I have the same pre-season Kansas football ritual.
It takes place around the week or so leading up to the regular season opener. I read all of the talk of confidence surrounding the team, listen to the talk of the new transfer QB who will finally supercharge the offense (you guys remember Dayne Crist? Jake Heaps is going to be better), and see the guys like Dorance Armstrong get early recognition from the Big 12.
What I read, listen to, and see makes me talk myself into thinking this could be the year Kansas starts the slow climb up the mountain back to relevance. My optimism isn’t anything crazy; three or four wins, one being in conference play. Progress.
It hasn’t exactly worked out, as you already know. And each year I tell myself I’ll believe it when I see it. Then the anticipation of the season brings me back to wondering how this could be the year.
So here we are again, a few months earlier than usual, and I’m going to try and once again find reasons for optimism and hope.
Since Charlie Weis left the program in ruins, Kansas has struggled to even get a manageable number of scholarship bodies on the roster. Not only are the Jayhawks getting closer to the max of 85 scholarships this year, the talent has clearly improved. Kansas signed two Rivals top-200 players this year for the first time, cornerback Corione Harris (the No. 105 player) and running back Anthony (Pooka) Williams (No. 178).
The Jayhawks need as many playmakers as they can get, especially at those positions. Harris can ideally help the secondary immediately, playing with Mike Lee and across from Hasan Defense. Meanwhile, Williams looks to be a bright spot in a crowded backfield.
Arguably the best (or most memorable) Big 12 game for Kansas last year was its first against West Virginia. That’s because of Khalil Herbert. Herbert rushed for 291 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries, single-handedly carrying the offense and keeping the Jayhawks in the game, a week after rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries against Ohio.
The issue was health, as Herbert was held out of the Iowa State game in mid-October and after that never carried the ball more than 13 times in a game or for more than 71 yards in a game. Yet he still managed to average 5.5 yards per carry on the season, while the rushing attack as a whole only averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
It’s not surprising Kansas’ offense significantly dropped off with Herbert hobbled with injuries. The two games Kansas was shut out (back-to-back against Iowa State and TCU) were the games Herbert sat out and then rushed six times for eight yards. The rest of the rushing attack ran for 62 and -25 yards in those two games, and with no threat to run, the passing game was just as bad.
If Herbert can stay healthy, and receive assistance from Pooka Williams, Taylor Martin, and Dom Williams, Kansas’ running attack could help open up the offense and keep the Jayhawks in games longer.
When Athlon released the preseason Big 12 all-conference teams, the teams with the most first-team defensive selections were Texas, Iowa State, Texas Tech and...Kansas. Joe Dineen, who led the conference in tackles (and was 10th in the country), solo tackles, and tackles for loss in 2017, and Daniel Wise, who recorded seven sacks from the defensive line, are back and on the first team. Having Michael Lee and Corione Harris in the secondary gives the Jayhawks strength at every level.
Kansas had all of those guys (minus Harris) last year and were second to last in the country in points allowed, which is where the 10 defensive players in the 2018 recruiting class can hopefully help. Joining Harris are seven three-star defensive recruits, including JUCO cornerbacks Elijah Jones and Elmore Hempstead. Dineen and Wise will still be the stars, but when teams actively run away from them, the Jayhawks need competence from side to side. The Jayhawks are counting on these transfers to provide that, whether right away or by the end of the year.
Because It’s Gotta Happen Sometime
Look, here’s the thing. I’ve tried to give reasons rooted in some sort of evidence of potential or progress. But as they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while. Kansas can’t win one game a year for the end of time. (Right? RIGHT??) Every once in a while things click, the personnel shines, a team gets a bit lucky, and the blind squirrel comes across a nut and Kansas wins four games. Four games, that’s all I’m saying.
I don’t need the Jayhawks to go from winless to undefeated in two years like UCF just did (that’s an insane accomplishment... which is why they are our true national champions as decreed by law). Just enough of an upgrade in talent and luck to gain hope. Maybe this is the year?
What did I miss? Are there any other specific reasons you’re optimistic about the 2018 season?