Kansas football: Future looks bright after year one under Lance Leipold

Year one of the Lance Leipold era is officially in the books as the Jayhawks’ season ended Saturday night in a loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers. While the loss was disappointing, there is a lot to be excited about with the Kansas football program going forward.

Prior to the start of the season, I wrote that Leipold’s first year should not be judged solely based on wins and losses.

That would not have been fair to him, or his staff, based on the unusual timing of when they came on board, having no input on spring practices, and having just a month’s time to truly evaluate this team on the field before their first game against South Dakota.

Let’s look at the four main areas where I said they needed to make improvements to consider this year a successful season.

Player development

We knew Kansas was going to be at a disadvantage talent wise given that Leipold had no control over the majority of this roster.

Other than the handful of players who transferred from Buffalo, these players were not recruited by him or his staff, and they had to work with the hand they were given. What made it even more challenging is that some of the most talented players (like Karon Prunty, Marcus Harris, and DaJon Terry) transferred away in the offseason.

Player development typically occurs in the offseason as well, so the fact that the players didn’t have a full offseason under strength and conditioning coach Matt Gildersleeve also put them in a weakened spot.

However, it was clear that if KU had any hopes in competing this year it was going to be because this coaching staff maximized the talent they had to work with. And I believe they did that.

Players like Jared Casey, Devin Neal, Luke Grimm, and others got better as the year went on and became big contributors towards the end of the season.

The offensive line was perhaps the biggest improvement from a year ago, as the Jayhawks are currently tied for 16th in the country in fewest sacks allowed this season. Kansas was dead last in the FBS in that category a year ago.

If this type of development carries through the offseason, then Kansas could have a much scarier team in 2022.

Controlling the penalties

In the past, penalties have been major roadblocks for Kansas teams. Given the former talent (and frankly the coaching) discrepancies between KU and most of their opponents, every major penalty felt like an obstacle KU couldn’t overcome.

That’s something that is controllable with better discipline and attention to technique and fundamentals – which is something this new staff clearly provided.

As of now, KU is ranked No. 6 in the country in fewest penalties per game. Last season, they were ranked No. 62.

That’s a huge difference maker for such a young, improving team that certainly helped KU be more competitive this season.

If the staff can work with the players on proper tackling this offseason, the Jayhawks should take an even bigger step next year.

Making adjustments

This was always going to be a learning year for both the players and the coaches.

Who the starters were at the beginning of the season, which plays were best suited for the offense, defensive positioning, etc. were all going to change as the year went on and coaches learned more about the players.

But I felt it was important for Leipold and company to show the ability to change when things weren’t working.

The challenge for the coaching staff this year was they didn’t have a deep roster of players to simply sit and start whenever they felt like it. Pair that with injuries and they were left limited options at some positions.

But the biggest adjustment I saw that made a mountain of difference for this team in the second half of the season was their decision to continue starting Jalon Daniels even after Bean came back from injury.

Even though Daniels balled out against Texas on the road in what ended up being an historic victory for the program, they could have very easily split the snaps between he and Bean or given the starting job back to Bean and made Daniels preserve his redshirt eligibility.

But they didn’t.

They saw that the offense was better and more explosive with Daniels in the starting lineup, and though it didn’t result in any more wins following the Texas game, the Jayhawks had a real chance to win both of their remaining games.

There is still a lot of adjustments to be made this offseason, particularly on defense, but that should get easier as the staff is able to address roster deficiencies through recruiting and the transfer portal.

Steady improvement

Though wins and losses wasn’t my measuring stick for a successful season, I did hope to see the team become more competitive as the season went on.

It was brutal watching many KU teams this past decade look completely outmatched and out of games. It made it hard to watch, hurting viewership and ticket sales.

But this season, the team did get better, and they were in games well into the second half.

In their final six games, KU almost beat (at the time) a top-10 ranked Oklahoma team, they beat Texas on the road, lost to TCU on a last-second field goal, and lost by one touchdown to West Virginia.

That’s significant improvement from earlier in the year when they got blown out by Coastal Carolina, Baylor, Iowa State, and Texas Tech by more than three touchdowns each game.

The team didn’t stop fighting and they gave us a product worth watching until the end.

If KU can build upon the impressive improvements made this year despite the different challenges they faced, then this team could reach new heights in 2022.