LAWRENCE — Preparing for his final game in a Kansas football uniform, Hakeem Adeniji expects he’ll have to fight back a rush of emotions Saturday.
What the standout left tackle likely didn’t anticipate, however, was doing that five days before his collegiate swan song, a scene that developed when Adeniji was asked about Jayhawk quarterback and fellow senior Carter Stanley.
“Man, that’s my brother, man. Crazy. I’m starting to tear up just thinking about it now,” Adeniji said. “I go out there and tell him before every game, ‘I’m going to put it on the line for you. Gonna go out there and hopefully make some memories.’ ”
Thing is, Adeniji’s response was no anomaly.
Stanley frequently elicits that kind of reaction from teammates and, as Jayhawk fans have observed from the fifth-year senior, virtually everyone around the program.
Pooka Williams often simply refers to him as “Super Stan.” Steven Sims, a former star wide receiver for the Jayhawks (2015-18) now making a name for himself with the Washington Redskins, reserved his best quotes at KU for questions about a quarterback he so patently revered — “What quarterbacks do y’all know dropping their shoulder on safeties? You don’t know any, but Carter Stanley does that. That’s fun,” a glowing Sims said of Stanley after one of the latter’s strongest showings. “That’s like playing little league football. It reminds you of all the fun times you had when you were 5 years old.”
Even those who have been around the 6-foot-2, 198-pound signal caller a relatively short amount of time have taken to him. That’s certainly true of junior wide receiver Andrew Parchment, who after transferring into the program this past offseason developed an instant chemistry with Stanley at voluntary, below-freezing practice sessions organized by the quarterback.
Parchment said he is "forever grateful" to Stanley.
"When I first came on campus I just saw how easy he was for people to follow," Parchment said. "I feel like he’s a natural-born leader."
Like Adeniji, Stanley is preparing for the final contest of a KU (3-8, 1-7 Big 12) career that’s seen more downs than ups, a 2:30 p.m. Saturday tilt against No. 11 Baylor (10-1, 7-1) at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. But for Stanley, it’s a goodbye dissimilar to Adeniji, who has started every game across his four years, and indeed one different than most of the other high-profile members of this beleaguered senior class.
Stanley will make just his 21st start Saturday, an eye-popping statistic given not only the ineffectiveness of others at the position in recent years but also because the quarterback’s own name is now dotted near the top of several program records — with 37 career touchdowns thrown, Stanley is second to only the legendary Todd Reesing all-time in that statistic.
Through it all — the short leashes in the David Beaty era; the close-but-no-cigar outcomes in Big 12 play; the career resurgence under first-year Jayhawk coach Les Miles — Stanley has, according to those closest to him, maintained the positive outlook necessary to be the kind of program leader inherent to the quarterback position.
“There were times during his scholarship where he was really just feeling frustrated and the lack of consistency would just really kind of wear him down, but he always just remained hopeful,” said Beth Stanley, the quarterback’s mother. “Every new coach that came in he thought, ‘Well, maybe this is going to be the guy,’ or, ‘This is going to be our year.’ But he loves the team and he loves the guys, and I think that’s what helped fuel his positivity.”
To understand the origin of Stanley’s resiliency, one must look to the Sunshine State.
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As an easily overlooked first-year prep player, Carter Stanley had ample room to grow.
Quite literally, in fact.
“He was our fourth-string freshman quarterback. He probably could walk under a table,” said Lenny Jankowski, head coach at Vero Beach (Fla.) High School. “Was a good little athlete. After the season, he was one of those players that stood out and you remembered just because of his grit and determination.”
Despite those intangibles, Jankowski and his fellow coaches pondered a position change for the undersized Stanley. A growth spurt and a strong showing at the junior varsity level during Stanley’s sophomore year put a halt to those plans, but attending a school with an enrollment of around 3,000 students and one chock-full of future Division I athletes, nothing was guaranteed.
So, despite what Jankowski labeled “tremendous progress,” Stanley watched most of his junior season from the sideline, not drawing a single start as he was blocked by standout senior and eventual Valparaiso signee Dalton Stokes.
It was Stanley’s first taste of true disappointment on the gridiron. An athlete since his days playing flag football at 4 years old, Stanley fretted about the future. He’d dreamed of playing at a Power Five program, but most of those schools look for three- or four-year high school starters, particularly at quarterback.
Stanley, at best, would get one season — but it was an opportunity he didn’t let slip away.
He won a down-to-the-wire quarterback competition ahead of his senior season, beating out future Miami (Fla.) football signee Carson Proctor for the role. Once Stanley had the reins, he didn’t look back, throwing for 3,070 yards and 40 touchdowns versus seven interceptions and leading the team in rushing (579 yards, seven touchdowns) while guiding Vero Beach to a 12-1 record in 2014.
Jankowski labeled it “one of the best senior years that I’ve ever witnessed.”
“The players around him really rally around him,” Jankowski said. “I mean, he’s just a great leader. The players believe in him."
As Stanley feared, though, the major colleges were slow to join in on his recruitment. He had an offer on the table from UConn, but it was one that admittedly felt “soft” and “kind of weird” — the Huskies’ head coach never contacted him, and their recruiting coordinator was slow to respond to Stanley’s attempts to set up an official visit.
That’s when KU entered the picture with a “full-force” pitch, but one with a catch — the Jayhawks offered Stanley a scholarship on the condition that it would be off the table if he didn’t immediately orally commit. Expecting Stanley to sign on to spending his college career in a city he’d never even visited was a tough ask, KU’s coaches acknowledged, but they hoped that sending pictures of the stadium, facilities and local hot spots, as well as other helpful facts — campus is less than an hour’s drive away from Kansas City, they boasted — would help seal the deal.
After discussing the offer with Beth and his father, John, Stanley committed to KU. Unbeknownst to anyone in the Stanley clan, a journey very similar to the one the quarterback experienced in high school awaited.
An unheralded freshman passed over time and time again as a sophomore and junior, only to take command just prior to a productive senior season — Stanley now sees those parallels between his high school and college careers.
And had he not experienced that similar adversity at the prep level, Stanley says he may not have been throwing passes in crimson and blue for his final collegiate campaign.
* * * * *
Montell Cozart. Ryan Willis. Jace Sternberger.
Each of these former Jayhawks were among Stanley’s best friends on the team, and the trio had something else in common — they all transferred out of the program and found much greener grass elsewhere, the quarterbacks Cozart and Willis at Boise State and Virginia Tech, respectively, and Sternberger at Texas A&M and, later, the Green Bay Packers.
As Stanley faced his own decision on whether to graduate transfer this past offseason, his mother was well-aware of those notable examples.
“We always had in the back of our minds, are we just being foolish here?" Beth Stanley recalled. "Is the writing on the wall? Should we just leave?”
Saying Stanley wavered on his future with KU this past offseason would be an understatement. To say KU had given the quarterback no reasons to look elsewhere would be inaccurate.
After redshirting in 2015, Stanley was a blip on the program’s radar, a distant third in the subsequent season’s quarterback competition between Cozart and Willis. That pair’s extreme struggles, however, opened the door for Stanley to make a late-season cameo, and he performed admirably in that opportunity, going 9-for-11 passing with two touchdowns and an interception in the Jayhawks’ 48-21 defeat at West Virginia on Nov. 5, 2016.
Stanley had a sense of optimism on that plane ride back, the belief he’d done enough to take over the starting gig. And that gut feeling proved accurate with Stanley starting the team’s final three contests, including an unforgettable 24-21 overtime victory over Texas.
Looking back, Stanley believed at that keystone moment that the team was his.
“I really felt like I kind of took over in that moment," Stanley said. "I felt like I had a great thing going with the guys on the team and in this program in general. I knew they had just gotten Peyton (Bender) to commit, but I really felt like kind of moving forward that was going to be it and I was going to be the guy.”
As Stanley alluded, the commitment of the junior college quarterback Bender less than 24 hours after the Texas victory threw a wrench into his future, though he didn’t feel that way at the time. What followed, however, were two years of frustration — Stanley made four starts as a sophomore and just two as a junior and entered his penultimate campaign as a third-stringer once again, this time behind Bender and then-sophomore Miles Kendrick.
Injuries and ineffectiveness thrust Stanley into his first start of the 2018 season, where he went 24-for-32 for three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 48-28 home loss to Oklahoma State on Sept. 29. It was by many measures the best game for a signal caller of the Beaty era, though the fourth-year coach bizarrely refused to take more than a couple of questions about the quarterback position during his postgame news conference.
Stanley started the next week at West Virginia but got just three series before being benched for Bender. One ended in an interception on a ball tipped at the line of scrimmage. Another concluded with Stanley dropped for a 4-yard loss ... on a play where the Jayhawk offense had just 10 men on the field.
Stanley identified that day as the most disheartening of his college career. In the moment, he felt like he wasn’t even being given an opportunity to succeed.
“Looking back on it now, I also recognize that it was coaches that were kind of, they were on the hot seat," Stanley said. "They were doing everything they could to make things happen for the team and have us find success."
Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham was sacked after that game, and Beaty’s own departure soon followed. Stanley, meanwhile, wouldn’t throw another pass the rest of the season, and with his graduation set for that May, serious doubt crept into his own mind about whether he should remain with the Jayhawks, who in December secured another commitment from a junior college standout, Thomas MacVittie.
Stanley’s name stayed out of the transfer portal, though, and looking back, he at least partially credits what he experienced at the high school level for the faith that, despite the odds, he could not only win the job over another hand-picked transfer but hold onto it for the entirety of his senior season.
“I feel like, somewhere deep down mentally, I felt like that," Stanley said, "that I can make some stuff happen in that last year, in that last minute-type situation."
Stanley’s new head coach may have helped too, but not before putting a few butterflies in the quarterback’s stomach.
* * * * *
Miles had just wrapped his first team meeting as KU’s new head coach, and as he walked toward the exit, he locked eyes with Stanley.
“(He) kind of winked in my direction,” Stanley recalled. “I told my girlfriend it made me more nervous than she ever has.”
Soon after, Stanley and Miles had a face-to-face, where the national championship-winner asked a blunt question aimed at gauging the soon-to-be-senior’s temperature.
“I looked at him and remember saying to him, ‘So who’s going to start?’ ” Miles recalled. “He kind of smiled. He said quietly, you know, by gesture, ‘Me.’ That's what I wanted him to say. Wanted him to take ownership.”
Stanley projected confidence in that moment, but he still had an uphill battle.
While he would remain with the program, he didn’t start its spring game, surrendering that duty to MacVittie. As late as mid-July’s Big 12 media days, Miles told reporters that if the competition were to end that day, the 6-5 junior college transfer would be his starter.
But Stanley remained upbeat, and the month of August belonged to the senior.
Named starter just ahead of the Jayhawks’ 24-17 victory over Indiana State on Aug. 31 — he threw a go-ahead 22-yard touchdown pass with 2:20 remaining in that outcome — Stanley has been at the helm for all but one quarter this season, throwing for 2,569 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions along the way. He keyed KU’s 48-24 upset victory at Boston College in Week 3, and since the run-pass option specialist Brent Dearmon’s ascent to offensive coordinator at midseason, Stanley’s production has seen an even more significant uptick.
Beth Stanley has been thrilled by how it’s all played out.
“We always knew Carter had it in him to be a gamer," she said. "We just wish that he would’ve had a little more consistent playing time. ...
“He’s really in his element when he’s around all these boys. He’s so kind-hearted that I think his nature makes him approachable, but he’s also really, really competitive. Football really matters to him, and I think it’s that balance of just being a nice guy and a true competitor with grit that comes out to be a good equation for leadership.”
The Stanley clan will be well-represented in the stands Saturday, which will be another opportunity at an upset for the 14-point underdog Jayhawks — “I can only just say, if he could perform magic on Saturday, I know he would,” Beth said, “because he’s just really trying to make everyone happy and proud that this team is really trying to show what they’ve got.”
That fighting spirit, even in the face of the greatest adversity, is how Beth would ideally like KU fans to remember her son once the final whistle sounds on his college career.
Adeniji struck a similar tone.
“To me, man, Carter’s a guy that came in and worked his tail off every day. He gives his all to the team,” Adeniji said. “He’ll put his body on the line, he’ll take whatever. He takes a lot of criticism, but I mean, he’s a heck of a player, heck of a competitor, heck of a leader."
As far as what Stanley’s future holds, there seems to be a consensus there, as well.
“I think if you and I both have a pocket full of money we should invest it in a Carter Stanley fund,” Jankowski said, “because I’m sure whatever it is, whatever it’s going to be, whether it’s in football or out of football, he’s going to be a success.”
“He’s not going to be the guy in the quarterback room most likely that has the biggest arm and does those kind of things, but you put him as the face of your team and you allow him to lead your team, I don’t know that there’s anybody better," Jankowski said. "I think that if he gets an opportunity, I think he has a future in football. It’s just a matter of somebody being willing to give him that opportunity.
“He’s fought through that so far in his football career, so I would say he’s capable of doing it at the next level.”