University of Kansas

Jayhawks finding leaders as season nears

Last August, after spending just six months on campus, Dayne Crist was elected a captain of the Kansas football team. In the moment, it was easy to see how the vote reflected positively on Crist, the Notre Dame transfer who had arrived at KU for his final season.

Crist was a hard worker. He ingratiated himself with teammates. He played a position that naturally churns out leaders.

But even then, Kansas coach Charlie Weis was slightly concerned with what Crist’s captaincy meant for his program. Weis didn’t voice it at the time, of course, but on Monday, when he unveiled his team’s latest captains, he referenced Crist’s election victory.

“Lookit: I love Dayne Crist,” Weis said. “But for him to be a runaway leader as a captain of your team when he’s been here three days … that says a lot about his character, but it also says you have a team void of leaders.

“We’ve been on a year-long mission to try and rectify that.”

The culmination came on Monday, when Weis announced that junior quarterback Jake Heaps, senior running back James Sims, junior linebacker Ben Heeney and junior nose tackle Keon Stowers were elected captains in a team-wide vote.

And based on his comments, Weis believes the Jayhawks have built a better leadership structure.

“A little leadership was lacking, and that’s something we needed,” said Heeney, a Hutchinson, Kan., native who is coming off a breakout sophomore season at linebacker. “You could tell on the field sometimes. Sometimes, there just wasn’t guys picking guys up out there, and that’s something that we really want to work on this year.”

Listen to Weis, and it’s clear he believes the intangible virtues of leadership can be felt in tangible ways on the field. To hammer his point home, he also unveiled a nine-man leadership committee that will exist in addition to his captains.

The list of players is long: tight end Jimmay Mundine; receiver Christian Matthews; running back Tony Pierson; center Pat Lewandowski; defensive end Keba Agostinho, defensive back Dexter Linton, linebacker Darius Willis, nickel back Cassius Sendish, and quarterback Blake Jablonski. And for some, it may seem a little bit like leadership overkill. But for a program that finished 1-11 and lost five games by a touchdown or less, the Jayhawks are hopeful it will result in a culture of accountability and confidence.

Last year, after Kansas’ season finale at West Virginia, Heaps called in Heeney, Sims and some other emerging players for a series of conversations.

“We talked for like two hours,” Heeney said. “Just about what my role needs to be now. I’m not just a sophomore anymore. And I really need to step up.”

Heaps, a junior transfer from BYU, appears to possess many of the qualities usually associated with “leadership.” But last season, as he spent the year on the sidelines, it was difficult for him to fully make an imprint on the team.

Weis generally has a story on cue for when these types of topics come up, and on Monday, he referenced Tom Brady’s early days with the New England Patriots.

“Tommy Brady is probably one of the greatest leaders that I’ve ever seen,” Weis said. “But when we first got to New England, Drew Bledsoe was the quarterback, and it’s really tough to be a leader when you’re the fourth-string quarterback, not playing at all.”

At the very least, Heaps will now be able to fulfill the latter requirement. Barring injury, he’s a lock to start at quarterback when the Jayhawks open the season against South Dakota on Sept. 7. And now, he says, he can concentrate on injecting the KU program with the right blend of confidence and energy.

“Every day you have to be able to come in and work,” Heaps said. “Be the same guy everyday, don’t change, and be there for your teammates.”