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Lance Leipold’s ’Hawks prep for the new Big 12

Challenging schedule, including three of four new conference schools, looms for KU football.

by Chris Lazzarino

Given that every football coach who’s ever seen a Bill Belichick press conference would sooner post playbook pics to Instagram than discuss distant opponents, it seemed KU football’s Aug. 16 media day might be the best—and only—opportunity to get third-year coach Lance Leipold to offer insights into the new-look Big 12 and the rugged schedule awaiting his ’Hawks. In the spirit of full disclosure, it was also apparent that a big-picture overview might work best, since this issue of Kansas Alumni would go to press a week before the Sept. 1 season opener against Missouri State.

Turns out Leipold was in the mood to look down the road, as evidenced by his glancing toward a wall display that highlights the full season’s game schedule—a Mrkonic Auditorium feature that feels utterly out of character for a team that preaches complete focus and total commitment to living in the now, with daily goals of 1% improvement.

“Control what you can control, and, in this instance, we don’t control a whole lot about who’s in the conference, but we’re excited about the new members,” Leipold said. “I kind of go back to my early coaching days, when playing different teams was fun. Sometimes we lose that about some of these experiences, but, again, top to bottom, we’re confident that this is the most competitive conference in Power Five football.”

True to form, Leipold circled back to the next opponent, which at the time was 16 days away from arriving on KU’s home turf: In their third game of the season, Leipold noted, the 2022 Missouri State Bears carried a 24-17 lead into the fourth quarter at Arkansas, until the Razorbacks—who later defeated KU in the thrilling Liberty Bowl—rallied with three late touchdowns, including a 73-yard scoring pass and an 82-yard punt return.

“They could have won that game,” Leipold said of the Bears, who closed their season with three wins in their final four games. “We need to make sure we show full respect there.”

After Missouri State, KU welcomes Illinois, travels to Nevada, and, on Sept. 23, opens Big 12 play with a home game against conference newcomer BYU. Coaches across the conference will be challenged by game preparation for unknown newcomers—which for KU will be BYU, Central Florida (Oct. 7) and Cincinnati (Nov. 25)—yet Leipold pointed out that, by closing the regular season with the Bearcats, the Jayhawks might enjoy a slight edge on other Big 12 teams since they’ll have a full season of game tape available to review for a program with a new coaching staff.

“And next year we’re adding four more schools that are going to be challenging, so it’s going to be exciting,” Leipold said. “I think we’re going to be sitting here from now on talking about balance and competitiveness.”

As of media day, the biggest news to emerge from August training camp was a back injury—described only as “tightness”—that had kept junior quarterback Jalon Daniels out of practice for at least nine days. “We expect him to be back,” Leipold said of Daniels, who last season threw for 2,014 yards and 18 touchdowns despite missing four games to a shoulder injury. Said Daniels, “I’m feeling good. I’m staying in contact with the trainers and just waiting for them to let me get back.”

Should the injury persist for KU’s first Preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, Daniels has a rock-solid backup in senior Jason Bean, who returned to the program after initially indicating—following the Liberty Bowl game that ended with his errant pass—that he’d likely depart.

“He could have packed up and left town, but he came right back and said he wanted to be part of this program,” Leipold said. “His growth, maturity and leadership have taken leaps and bounds from January to where he’s at now. … I think it’s a great story, one I’ll always remember, because Jason’s growth, not just as a quarterback but as a young man, has been fun to watch.”

Said offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki, “Look at how many Power Five teams have starting quarterbacks right now who have won games, and then look at how many have two on their roster. It’s a blessing. He’s had a great camp, and we’re super proud of Jason and what he’s done.

“He’s a great example of somebody who’s just getting better every day, so does it give us a lot of confidence? Heck yeah it does.”

Chris Lazzarino, j’86, is associate editor of Kansas Alumni magazine.

Top photo by Kansas Athletics
Bottom photo by Andrew White/KU Marketing

Issue 3, 2023


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