LAWRENCE — In Les Miles’ first year with Kansas football, the national championship-winning head coach broke the cycle.
Well, at least in one very notable way.
While Miles’ first season with the Jayhawks concluded with a ho-hum 3-9 record and a less-than-impressive 1-8 mark in Big 12 play, he did what two of his failed predecessors couldn’t — Miles resisted the temptation to go quick-fix in recruiting, securing a 30-player Class of 2020 comprised entirely of high schoolers. It was a far cry from the junior college-heavy classes of Charlie Weis and David Beaty that both reeked of desperation and put the program’s scholarship numbers in a downward spiral.
And the composition of Miles' first full class doesn't appear to be a fluke, either: All of the 21 oral commitments the Jayhawks currently have in the Class of 2021 come from players at the high school level.
"I think that’s the vision from the head coach — he wants to build this the right way," said Joshua Eargle, the Jayhawks' first-year recruiting coordinator. "He wants to take the time, and he’s going to do this the hard way. Sometimes getting a young man that’s not already ready-made or two years more developed out of a junior college is harder, but at the same time it’s going to produce dividends because you’re getting a young man that’s going to be all invested, you’re going to have that product for four years."
How Miles’ patient approach affects his team’s immediate future, on the other hand, will soon be revealed.
Here are two key questions, players and matchups for this year’s Jayhawks:
1. Who replaces Carter Stanley?
After a decade of searching, KU finally found a Big 12-caliber quarterback last season.
Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, it came in the form of a fifth-year senior who is no longer at the team’s disposal.
Stanley, who struggled to gain traction during former head coach David Beaty’s tenure, had no such issue during Miles’ first season in Lawrence — the 6-foot-2, 198-pounder started all 12 games for the Jayhawks, completing 226 of 371 pass attempts for 2,661 yards, 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his last go-round. Stanley engineered upset victories over Boston College and Texas Tech and was at his best during a near-stunner at nationally ranked Texas.
With Stanley gone and KU unable to land a transfer at quarterback in the offseason, the Jayhawks will hope to find an in-house replacement. Senior Thomas MacVittie and junior Miles Kendrick are the top contenders to step into the starting role, though neither have inspired confidence in the handful of appearances they’ve made as Jayhawks.
Then again, until last season, neither had Stanley.
2. Will Miles interfere with the playcalling?
KU last season also appeared to discover a reliable offensive coordinator — and perhaps a head-coach-in-waiting — in Brent Dearmon.
Whether the run-pass option specialist is unfettered in his duties remains to be seen.
Dearmon drew praise as a first-year analyst early on in the 2019 campaign, his concepts widely credited for aiding the Jayhawks’ 48-24 victory at Boston College in Week 3. He took over for the fired Les Koenning with six games left, and the move paid immediate dividends — KU nearly knocked off the then-No. 15 Longhorns in Austin in an eventual 50-48 defeat in Dearmon’s debut, then toppled the Red Raiders 37-34 the following week.
The Jayhawks averaged 24.2 points across the season’s second half, but the transition at coordinator wasn’t entirely seamless — a 38-10 home defeat to Kansas State in Week 9 perhaps led to more Miles influence in the playcalling, with an uptick in the usage of power football plays coming after that setback.
Will Miles, who garnered heat for meddling in offenses during his LSU tenure, give Dearmon carte blanche?
"I’ve said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great coordinator. Let’s let him coordinate,’ " Miles said. "He’s got a full-fledged offense there in my opinion and we’ll let him have at it."
1. Junior running back Pooka Williams
Another year, another all-eyes-on-me season for the Jayhawks’ dynamic running back.
Named an All-Big 12 first-team selection by the Associated Press, Williams enjoyed a strong sophomore season. The 5-10, 170-pound New Orleans native carried the ball 203 times for 1,042 yards and three touchdowns, also bringing in 27 receptions for 214 yards and two scores.
In some ways, though, it wasn’t the encore effort many had expected.
Williams set the bar high as a true freshman, averaging 7 yards per carry and tallying 10 total touchdowns — seven rushing, two receiving and one passing. With a greater workload in 2019, however, Williams’ per-carry average fell by nearly two full yards (5.2).
As a sophomore, Williams was too often asked to line up in predictable power football formations and run head-first into nine-man boxes. And while he ranked third in the nation in broken tackles per rushing attempt (0.37), Williams could only make so much "Pooka magic" happen in those scenarios.
KU’s success will depend on whether the team can be more creative with Williams.
2. Senior wide receiver Andrew Parchment
Parchment came out of nowhere — well, Iowa Central Community College, but close enough — to post the best season by a Jayhawk wide receiver in a decade.
The 6-2, 180-pounder out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., put himself on the map with a 65-catch, 831-yard, seven-touchdown debut season for KU, serving as Stanley’s most reliable weapon. Parchment exploded onto the scene with three 100-plus-yard receiving efforts in the Jayhawks' first four contests, and his seven-catch, 109-yard output helped KU earn its win over Texas Tech, the team's lone Big 12 victory.
Uncertainty at quarterback may hinder Parchment’s chances at a repeat performance, but keep an eye on this: With fellow seniors Stephon Robinson and Kwamie Lassiter in the fold, as well as touted true freshmen Lawrence Arnold and Luke Grimm, the Jayhawks may boast their deepest wide receiving corps since the days of Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier.
1. vs. Coastal Carolina (9 p.m. Sept. 12)
Winners of just six Big 12 contests across the last 10 seasons, KU has often found itself needing to nab a nonconference victory to simply avoid a completely winless campaign.
A shortened season means the Jayhawks will get exactly one crack at doing just that.
KU will welcome Coastal Carolina for a season-opening contest at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Originally scheduled home openers against New Hampshire (Sept. 5) and Southern Illinois (Aug. 29) were both axed due to coronavirus-related changes, with the Jayhawks now playing host to the Chanticleers — the teams had originally been scheduled for a Sept. 26 clash in Conway, S.C.
While it may be KU’s best shot at a victory this season, the Coastal Carolina contest won’t be a layup — the Chanticleers defeated the Jayhawks 12-7 a season ago in Lawrence in what became the lowlight of Miles’ first season at the helm.
2. vs. TCU (TBD Nov. 28)
The Horned Frogs are the one conference opponent the Jayhawks have been able to play tough during the decade-long stretch of Big 12 futility.
This year may go a long way in determining whether that statement still rings true.
KU and TCU have had four outcomes decided by one touchdown or less across the last six seasons, with the Jayhawks earning a 27-26 home victory over the Horned Frogs in the programs’ last meeting in Lawrence on Oct. 27, 2018. Sandwiched between that result, however, are 43-0 and 51-14 home victories for TCU during the 2017 and 2019 campaigns, respectively.
KU is projected to finish last in the Big 12 preseason poll, while TCU was slotted sixth. The teams’ Nov. 28 contest will represent the Jayhawks’ home finale.
KU FOOTBALL TWO-DEEP
QB — Thomas MacVittie, Miles Kendrick
RB — Pooka Williams, Velton Gardner
TE — Jack Luavasa, Mason Fairchild
RT — Earl Bostick, Nick Williams
RG — Chris Hughes, Jacobi Lott
C — Api Mane, Garrett Jones
LG — Adagio Lopeti, Jacobi Lott
LT — Malik Clark, Earl Bostick
WR — Andrew Parchment, Lawrence Arnold
WR — Stephon Robinson, Takulve Williams
WR — Kwamie Lassiter, Luke Grimm
DE — Caleb Sampson, Marcus Harris
DT — Sam Burt, DaJon Terry
DE — Malcom Lee, Jelani Arnold
ILB — Dru Prox, Denzel Feaster
OLB — Steven Parker, Steven Parker
ILB — Gavin Potter, Jay Dineen
N/HAWK — Kenny Logan, Davon Ferguson
S — Ricky Thomas, Kenny Logan
S — Davon Ferguson, Kenny Logan
CB — Kyle Mayberry, Karon Prunty
CB — Elijah Jones, Corione Harris
K — Liam Jones, Jacob Borcila
P — Kyle Thompson, Donovan Gagen
KR — Jamahl Horne, Kenny Logan
PR — Kwamie Lassiter, Stephon Robinson