LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas has tried just about everything over the past decade when it comes to hiring a head coach.
There was Turner Gill, the former Big 12 standout who had turned around Buffalo, and Charlie Weis, the high-profile ex-Notre Dame coach with with a bunch of Super Bowl rings. There was David Beaty, the unheralded wide receivers coach at Texas A&M with the Kansas roots, and Les Miles, the former title-winning LSU coach who once built Oklahoma State.
Very different backgrounds. Very different coaches. Very much the same result: total failure.
So when Travis Goff had to replace Miles, who parted with Kansas this past spring amid a series of ugly sexual harassment allegations dating to his time with the Tigers, the Jayhawks’ new athletic director went in an entirely different direction.
He brought in Lance Leipold, whose Division III roots had translated quite nicely to a successful stretch at Buffalo.
Now, the straight-shooting Leipold — who led Wisconsin-Whitewater to a 109-6 record over eight seasons with six national championships — will get to see whether his old-school, fundamentally sound style can succeed at the sport’s highest level.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about getting this program where it needs to be,” Leipold said. “But I guess each and every week, we’re trying to prove ourselves. That’s our competitive nature.”
Leipold inherited a program at Buffalo that had losing records in five of the previous six seasons, and within three years was back to .500. His last three seasons included three bowl appearances and a 6-1 record this past season, shortened by the pandemic.
The Jayhawks have only won nine games total the past six seasons combined and Leipold could very well be taking on the most difficult challenge in college football.
“I think it’s important that we look to the future but also recognize the past is important for all of us,” he said. “You know, not just individuals but as a team, you want to build some confidence. There’s time we work through different situations, and it’s handling adversity. That’s going to be a big point of emphasis, responding to that. Every team goes back and forth, and it’s how you respond to that. That’s a day-by-day process for us.”
Even though the Jayhawks were winless in nine games under Miles last season, the roster is probably as talented as it’s been in the past decade. North Texas transfer Jason Bean and incumbent starter Jalon Daniels are battling to start at quarterback, there is robust backfield depth and several athletic wide receivers to help them out.
On defense, what was a young and untested bunch a season ago returns with some much-needed experience this season.
“This feels different,” said linebacker Kyron Johnson, a fifth-year senior who’s outlasted two head coaches. “Being here this long, I’m used to change. I’m used to adapting. I feel like there’s something special going on here now.”
Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki and defensive coordinator Brian Borland followed Leipold from Whitewater to Buffalo to Kansas, and offensive line coach Scott Fuchs, linebackers coach Chris Simpson and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski also joined the program from the Bulls. They were blended into a staff that includes five assistants who were on Miles’ staff last season.
The most underappreciated bunch of players in football tend to be offensive linemen — at least, until they perform so poorly it drags down the entire team. Kansas allowed more than five sacks a game last season, the highest mark of any FBS school in at least a dozen years. But the arrival of Notre Dame transfer Colin Grunhard and two transfers from Buffalo, Mike Ford and Mike Novitsky, should provide an instant upgrade up front.
Daniels was thrown into the fire as a freshman last season, and despite plenty of athleticism, he appeared to be in over his head. The year of experience should help, but he’ll have a hard time beating out Bean for the starting job. He started seven games and threw for 1,131 yards with 14 touchdowns and just five interceptions last season.
The Jayhawks’ secondary, which was one of their strengths last season, took a big blow when Karon Prunty transferred to South Carolina. But the arrival of Missouri State transfer Jeremy Webb coupled with the growth of Kenny Logan Jr., Deuce Mayberry and Jacobee Bryant should once again make for a strong defensive backfield.
The Jayhawks hoped to get some much-needed publicity when they moved their Sept. 3 season opener against South Dakota to a Friday night. If that doesn’t do it, their trip to No. 22 Coastal Carolina on Sept. 10 will be on ESPN.
Kansas also has a road nonconference game against Duke along with a tough road slate in the Big 12. Games against No. 7 Iowa State and No. 21 Texas along with Oklahoma State and TCU are all on the road.
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