'We can't lose anybody': KU football enters pivotal, and perhaps transformative, summer

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas defensive players on the White team celebrate a pick-six by freshman cornerback Jacobee Bryant (2) in the first quarter of Saturday's spring game scrimmage at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.

LAWRENCE — Emmett Jones addressed his players for a final time as interim head coach. Assistant coaches Joshua Eargle and Kwahn Drake embraced one another. Players and coaches jogged off Kivisto Field, some almost certainly for the final time.

Kansas football’s spring game had just concluded, as did a month of practices held under a cloud of uncertainty. That forecast changed Friday with KU's hiring of Lance Leipold as Les Miles' replacement at head coach, but where Leipold takes this team and how several key Jayhawks respond to his arrival now become the biggest unknowns in a pivotal — and potentially transformative — summer for the long-suffering program.

“We just want to win,” said senior linebacker Nate Betts, speaking after Saturday night’s spring game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. “We want to get better, we want to grind. We want to do all we can to help KU and help this thing get turned over.

"Whatever comes ahead of us, God put us there, so whatever happens, happens.”

Jones, who led players and staff members in a postgame prayer following the exhibition matchup that pitted the Jayhawks’ offensive and defensive units against one another, earned the nod to be the team’s interim head coach following a grassroots campaign by a dozen-plus players on social media. He was later named a candidate for the permanent opening, but KU ultimately went with Leipold, and it remains to be seen whether the former Buffalo head coach intends to retain the wide receivers coach, passing game coordinator and important recruiter on his staff.

Jones didn’t speak to the media following Saturday’s spring game, but all three players who did said Jones’ role is critical in keeping the team together in the two months since the embattled Miles accepted a buyout of the remaining three years on his deal.

“Even though things were uncertain — we didn’t know what was going to happen — (Jones) kept us focused,” said Mason Fairchild, a junior tight end with three years of eligibility remaining. “We just wanted to keep improving and moving forward. He said that we can’t be looking backwards. Otherwise, we’ll never get that 1% (improvement) each day. So I think definitely we did a good job of that. Coach Jones kept that energy rolling and ultimately I think we got better this spring, for sure.”

Senior defensive lineman Sam Burt theorized that Jones’ impassioned address to his players in Saturday's postgame gathering came from a place of pride over what the team has been able to accomplish despite the barrage of distractions coming from all directions.

“We’ve gone through a lot this year and especially thing spring, and so I think his emotion is really toward just seeing that progress that we’ve made and seeing how we were able to perform at the spring game, at the end of the spring season and where we were at (when it started),” Burt said. “And a lot of that goes to him and his energy and just bringing us together as a unit through those difficult times. His leadership has set the foundation for us to make a really good culture and keep that really good culture continuing on.”

Jones’ only request of the players, Betts detailed, was to keep looking toward the future.

“He always tells us to just go out there and face what we’ve got in front of us and not dwell on the past,” Betts said. “A lot of us, it was kind of an emotional place for us because of the stuff that’s going on. But the thing is, we all gotta place in where we’re supposed to be. So our main thing is just to move forward.”

Leipold struck a similar tone in his first address to his new team. After Friday’s practice he told the assembled group of players that, while much of what’s happened over the last two months has been out of their hands, they can control their effort, attitude and how they approach each day. “We will win here, I promise you. I promise you. All I ask is for your best,” Leipold said.

Leipold acknowledged that “relationships are built on trust” and noted the players likely had “a lot of questions,” including what the future holds for their position coaches. Despite that uncertainty, those within the walls of the Jayhawk locker room are taking the transition in stride, Fairchild said.

“The spirits are a lot better than you’d think because, I mean, we just want to stay focused and locked in and not really let outside things affect us,” Fairchild said. “We love Coach Jones and I know we’re going to love Coach Leipold, so just staying locking in to what you have right in front of you at this very moment was very important to us. ...

“(Leipold) seems like a really great guy. I feel like he’s going to be a really great fit for us. The way he spoke, I think it clicked with some of our guys. I’m excited to see where we’re going to go with him.”

Burt, an Abilene native who has witnessed a great deal of roster and coaching staff turnover since his arrival at KU in 2017, indicated it’s the responsibility of the team’s seniors to mentor younger players to ensure that this offseason doesn’t become a potentially program-crippling mass exodus of those expected to be the team’s future.

The pitch to stick around, he said, will be to “finish the mission in the fall.”

“I think it’s important that we all stay together and try to keep this thing moving forward, and that’s what Coach Jones was saying today and before practices, after practices,” Burt said. “We have so much great momentum right now and so much great work and foundation. We can’t lose that. We can’t lose the young guys. We can’t lose anybody.”

With just four months left until KU’s season opener on Sept. 4 in Lawrence, one would assume some degree of continuity and carryover from this spring would be key to any aspirations of first-year success for Leipold. But even if the new head coach opts for major overhauls, Burt would still be bullish on his teammates’ capacity to roll with the punches.

It’s a skill they’ve grown quite proficient at over the last month, after all.

“We’ve taken such big strides. I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve never seen such big strides taken with a culture before as we did this spring, working through tough times and coming together through them and not separating,” Burt said. “That’s something special I’ve seen out of this group. I think we’ll continue that through the summer.”

Defense dominates the day

KU’s defense prevailed 74-42 in the spring game, which utilized situational starting field position and gimmicked scoring.

Jacobee Bryant, Malcolm Lee and Johnquai Lewis had interceptions, with the freshman cornerback Bryant returning his pick 44 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter. Kyron Johnson recorded two sacks, while teammates Nick Channel, Caleb Taylor, Caleb Sampson and Jereme Robinson each dropped the quarterback one time apiece for the White squad (defense).

“We really just laid it all out for these coaches and this group,” said Burt, who had a pass breakup and a tackle-for-loss.

The setup rewarded the defense points for touchdowns (6), fourth-down stops (3), missed field goal tries (3), sacks (2), tackles-for-loss (1), three-and-outs forced (1) and stopped drives (1), while the offense scored via traditional means and also through explosive plays (3) and by recording two or more first downs on a single drive (1). Daniel Hishaw Jr.'s short scoring scamper represented the only touchdown for the Blue team (offense), which settled for five field goals.

Kansas senior defensive end Sam Burt tips sophomore quarterback Jalon Daniels' pass in the first quarter of Saturday's spring game scrimmage at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.
Kansas junior linebacker Gavin Potter brings down freshman running back Amauri Pesek-Hickson in the second quarter of Saturday's spring game scrimmage at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.
Kansas sophomore running back Daniel Hishaw Jr. attempts to evade defenders in the first quarter of Saturday's spring game scrimmage at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.
Kansas freshman running back Amauri Pesek-Hickson pushes through White team defenders in the first quarter of Saturday's spring game scrimmage at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.