Assembling a conclusive list of all the factors that led to the Kansas football team going winless in 2020 would be time consuming. But one component that surged to the forefront was the staggering lack of continuity with the roster.
Back when this strange, pandemic shortened season began in September, with the Jayhawks taking on soon-to-be college football darling Coastal Carolina, KU’s starting lineup included quarterback Thomas MacVittie, running back Pooka Williams, linebackers Dru Prox and Denzel Feaster, safety Davon Ferguson, and offensive linemen Jacobi Lott and Chris Hughes. It only took a matter of weeks for some of them to become non-factors for KU, through injury or opt out or some other reason. And late in the season none of them were available to start anymore.
Shakeups to the depth chart became a recurring theme in head coach Les Miles’ second year running the program. During the course of the 0-9 campaign the offensive personnel rarely looked the same from week to week. KU started three different quarterbacks, four different centers, four different running backs, three different right tackles, three different right guards, two different left tackles and two different left guards.
At receiver, a perceived strength for KU entering the season, Stephon Robinson Jr. started three games early on, but barely played in any of them while dealing with injury issues. And then Robinson had season-ending surgery.
Even though the Jayhawks had solid depth at the running back spot, after Williams opted out four games into the schedule, new No. 1 rusher Velton Gardner only got to play two more games before his year came to a premature conclusion due to an undisclosed injury. Then freshman back Daniel Hishaw Jr. had to miss a game due to COVID protocols and freshman Amauri Pesek-Hickson, the No. 4 running back when the season began, started a game.
KU’s defense didn’t have to deal with that extent of instability. But the loss of a playmaking linebacker in Prox to an opt out four games into the season proved to be brutal.
Only three players on the roster started all nine games for Kansas in 2020: freshman cornerback Karon Prunty, junior defensive lineman Caleb Sampson and senior offensive lineman Malik Clark (the first seven games at left tackle, before moving to left guard).
Four more Jayhawks started in eight games and played in all nine: senior linebacker Kyron Johnson, senior receiver Kwamie Lassiter II, senior cornerback Elijah Jones and sophomore safety Kenny Logan Jr.
Four others started seven games, and one of those Jayhawks, senior receiver Andrew Parchment, basically started eight. Technically, Parchment didn’t start at Baylor, when KU opened the game on offense with two running backs and a tight end, but Parchment carried his typical workload in that game. Senior defensive tackle Sam Burt and sophomore tight end Mason Fairchild also started seven games. Sophomore left guard Jacobi Lott opted out after starting the first seven games.
Only four players started six games: true freshman quarterback Jalon Daniels, senior offensive lineman Hughes, senior safety Nate Betts and junior O-lineman Earl Bostick Jr.
By the time KU played what proved to be its 2020 finale at Texas Tech on Dec. 5, the starting lineup included several names almost no one would have projected as best case scenario starters for this year: junior quarterback Miles Kendrick, freshman receiver Steven McBride, running back Hishaw, freshman offensive linemen Armaj Adams-Reed and Bryce Cabeldue, freshman linebacker Taiwan Berryhill and defensive back Betts. The last starting lineup of the winless season also featured six more players who didn’t start in Week 1: tight end Fairchild, junior fullback Ben Miles, redshirt freshman defensive end Marcus Harris, sophomore linebacker Gavin Potter, safety Logan and cornerback Jones.
Injuries and opt outs proved to be issues for many college football programs in 2020. But such obstacles are even more challenging to navigate at a place like KU, where instability has been the norm for more than a decade now. Head coaches, position coaches and coordinators frequently coming and going has been one of the few consistent aspects of KU football since Mark Mangino was forced out following the 2009 season. Since then, administrators and KU football coaches alike have struggled to bring some semblance of stability to the program and its roster.
Maybe 2021 will be the year that begins to change. The Jayhawks definitely could’ve benefited from Parchment and Robinson returning for a bonus senior season. But the vast majority of the players you would put on a perfect world two-deep (where injuries weren’t an issue) at the end of the year could return. Along with all the freshmen, sophomores and juniors who played key roles during an albeit difficult year, KU might be able to bring back seniors such as receiver Lassiter, offensive linemen Clark, Hughes and Adagio Lopeti, and safeties Thomas and Betts. Linebacker Johnson and nose tackle Burt already have shared they plan to take advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver for an extra year of eligibility. And as long as we’re on the topic of ideal scenarios, some of those veterans could become key reserves instead of starters if KU’s coaches can develop the youngest players in the program.
Plus, of course, the Jayhawks will add the 2021 recruiting class, another group that could be comprised totally of high school recruits, just like Miles and his staff did with the 2020 class.
Some continuity might be coming to the KU football program in Miles’ third season in charge. And the Jayhawks need some of that first before they can start expecting to produce winning seasons again.