LAWRENCE — Wednesday was a day of several firsts for Kansas football — the team’s first spring practice, its first inside the new indoor practice facility and the first official one under Les Miles.
And, as the first-year head coach revealed shortly after the horn sounded on the afternoon’s final drill, the day represented something else: The first meaningful step in what he expects to be a miles-long journey.
“I feel pretty good about the start of things we’ve got to get accomplished,” Miles said, “and those would be a laundry list.”
The Jayhawks’ near two-plus-hour session didn’t include much heavy lifting — the team only “scratched the surface” of its playbook, said Miles, who labeled the no-shoulder-pads requirement “a miserable thing for a coach, because that’s not how you practice football.”
Despite the limitations, he was pleased with what the team got done.
“The things that we did do were important and (are) things that we’ll be doing on Saturdays, but it’s down the road,” Miles said. “We’re looking for the playmakers that make those plays for us, and we’re still evaluating.”
Miles, of course, is tasked with turning around the losing culture of a program that has gone 23-96 in the years since its last winning campaign in 2008. It doesn’t seem, however, that the national championship-winning coach believes that assignment will be as Herculean as outsiders may assume.
He has already established and is meeting weekly with what he labeled a “unity council,” a group of players elected by each position group to identify the “best player, best kid, best person ... the guy that will do right in a position where he needs to do right.” It’s an idea a former assistant coach suggested to Miles during the latter’s stint at Oklahoma State, and within three days, he set the idea in motion.
At KU, the early returns have been encouraging.
“I’ve never had a team that I did not have some leadership structure in place that I spoke to, and this group of guys, they’re ambitious, but they’re still figuring out the new coach,” Miles said. “... They have something to prove.”
Even before Wednesday’s first official practice, Miles has seen that leadership in other places.
He spoke of “painful” workouts the program has held at 5:55 a.m., of which the Jayhawk players have already experienced “seven or eight” times. Those sessions are followed by sprints and finally football-like drills with a twist, a demanding test but one where leadership has shined to this point, Miles indicated.
“They have responded extremely well,” Miles said. “It’s hard work. It’s very much like a game. If you jump offsides, we’re going to have you penalized. It’s demanding. And they have really done a great job achieving and going at those reps very hard. Those (leadership members) have done a really good job accommodating that event, those morning workouts.”
On limited sessions such as Wednesday, where rubber doesn’t exactly meet the road, Miles visits position group after position group. There, he hopes to witness the same players elected to the unity council stoking the necessary fires in what can be an admittedly mundane setting.
The most important aspect to any kind of potential culture turnaround, Miles said, is that it can’t come from, well, Miles.
“I think the key piece (is) identifying culture and having (the players) put their initials on it — ‘that’s mine; that’s what we’re going to be,’ ” Miles said. “ ... I don’t want to hurry it because it’s theirs, and it has to be theirs. If it’s mine, it’s just another guy talking. If it’s theirs, it makes a difference.”
NO POOKA TIMETABLE
Running back Anthony "Pooka" Williams was not a participant in Wednesday's practice, and Miles gave no indication that the suspended standout has returned to the team.
Asked if there is a timetable on a potential return for Williams, who is withheld indefinitely from team activities as he seeks the completion of terms to a diversion agreement granted following his December arrest and subsequent charge of misdemeanor domestic violence, Miles stated “no.”
“It’s an ongoing process,” Miles said. “It’s not one that we’ll mess with in any way.”
If Williams, the defending Big 12 offensive freshman of the year, cannot agree to terms on his diversion agreement, he will appear before a jury at a trial set to begin at 9 a.m. June 3.
Addressing a more general question about the depth of the running back position, Miles didn’t mention Williams by name but did allude to his uncertain future.
“I think we have a number of guys that can play, with (senior) Khalil Herbert. But we don’t have one of the running backs that we will eventually see if we can have him,” Miles said. “And (junior) Dom Williams. Those two will be the two we would turn to on a regular basis."
Williams rushed for 1,125 yards and accounted for 10 total touchdowns last season.