Football looks to bright new stars
Shortly after the Big 12 on Dec. 10 announced the COVID-related cancellation of KU’s Dec. 12 home game against Texas, coach Les Miles tweeted, “Here come the Jayhawks! #RockChalk”
The upbeat message might have seemed out of place, considering the Jayhawks had concluded a winless season with a canceled game, but the positive outlook was trademark Miles, who is determined to emphasize enthusiasm for a rebuilding program that has concluded only its second season.
At the Dec. 16 early signing day news conference, Miles noted that 27 true freshmen played in 2020, including 20 scholarship players, and 11 true freshmen started at least one game. All faced challenging odds, given the loss of summer training and limits and disruptions at preseason camp, and the rest of the young roster—35 scholarship players from Miles’ first two recruiting classes have appeared in at least one game, and 23 have started—also lost out on spring football, their critical development period.
“We went out and got guys who are winners,” Miles said. “Guys who have played and competed and understand what it’s like to win, to help us change the culture.”
The Jayhawks finished the early signing period with the Big 12’s fifth-ranked recruiting class, as judged by Rivals.com, and KU’s incoming class includes Lawrence running back Devin Neal, the top high-school prospect in Kansas.
“Guys who are the best prospects,” Miles said, “are also the guys who accept the challenge of changing culture and winning. Devin Neal will be a leader on our team, and certainly there’s a number of guys who accepted that challenge.”
The infectiously upbeat messages briefly dimmed with the unexpected departure of offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon, who left for Middle Tennessee State, but yet again Miles swiftly pivoted to the positive when he introduced veteran Mike DeBord, who previously served as offensive coordinator at Michigan, Tennessee and Indiana.
“The key piece for me,” Miles said Feb. 3, “is knowing that he will impart team, the feeling of doing something for others, I have your back.”
DeBord said that as soon as he and Miles first started talking about the KU job, he immediately began watching film of the 2020 Jayhawks. While noting that he intends to clean up some technique and scheme issues, he insisted that KU football is closer to success than those who lived through the winless season—players, coaches and even fans—probably realize.
“Sometimes you think you’re a long way off and you’re not,” DeBord said. “We’re going to get this done. I have no doubt in my mind.”
A big part of his job will be motivating the program’s young players, but roles switched during an introductory phone call with one of last season’s freshman starts, quarterback Jalon Daniels.
“I was already jumping for joy,” DeBord said, “but that kid had me even more excited, just listening to him. That’s what youth does to you. Youth excites you. Youth pushes you harder, pushes you stronger.”
New offensive line coach Lee Grimes—named to Texas A&M’s All-Decade team for 2000-2010—takes over what is likely the most experienced group at KU, including three “superseniors” who are able to return thanks to the grace year allowed athletes after the chaotic COVID year. (Miles confirmed to the Lawrence Journal-World that five other seniors, including receiver Kwamie Lassiter II and linebacker Kyron Johnson, also chose to return.)
Introduced alongside DeBord, Grimes said he’ll benefit by working with a new offensive coordinator, since he’s not the only guy trying to get caught up on the playbook. He says his linemen already “have all the attributes that I’m looking for,” and he’ll push the O-line to set the tone for growth across the entire offense.
“There’s no panic here. The foundation is set,” Grimes said. “We’re going to keep building it the right way, and when you do that, you build lasting success.”
Much to KU’s relief, the good news continued in February with a commitment from Dallas receiver Quaydarius Davis, who chose KU over Alabama, LSU, Oregon, USC and Texas to become KU’s first four-star recruit since the Rivals rankings began in 1999.
“Coming to take over, man, change the culture,” Davis said in a video posted by KU football. “Let’s get it.”