When the University of Kansas parted ways with Les Miles in early March, the football team’s players didn’t know what the future would hold. And while the coaching transition remains unfinished more than a month later, Sam Burt said he and other veterans did their best to make the process go as smoothly as possible.
Initially, Burt told reporters this week, there was some concern about how players would react to an unexpected change in leadership. But the super-senior defensive lineman said some of the experienced leaders, as well as strength coach Ben Iannacchione and his assistants, successfully led the team through that initial stage of uncertainty, before Emmett Jones was named the interim head coach.
“I thought it would be harder than it was,” Burt admitted, “but it really wasn’t, because everyone was of the same mindset. That made it really easy. Honestly, I felt pretty good through that, and I thought our team worked through it really well.”
A former walk-on from Abilene, Burt, entering his fifth year in the program, has taken on a leadership role within the past year. The veteran nose tackle didn’t take any credit for how the Jayhawks have dealt with an extended transition period, but said the team’s elder statesmen have helped their younger teammates navigate the situation.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to make KU better and to get a degree, so that’s our focus, that’s our mission,” Burt said. “Despite all the coaching changes and things like that, we still had a mission, and Coach Jones carries on that mission, too.”
In 2020, KU’s tight ends only accounted for seven of the offense’s 155 receptions during an abbreviated 0-9 season.
But Mason Fairchild, the only Jayhawks tight end a year ago with more than one catch (five receptions, 57 yards) said his position group should be move involved in 2021.
“Last season we were run-blocking the majority of the time,” Fairchild said.
But since the arrival this offseason of new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, Fairchild sees the tight ends becoming more dynamic within KU’s system.
“With Coach DeBord’s offense, we’re asked to do a little bit more than we were before,” he said. “We can be a little more involved with the passing game, but we’re still pretty big inside the running game.”
If anyone needed a reminder that the 2021 season won’t be easy for KU, ESPN’s Football Power Index provided an eye-opening nudge.
As highlighted this week by ESPN analyst Cole Cubelic, who tweeted out the FPI’s projected strength of schedule rankings, the Jayhawks’ slate is considered the third most difficult in the country.
Arkansas has the No. 1 strength of schedule, while another SEC program, Auburn, came in at No. 2.
The top 15 includes nine Big 12 teams, with Oklahoma (No. 2 overall in the FPI) being the only team in the conference without a top-15 schedule.
KU’s nonconference slate beings in Week 1 with its easiest game of the season, as FCS foe South Dakota travels to Lawrence. But the Jayhawks also will travel to Coastal Carolina and Duke this year, along with their typical round-robin Big 12 schedule.
Pro Football Focus recently examined some of the running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft and identified two former KU backs as the best in the class when it comes to a specific trait.
While the list features likely first-round picks Travis Etienne and Najee Harris, it also includes Pooka Williams and Khalil Herbert.
PFF identified Williams as the best scatback available in the draft.
“If there was a ‘most difficult to touch’ superlative in this running back class, Williams would likely by your winner,” Michael Renner wrote for PFF. “He is a lightning rod with the ball in his hands and needs only an inch to make a play.”
Williams opted out of the 2020 season after just four games and entered the draft early, following his junior season, when he ran for 196 yards and two touchdowns on 51 carries for KU.
A former teammate of Williams, Herbert earned the distinction of being the best zone runner in the draft, according to PFF.
“Herbert’s 93.9 rushing grade on zone concepts the past two seasons is tops in the class,” Renner wrote, “and so is his 8.2 yards per attempt on 157 such carries.”
A year before Williams’ junior season ended early, Herbert left the KU football program four games into the 2019 season as a senior, allowing him to use the year as a redshirt season and transfer to Virginia Tech to finish his career.
In 2020 with the Hokies, Herbert rushed for a career-high 1,183 yards, scoring eight rushing touchdowns. His 1,362 total yards from scrimmage ranked ninth among all FBS players.