stadium, when Mark Mangino ran the program? Even though Dineen won’t ever play for the Jayhawks’ next head coach, you know how this all plays out really means something to him.
What does Dineen make of the Miles rumors and reports?
He all but physically bit his lip.
“Not… Not discussing that right now,” Dineen said, fighting back a smile. “Yeah, refraining from discussing that right now.”
Senior quarterback Peyton Bender took a similar stance when I asked what he thought about all the Miles chatter.
“I’m not really concerned about that right now. Just focused on next week versus Texas and finishing out this season strong,” Bender said in his typically serious interview tone.
I told him it was a well rehearsed answer. The laid back QB flashed a Mike Lee-level grin.
The Jayhawks are doing their best to tune out all the Les Miles buzz. But they’re only human. They know about it. And because they care about the KU football program they’re excited about it, too. Even if they’re not supposed to say so. Yet.
In a turnover-free Big 12 opener at Baylor on Saturday, the Kansas football team put together too few highlights on either side of the ball to keep up with the Bears in a 26-7 defeat.
One 90-yard scoring drive was the exception rather than the rule for KU’s offense, and the Jayhawks (2-2 overall, 0-1 conference) didn’t come close to crawling out of a 23-point first-half hole.
And though redshirt senior linebacker Joe Dineen delivered 13 total tackles, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries, the defense as a whole too often suffered breakdowns, and surrendered 447 yards, a season-high for a KU opponent.
Here are five statistics that kept Kansas from truly competing with Baylor.
Not enough support from passing game
The Bears (3-1, 1-0) knew the Jayhawks would like nothing more than to feature freshman running back Pooka Williams as much as possible, and the Bears game-planned accordingly.
But KU never forced BU to adjust its run-stopping defense with an effective passing attack.
Senior quarterback Peyton Bender completed 10 of his 17 throws, but a whopping seven of his completions picked up seven yards or fewer. Another completion — a touchdown pass to Jeremiah Booker — went for 10 yards.
So, between seven incompletions and eight completions of 10 or fewer yards, 15 of KU’s passing plays with Bender in the game netted a combined 40 yards.
Keep in mind: not all of that goes on Bender. The offensive line has to provide better pass protection and receivers have to find more opportunities to get open and bring in catchable passes in order for this offense to reach its ceiling.
Finding balance in the backfield
The Bears reminded the Jayhawks that even Pooka Williams can’t do everything.
While the talented freshman from Louisiana was able to bust a 72-yard rush that set up KU’s lone TD, eight of his 14 carries went for three yards or fewer.
Some of that is to be expected, especially with a freshman playing his first Big 12 game and a still jelling O-line taking on the best front it has seen so far this season.
More surprising, though, was how little KU used its other two running backs. Junior Khalil Herbert carried the ball just twice for six yards. And sophomore Dom Williams also finished with only two runs, picking up two yards.
For the benefit of the running game and offense overall, KU likely needs to find ways to incorporate Herbert and Dom Williams more, while also relying heavily on Pooka Williams. It’s difficult to pull off such balance, particularly if a defense is keying on your run game and presenting matchups that lead you to pass more. But it’s something KU’s coaches will have to figure out.
On 55 plays at Baylor, one of KU’s top three running backs carried the ball on 18 snaps (33 percent).
3rd down struggles
Outside of a touchdown pass from Bender to Booker in the third quarter, the Jayhawks mostly struggled to convert on third downs.
Overall, just four of KU’s 13 third-down plays went for a first down. On average, the visitors had 8.8 yards to go on their third downs, adding to their plight. They only averaged 3.4 yards gained on third downs.
On third-and-short (one to four yards), KU was fine, picking up two of three — Pooka Williams ran for one in the second quarter and backup QB Miles Kendrick converted on a carry in the third.
However, on third-and-longs (nine-plus yards), KU went two for six. Although the Jayhawks converted six of eight passes on third downs, they averaged just 1.3 yards per attempt and were also sacked three times.
Conversely, the Baylor offense’s 7-for-14 third-down success was fueled by gaining, on average, 9.4 yards on third down.
Long fields ahead
KU started every possession at least 75 yards from the end zone.
On average, thanks to Baylor’s kickoff and punt teams, the Jayhawks’ average starting field position was their own 17-yard line.
On KU’s 11 drives, one concluded with a score and seven possessions traveled fewer than 20 yards. Only four series ventured into Baylor territory.
The Jayhawks went three-and-out on four possessions and punted seven times.
Baylor’s offense, on 11 drives, had no three-and-outs.
Carter Stanley’s late-game reps
Given the context of the game essentially being over and Baylor not having incentive to play all of its first-stringers, it’s difficult to know how Carter Stanley would have performed if he played earlier in the game.
Still, the redshirt junior at times looked both comfortable and effective, once he took the field with less than six minutes remaining at McLane Stadium.
A shoulder injury kept Kendrick from handling KU’s final two possessions. In his place Stanley completed four of his six passes for 37 yards and rushed three times for 27 yards (second-best total on the team).
On his first series, Stanley made two short completions to Kerr Johnson, but suffered a second-down sack. KU went three-and-out.
The final possession began in the last minute of the fourth quarter, and Stanley hit Evan Fairs for 20 yards and Booker for 10 yards through the air. He also took off for rushes of 18 and 15 yards. KU went 63 yards in six plays before time ran out.
There’s no word yet on the extent of Kendrick’s injury. But if he happens to miss some time, KU knows it has another QB it can use in Stanley.
And, let’s face it, even though Bender has started all four games it’s not as if anyone would consider his status a lock going forward. Should Stanley see more playing time in upcoming weeks and give the offense a spark, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him move up the depth chart.
No, Miles Kendrick didn’t win the starting quarterback job for the Kansas football team during preseason camp.
But his head coach foresees the sophomore dual threat QB who joined the program as a transfer in the spring factoring into the Jayhawks’ offensive game plan immediately.
It is clear David Beaty, who a week ago named Peyton Bender KU’s No. 1 QB for the season opener, and offensive coordinator Doug Meacham didn’t think Kendrick possessed the right combination of attributes at this stage of his career to supplant Bender, a senior who started eight games in 2017. That doesn’t mean they have completely discounted Kendrick, either.
While discussing the team’s three quarterbacks Monday night on the first installment of his weekly Hawk Talk radio show, Beaty didn’t only speak highly of Kendrick, listed alongside junior Carter Stanley as a potential No. 2 QB on the team’s first published depth chart. KU’s fourth-year head coach actually went out of his way to tell anyone who was listening that the 5-foot-10, 200-pound QB from College of San Mateo will get on the field this Saturday against Nicholls State (6 p.m., Kansas David Booth Memorial Stadium) and beyond.
“He’s gonna play for us. He’s gonna play for us in that first game. He’s gonna play for us in every game,” Beaty added.
While the coach didn’t get into the specifics of those statements — he should be able to elaborate Tuesday at his weekly press conference — it seems most likely KU will have some packages or plays specifically designed for Kendrick.
This doesn’t mean he and Bender will swap roles every other possession or anything of that nature, the way Beaty did a couple years back with Montell Cozart and Ryan Willis.
There just may be some calls or situations in which the Jayhawks can throw a modified attack at a defense with the mobile Kendrick taking the snaps.
“He’s got some things about him that really bring a new type of, a new twist to our offense,” Beaty said, “which I think is gonna be really good. We really like the kid. One of the hardest workers I’ve ever had.”
KU’s coaches liked Kendrick’s potential enough that they gave him every chance during preseason camp to win the starting job before Bender prevailed.
“He got a bunch of reps for us early on,” Beaty said of the initial August practice plan for Kendrick. “We had to find out. We had to know, right? So he took a lot of reps with the first team early on.”
Apparently Meacham and Beaty saw enough out of Kendrick through those reps to start figuring out ways that he could help the offense every Saturday.
“And what we found out was that we got us a good one there,” Beaty said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Beaty explained the sophomore “needs a little bit more time” to become a complete QB. It just so happens Kendrick will get in-game opportunities as he continues working toward that goal.
Spring football came and went in Lawrence without anyone knowing for sure who will open the 2018 season as the starting quarterback at Kansas. But if forced today to take a stab at the winner of the competition nearly four months ahead of the Jayhawks’ season opener, the safest bet would be senior Peyton Bender.
So even though some KU football supporters might think new sophomore QB Miles Kendrick or redshirt junior Carter Stanley would be better suited for the job, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given the unpredictability of the battle, that Athlon Sports rolled with Bender when ranking the top starting quarterbacks in FBS.
A 6-foot-1 senior who began his college career at Washington State and played at Itawamba Community College (Miss.) one season before transferring to Kansas, Bender started eight games and threw for 1,609 yards (20th all-time at KU), 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while completing 54.2 percent of his 273 throws in 2017. Those numbers landed Bender at No. 108 out of 130 passers on the list.
“The Jayhawks have finished last in the Big 12 in scoring offense for eight consecutive seasons,” Steven Lassan wrote for Athlon. “Without better play under center in 2018, that streak is likely to extend to nine.”
Bender didn’t finish last among Power Five quarterbacks. That unflattering distinction went to Illinois’ Cam Thomas (116th). Another Big Ten QB, who happens to be on KU’s schedule this fall, Rutgers’ Artur Sitkowski (110th) also ranked behind Bender. The only other QB from a power conference lower than Bender was Oregon State’s Jake Luton (109th).
While Bender registered closer to 130th-ranked Kilton Anderson of Coastal Carolina, one of his Big 12 peers, West Virginia senior Will Grier, is Athlon’s No. 1 QB in the country.
The majority of the league’s other quarterbacks ended up closer to, or in, the middle of the pack: Baylor’s Charlie Brewer (32nd), Iowa State’s Kyle Kempt (33rd), Texas’ Sam Ehlinger (34th), Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray (35th), Kansas State’s Skylar Thompson (54th), TCU’s Shawn Robinson (70th) and Oklahoma State’s Dru Brown (77th). The only Big 12 QB in Bender’s neighborhood was Texas Tech’s McLane Carter (97th).
Although Bender experienced enough turmoil in his debut season with KU that he lost the starting job seven games into 2017, Stanley didn’t show enough to win the gig for himself entering the off-season, and Kansas brought in sophomore junior college transfer Kendrick to enter the fray this spring.
The battle to become KU’s starting QB could very well continue through the week of preparation leading up to the team’s Sept. 1 opener versus Nicholls State. Bender didn’t do well during his junior year when the offensive line broke down, so if the coaching staff envisions such scenarios becoming commonplace again in 2018, Bender might not end up starting.
But if head coach David Beaty and offensive coordinator Doug Meacham see enough promise and improvement up front from O-line coach A.J. Ricker’s group, it could become Bender’s job to lose. A fifth-year player — he took a redshirt his first season at WSU, in 2014 — Bender has studied and made throws in some version or other of the Air Raid longer than Stanley or Kendrick. Plus, Bender projects as the most consistent downfield passer.
If Kansas can find a way to balance its offense by featuring Khalil Herbert, Dom Williams and Pooka Williams in the run game, it might help the offense play to Bender’s strengths and make him a more effective QB.
Of course, all of those best-case scenarios hinge on the success of the offensive line, which lost center Mesa Ribordy to retirement this off-season.
As usual with KU football, more questions exist than easy solutions.
During the first couple of weeks of spring football, Kansas coach David Beaty hesitated to heap too much praise on individual players for their performances.
Though measured again in his tenor, the fourth-year KU coach found himself more willing to identify spring standouts earlier this week, having observed nine of the team’s 15 practice sessions.
When solicited to disclose which offensive players have delivered behind the closed gates of the practice fields, Beaty said several Jayhawks “have really stuck out” and “deserve to be mentioned.”
The first skill position player’s name to leave Beaty’s mouth belonged to the program’s newest quarterback, sophomore Miles Kendrick.
“His work ethic,” Beaty began, regarding the 5-foot-10 QB who transferred to KU from College of San Mateo (Calif.). “He's thrown 127 passes in the spring through team and seven-on-seven, and he's had two balls intercepted. That's not bad. That's good ball security. That means a guy's prepared and he knows what he's seeing.”
Next, Beaty lauded a pair of upperclassman receivers, both of whom are expected to feature prominently within the team’s passing game this coming fall.
“Steven Sims sticks out to me again, just athletically,” Beaty said of the 5-10 senior from Houston. “But just understanding how to become even more of a savvy route-runner, he's doing a nice job.”
The coach then pointed to 6-3 junior Evan Fairs, who began to stand out in November of 2017, with a seven-catch game at Texas and six receptions versus Oklahoma.
“I think he can be a really good player,” Beaty said of Fairs. “I really think he can. We have high hopes for him.”
Subsequently, the coach shifted his focus to what’s left of the team’s offensive line — numerous injuries at the position led KU to cancel a traditional spring game and replace it with a practice. Beaty began at left guard, with redshirt sophomore Malik Clark.
“He's kind of been forced to take more reps than probably he would like. But I think back to him coming in … he was 350-something pounds, and he's down to 325 or so (listed at 320), and he looks good,” Beaty said of Clark, a New Orleans native. “He's getting a lot of reps, and you're starting to see him improve.”
KU’s head coach also mentioned banged-up junior O-lineman Antione Frazier before extolling the development of redshirt junior Clyde McCauley, “another guy that nobody talks about very much,” Beaty said of the 6-5, 305-pound tackle, McCauley. “But he may be one of the more improved guys that we've had up front, which is good. He's going into year four for him, so you're starting to see guys' experience pay off a little bit.”
Beaty then circled back to the quarterback position and the improvement of senior Peyton Bender, calling him a “very, very talented guy,” who, like Kendrick, is completing more than 70% of his passes at practices, during team periods and seven-on-sevens.
“Some of the things that we're doing with understanding what we're seeing,” Beaty said in reference to Bender reading defenses, “I think it's really helping him.”
The coach closed his spiel by mentioning tight ends James Sosinski and Mavin Saunders, too, but actually led into his whole rundown of high-quality offensive performers by hailing the efforts of two special-teamers.
“Maybe one of the guys that is most well-respected on this team is Gabe Rui,” Beaty declared of the redshirt senior kicker who made 17 of 20 field goals and went 23-for-23 on extra points in 2017. “Now I know he is not an offensive football player, but he puts up a lot of numbers for us. He has had a terrific spring. He's really done well. His confidence is pretty impressive for a kicker.”
At an often overlooked position, long snapper, Beaty commended redshirt senior John Wirtel for reshaping his body.
“He's almost 255, 260 pounds now,” the coach said of the specialist who missed most of both the 2016 and 2017 seasons with injuries. “He's got NFL caliber. He's a talented guy. Having him back healthy has been good.”
The football offseason is all about gains.
Bigger, stronger, faster. You’ve heard the go-to individual goals for the months between one year’s finale and the next’s opener a thousand times.
Returning Kansas players are just more than a week into spring practices and have countless more workouts in front of them before pre-season camp opens late in the summer.
But numerous Jayhawks, thanks to sessions with strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin and his staff, already have added weight to their frames, per the recently-released first edition of the 2018 roster.
A number of players expected to play prominent roles on KU’s 2-deep this coming fall have increased their weight by double digits, compared to their 2017 listings, including sophomore linebacker Kyron Johnson (+10), sophomore offensive lineman Earl Bostick Jr. (+16), senior quarterback Peyton Bender (+15), junior running back Khalil Herbert (+10) and four of the team’s key receivers, junior Daylon Charlot (+14), redshirt junior Chase Harrell (+13), junior Evan Fairs (+15) and senior Jeremiah Booker (+12).
Below are the weight gains — and some losses — among Jayhawks who were on the roster last year.
— Note: Players still listed at the same weight as 2017 were not included.
|KU DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
|88 - Sr. DT J.J. Holmes — 6-3, 330||-5|
|91 - R-Fr. DE Jelani Arnold — 6-2, 255||+30|
|92 - R-Fr. DT Dai Coye Haley — 6-2, 280||-10|
|95 - Soph. DE Vaughn Taylor Jr. — 6-3, 248||+18|
|97- Soph. DE Sam Burt — 6-4, 272||+32|
|98 - Sr. DL KeyShaun Simmons — 6-2, 295||+10|
|9 - Soph. LB Kyron Johnson — 6-1, 220||+10|
|18 - R-Jr. LB Denzel Feaster — 6-3, 225||+5|
|29 - R-Sr. LB Joe Dineen — 6-2, 235||+5|
|30 - R-Fr. LB Cooper Root — 6-2, 232||+12|
|31 - Sr. LB Osaze Ogbebor — 6-1, 225||+5|
|43 - R-Fr. LB Jay Dineen — 6-2, 230||-5|
|47 - Sr. LB Keith Loneker Jr. — 6-2, 228||+3|
|KU DEFENSIVE BACKS
|1 - Jr. S Bryce Torneden — 5-10, 197||+7|
|4 - Jr. S Shaquille Richmond — 6-0, 202||+7|
|8 - Sr. CB Shakial Taylor — 6-0, 178||+3|
|11 - Jr. S Mike Lee — 5-11, 181||+5|
|13 - Jr. CB Hasan Defense — 5-11, 188||+8|
|16 - Jr. CB Kyle Mayberry — 5-10, 180||+5|
|20 - Sr. S Emmanuel Moore — 6-0, 208||+18|
|22 - Sr. S Tyrone Miller Jr. — 6-0, 188||+6|
|25 - Jr. CB Julian Chandler — 6-0, 187||+2|
|27 - Jr. CB DeAnte Ford — 5-10, 181||+6|
|28 - R-Fr. CB Robert Topps III — 6-2, 201||+11|
|45 - R-Fr. S Nick Caudle — 6-0, 191||+6|
|KU OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
|55 - Sr. OL Jacob Bragg — 6-4, 280||-11|
|60 - Jr. OL Beau Lawrence — 6-5, 315||+6|
|62 - R-Fr. OL Jack Williams — 6-3, 275||+5|
|68 - Soph. OL Earl Bostick Jr. — 6-6, 286||+16|
|71 - R-Soph. OL Cam Durley — 6-6, 315||+15|
|74 - Jr. OL Clyde McCauley III — 6-5, 305||-5|
|76 - Soph. OL Chris Hughes — 6-3, 310||+10|
|77 - Jr. OL Andru Tovi — 6-3, 320||+10|
|78 - Jr. OL Hakeem Adeniji — 6-4, 300||+10|
|79 - R-Fr. OL Joey Gilbertson — 6-4, 290||+5|
Quarterbacks, running backs and fullbacks
|KU OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
|7 - Sr. QB Peyton Bender — 6-1, 205||+15|
|9 - R-Jr. QB Carter Stanley — 6-2, 198||+2|
|10 - Jr. RB Khalil Herbert — 5-9, 210||+10|
|15 - R-Fr. QB Miles Fallin — 6-5, 220||+10|
|25 - Soph. RB Dom Williams — 5-10,195||+5|
|26 - Sr. RB Deron Thompson — 5-9, 193||+8|
|32 - Sr. RB Reese Randall — 5-11, 220||+4|
|35 - Jr. FB Caperton Humphrey — 6-2, 225||+18|
|37 - R-Fr. FB Quinton McQuillan — 6-2, 265||+40|
|46 - R-Fr. FB Sam Schroeder — 6-0, 243||+18|
|49 - Sr. FB Hudson Hall — 6-2, 230||+10|
Receivers and tight ends
|KU RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS
|2 - Jr. WR Daylon Charlot — 6-0, 209||+14|
|3 - R-Jr. WR Chase Harrell — 6-4, 228||+13|
|6 - Soph. WR Quan Hampton — 5-8, 178||+8|
|14 - Sr. WR Kerr Johnson Jr. — 5-11, 193||+13|
|16 - R-Fr. WR Takulve Williams — 6-0, 196||+11|
|19 - Jr. WR Evan Fairs — 6-3, 210||+15|
|80 - R-Fr. WR Hunter Kaufman — 5-11, 183||+13|
|81 - Soph. WR Kameron McQueen — 6-0, 195||+5|
|83 - Soph. WR Kwamie Lassiter II — 5-11, 170||+5|
|88 - Sr. WR Jeremiah Booker — 6-2, 212||+12|
|37 - R-Fr. K Cole Brungardt — 6-5, 218||+18|
|38 - Soph. P Kyle Thompson — 6-4, 215||+5|
|39 - Sr. K Gabriel Rui — 5-11, 205||-10|
|46 - Soph. K Liam Jones — 5-10, 178||+8|
|67 - Jr. LS Logan Klusman — 6-1, 220||-10|
|87 - R-Sr. LS John Wirtel — 6-3, 250||+15|
Football coaches and coordinators have no incentive to divulge their game plans publicly, and that’s the primary reason Kansas head coach David Beaty elected this week to not announce a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game at Iowa State.
If you listen to offensive coordinator Doug Meacham’s perspective on the matter, though, the decision may have been an easy one.
Speaking with reporters Thursday, Meacham discussed how the staff came to a conclusion early in the week on whether Peyton Bender or Carter Stanley would hold the No. 1 QB spot at ISU (11 a.m. kickoff, FOX Sports Net), instead of letting it play out at practices.
“The team knows the plan. We’ve got a plan. We kind of like to keep it a little bit more internal to have that element of (Iowa State) not knowing,” Meacham began, regarding Beaty’s strategy.
So did either Bender or Stanley show the coaches something early in the week to end the QB debate ahead of schedule?
“It’s just a body of work over the course of time, you know. You still reflect back on that,” the first-year KU coordinator said. “I think Peyton was just going through a little bad spell there (in the loss to Texas Tech). I don’t think he’s necessarily just crummy for life.”
In theory, it’s possible Meacham could be floating the idea of Bender starting — without actually saying the junior transfer is still the starter — as a ploy to throw off the Cyclones (3-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12). But the more he spoke at his weekly media session, the more it seemed he’s not ready to move on from Bender.
A 6-foot-1 junior with past Air Raid experience at both Washington State and Itawamba Community College (Miss.), Bender at numerous times through five games has dumbfounded his coaches with mistakes. For example, Bender misfired on goal-line throws to both tight end Earl Bostick and receiver Jeremiah Booker just before halftime against the Red Raiders. KU’s coaches decided shortly after to play Stanley at QB the rest of the blowout loss.
“When he overthrew a 6-7 tight end (freshman Bostick, listed at 6-6) on the goal line I was a little nervous about throwing verticals,” Meacham said, with a wry chuckle. “Six-seven and he overthrows him. How do you do that?”
Bender’s two quarters worth of stats read: 12-for-24 passing, 146 yards, one touchdown, one interception, no sacks.
“He just had a bad day,” Meacham said. “You know, it’s like you shoot layups and all the sudden you miss five out of 10. Hard to answer why. You just keep shooting them.”
It was Bender’s fluctuating success that led to Stanley (11-for-19, 110 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, one sack, one lost fumble) finishing the fourth straight loss for Kansas (1-4, 0-2) instead of just entering for certain packages designed around his strengths as a mobile QB.
But the highs and lows of Bender’s play were nothing new.
“He’s just had moments of inconsistency that kind of come out of nowhere,” Meacham said. “We’ve just got to deal with it. There’s a lot of things that factor into it that kind of take the blame and kind of spread it around a little bit.”
While fans might see Bender throw the ball and have it picked off — through four and a half games of action he has completed 56.4 percent of his 202 passes while suffering eight interceptions — Meacham said a missed protection or bad route have led to some of the costly turnovers.
“Or a tipped ball,” Meacham continued. “Tipped ball, and then maybe a tipped ball. I see tipped balls all the time, from the line of scrimmage or wherever. It just seems like all the time somebody grazes the ball — I almost want to tell our guys, ‘If you don’t think you can catch it just put your hands down.’ Because we touch one, they pick it and then they score.”
A not-so-supercut of Bender’s interceptions, Meacham suggested, would leave a viewer scratching one’s head.
“That’s just like, how does that happen consistently?” Meacham said of tipped passes becoming takeaways for KU opponents. “Just freakish stuff.”
A deflection, of course, had nothing to do with a second-quarter Bender throw over the middle against Texas Tech, which Dakota Allen snagged out of the air, setting up a quick Red Raiders TD drive.
“He under-threw it. Ben (Johnson) was wide open,” Meacham said. “(Bender) just kind of panicked a little bit. If you watch the tape from the end zone the linebacker’s feet were like (more than 3 feet) off the ground, made the greatest interception of his entire life. He’ll never do that again. He jumps up in the air and just … unbelievable.”
While inaccuracy obviously has played a factor in Bender’s struggles, Meacham said he doesn’t necessarily judge the starter of KU’s first five games as an eight-interception QB.
“No, if he had (eight) picks legit and was on the wrong guy, made a horrific throw over a guy’s head and the safety picked it or he under-threw a ball or he threw it right to them (eight) times he wouldn’t be playing at all,” the man in charge of KU’s Air Raid said. “It’s just, he’s had about three of them that weren’t very good, and the rest of them are just … it’s unbelievable some of the stuff.”
Bender hasn’t produced at the level Meacham and the rest of KU’s offensive coaches hoped. That doesn’t mean they’re ready to move on from him and hand the offense over to Stanley.
“I keep thinking about the sweet’s not as sweet without a little sour,” Meacham offered, regarding how he handles the inconsistencies and turnovers. “Can’t always be good.”
As coaches tend to following any game — win or lose — Kansas football coordinators Doug Meacham and Clint Bowen saw both the positives and negatives of the Jayhawks’ season-opening victory over Southeast Missouri State when they reviewed footage after the fact.
Both spoke with media members Thursday, revealing their evaluations of a 38-16 victory.
Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Meacham began by going into the details of a solid, albeit imperfect, debut from junior quarterback Peyton Bender.
After first offering his opinion that Bender — 23-for-37 passing, 364 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions — looked “good,” Meacham immediately turned to his quarterback’s second-quarter interception as his first talking point.
“It was a great decision. That’s where his eyes should’ve been. That’s really the biggest part of all of it is him being on the right guy and triggering the right guy,” Meacham began, on Bender’s first pick, targeted for Jeremiah Booker. “He triggered the right guy and it was just a horrendous throw, which is unusual for him, because he hits the bull’s eye pretty good. He’s pretty accurate for the most part, throws a pretty nice deep ball. I don’t have an explanation for that. He just threw it way behind the guy.”
Other than that blunder, Meacham thought Bender played well, and said redshirt sophomore receiver Chase Harrell could have done a better job preventing the second interception, in the fourth quarter.
“Our receiver didn’t go up and play strong with the ball, so that was on him. But you look at the stat line and you see two picks,” Meacham said. “I think we left some points out there.”
The first-year KU coordinator went on to give examples of some other mistakes that prevented the Jayhawks from steamrolling SEMO.
“Ben (Johnson) dropped that one, had a chance to go to the crib right there. No. 3 (Harrell) makes, it’s No. 3 on ESPN,” Meacham said of Harrell’s one-handed TD grab in the first half, “and then he drops one that hits him straight in the bread basket. I don’t know what to tell you. So there’s probably another 100 yards of receiving and two more touchdowns.”
On another play, Meacham said Bender overthrew Ryan Schadler on a seam read, because the slot receiver ran a hook when he should’ve continued on a deep pattern.
“It looks like Peyton is making another bad throw when in actuality the receiver hosed him. He didn’t run a correct route. If he stays high on that route there’s another touchdown,” Meacham said. “We were close to having a better game, but it’s just a couple things. You always have four or five plays every week, even if you win or lose, there’s always that handful of plays you wish you had back.”
The former TCU and Oklahoma State assistant went on to explain passing game misfires get “magnified” but other problems inevitably show up on video, too.
“(Fans) don’t see a right guard miss a nose guard on an inside run. They see the other part, though,” Meacham said. “But I thought (Bender) played pretty good in terms of operating and having his eyes in the right spot and checks and all of that stuff. Did good.”
Kansas only rushed for 73 yards (2.9 a carry) on 25 attempts versus SEMO in its debut.
But Meacham said he wasn’t worried about KU’s progress in that aspect of the offense.
“I would have a problem with our run game if I was running into a nine-man box all day long. Then I would be upset. It’s just like, Would you get a canoe and go upstream?
“And I get it. People do it,” Meacham added. “But that’s what they do. Ohio State and LSU, that’s what they do. They’re gonna pound it and force-feed it and that’s what they do. That’s not necessarily what we do. I’m not concerned about it, no.”
First look at KU’s new cornerbacks
Week 1 also marked the KU debuts for starting cornerbacks Hasan Defense and Shakial Taylor, both of whom played at the junior college level in 2016.
Bowen wasn’t ready to thoroughly praise them, though, after Defense made five solo tackles and broke up two passes and Taylor contributed two solo stops and a pair of pass breakups.
“They did OK. We’re obviously going to face a lot better competition, though. No discredit to SEMO,” Bowen said. “But they didn’t get in there and panic. They held in there and competed and were assignment-sound. I don’t know that they were 100 percent technique-sound, but they did challenge and they did compete.”
The Big 12’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. didn’t have a monster statistical day by his standards in the opener. The all-league pass-rusher came away with three total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
Of course, much of SEMO’s offensive game plan revolved around preventing Armstrong from wreaking havoc.
Bowen said he began seeing KU opponents give that much attention to the star D-lineman during his sophomore season.
“That was kind of the norm from what we were seeing out of him last year,” Bowen said of double-teams and schemes designed to limit Armstrong. “By Week 7 or 8 last year, it wasn’t too hard to figure out he was pretty good by then. What we got on Saturday was pretty much what we got all of last season.”
While sometimes SEMO simply called rushing plays away from Armstrong’s position, Bowen said there was more to the relatively small statistical output than that.
“We didn’t get a lot of drop-back pass game. We hardly got any, and when we did there was attention paid to him,” Bowen said. “That was kind of SEMO, their plan anyway. I think they did a nice job of understanding what their strengths are, and sitting in the pocket and throwing the ball downfield wasn’t going to be one of their strengths going into that game, so they didn’t do it. If you’re not good at it, don’t do it.”
No one expected Peyton Bender’s Kansas football debut to be a flawless one. Aside from perfectionist Peyton Bender. For all the positive plays the program’s new starting quarterback made during his introductory performance, as he prepares for his second game Bender is most concerned with his shortcomings — and fixing them.
By the end of a four-touchdown, 364-yard outing against Southeast Missouri State, the former Washington State and Itawamba Community College (Miss.) QB had thrown 14 incompletions and two interceptions — one in each half.
Those are the plays he’ll study and learn from most frequently in KU’s quarterbacks room this week; not the TD passes to Steven Sims Jr., Chase Harrell and Ben Johnson.
On Bender’s first turnover, in the second quarter, with the Jayhawks aiming to improve upon a 14-7 lead, he looked for junior receiver Jeremiah Booker, who had lined up wide right, and began breaking toward the middle of the field roughly 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. The ball went behind Booker, and into the hands of SEMO corner Shabari Davis.
[Check out Scott Chasen’s video breakdown of Bender’s debut at the conclusion of the blog.]
“On the first one,” Bender said Tuesday of his first major mistake with the Jayhawks, “I tried to throw it a little bit too early and didn’t let Booker get into his route long enough.”
Not that he was perfect for the ensuing two quarters, but Bender’s next costly blunder came on a throw in the fourth quarter, with the Jayhawks in position to officially put SEMO out of reach.
The QB looked deep down the left sideline for long, agile wideout Chase Harrell. Bender should have put the ball out farther in front of his target, because Harrell had no one in front of him and the speed to beat his man in a foot race to the end zone on a longer throw. Instead, Bender left it short, Harrell tried to slow down and make a play, but lost a tug-of-war for the ball to SEMO’s Al Young.
“Then on the second one I just under-threw Chase,” Bender admitted. “Those are fixable. My eyes are in the right spot on both of them. I just didn’t make the best throw.”
KU’s head coach was more forgiving of his quarterback in his assessment. David Beaty thought Bender “did a really nice job” throughout the KU win, the two interceptions notwithstanding.
“As we go back and look at the first pick that he throws, I think we were a little deep on that route, which that will affect the timing sometimes,” Beaty said. “It's just got a chance to keep you off of being on the same page when you're not at the right depth. So we've got to be better there.”
Among Bender’s 14 incompletions, Beaty admitted some balls looked under- or over-thrown as he watched from the sideline. But the coach said when he reviewed the game footage on video, missed assignments often were to blame.
“The guy just misread what was going on with the safety, and (Bender) put it right where it was supposed to be,” the coach said of his general takeaway on perceived off-the-mark passes. “If he'd have been there (a receiver read a route option correctly), it would have been a big play.”
Outside of his two give-aways, which Bender and his coaches vow to learn from, Bender felt encouraged by the offense’s 437-yard night in the first game for both the quarterback and offensive coordinator Doug Meacham.
“I thought we converted on all of our third-and-mediums, but we put ourselves in bad position on third-and-long, so we have to do a better job on first and second downs. So that’s an emphasis going into this week,” Bender said ahead of Saturday’s non-conference matchup with Central Michigan. “We just want to clean up what we can do on first and second down and make it easier for us on those third downs.”
The lack of consistency stood out to the quarterback when he went back and reviewed the video, a sign he’s striving for perfection, even after putting up the best numbers from a KU quarterback since the days of Todd Reesing.
“I think we did a lot of things well as an offense, but we also have a ton to improve on, which is a good thing,” Bender said. “I think overall we just saw glimpses of how good and explosive we can be.”
— Bender breakdown video from Scott Chasen:
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