You probably don’t need a refresher course on everything that’s gone wrong with the Kansas football program during the last four seasons. Coaching changes. Shoddy defense. Poor quarterback play. A toxic stew that has resulted in six victories in KU’s last 37 games.
Jake Heaps knows some of these numbers. But not all. When the Jayhawks’ slide began during the 2009 season, Heaps was a senior at Skyline High in Seattle. He was one of the best prep prospects in the country then, a 6-foot-2 pro-style quarterback with offers from the likes of Tennessee, Washington, Notre Dame and BYU.
But nearly four years later — after a commitment, a transfer and a year on the sideline — Heaps sat in the KU football offices and was reminded of where the Jayhawks’ program has been. No, he says, he’s never been a part of a rebuilding project like this. But that’s what makes it fun.
“I was definitely waiting for this opportunity,” Heaps says.
After a three-year college detour that included two years at BYU, Heaps is more interested in talking about the future. After his first spring as the Jayhawks’ starting quarterback, Heaps, a junior, is hoping to be part of a group that can help second-year coach Charlie Weis lift Kansas from the depths of a one-win season in 2012.
The process will continue with the Jayhawks’ annual spring game at 1 p.m. Saturday in Memorial Stadium.
“Right from the get-go, you could see a major talent difference,” Heaps said of spring practice. “You could see the boost in talent, and just the overall progression of our football team, being in year two under Coach Weis.”
You may have heard part of this story before, of course. Heaps is a former five-star recruit who fell out of favor at BYU after setting nearly every freshman passing record during his first season with the Cougars. He came to Kansas looking for a second chance under a coach (Weis) who had recruited him back in high school. And this leads to natural comparisons with former KU quarterback Dayne Crist, who arrived under similar circumstances last season before struggling to fulfill his potential in a rocky senior season.
For now, Weis has been hesitant to lavish too much praise on Heaps. He learned his lesson last season, he says, and he wants his new quarterback to be free of such sky-high expectations.
“What we don’t want to do is put any unnecessary pressure on him as ‘the savior,’ ” Weis said of Heaps. “But at the same time, the expectation I put on Jake won’t exceed the expectations he puts on himself. He has high expectations for himself and that is a good place to start because normally, the problem I have is, my expectations are higher than the players’.”
Heaps’ story, though, is a little different than Crist’s. For one, he had the benefit of a year on the Kansas sideline last season, while Crist was thrown into the fire as a senior transfer. Heaps was able to put roots down in Lawrence, settling in with his wife, Brooke, and learn the system. And if all goes well, he should have two full seasons to grow under Weis.
“Having success and having failure,” Heaps says, “you definitely understand what you need to do to turn those failures into positives.”
Heaps definitely has had plenty of both. In his freshman season at BYU, he led the Cougars to a bowl game and was selected MVP of the New Mexico Bowl after a blowout victory over UTEP. But after some early-season struggles as a sophomore, Heaps was replaced by back-up Riley Nelson before transferring after the season.
“Those experiences are so valuable,” Heaps says of his time at BYU. “I really can’t describe how valuable those are. Because when you’re a new guy, heading out there, and getting thrown into the fire, everything just feels like it’s a million miles an hour.”
This spring, Heaps has been able to slow the process down. After serving as the Jayhawks’ scout-team quarterback last season, he’s running ahead of sophomore back-up Michael Cummings, who played in relief of Crist last season.
“His confidence level is second to none,” junior tight end Jimmay Mundine said of Heaps. “He can make a bad play and he bounces back. His confidence is still there. And some players struggle when they make one bad play. They freak out in the head. But he’s pretty humble and calm with what he does.”
The Jayhawks’ passing game ranked 113th in the nation last season, averaging fewer than 150 yards per game. So while Weis has praised Heaps for his leadership and intangibles, it’s his accuracy and arm strength that Kansas will need this fall.
“I put him first (on the depth chart) for a reason,” Weis said. “If I thought he deserved to be second right now, I’d put him second. One of the obvious questions I’d have to ask myself if I were sitting in your seat would be ‘How could you put guys first (on the depth chart) ahead of guys who played last year?’ My answer is we were 1-11 last year, and I’d prefer not to be 1-11 again.”