University of Kansas

New coordinator Eric Kiesau hopes to vary KU offense

Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings.
Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings. Associated Press

The new offensive coordinator came first. That was back in the offseason. Then it was a new head coach. Then a new quarterback, a fourth starter in the last three seasons.

In all avenues of life, change is something most people have come to accept. But few places have lived with change quite like the Kansas football program during the last half-decade.

The latest moment of transition came in the weeks leading up to Kansas’ 60-14 loss to Baylor on Saturday in Waco, Texas. After taking over for fired coach Charlie Weis in late September, interim coach Clint Bowen splashed his latest coat of paint on a program makeover, elevating receivers coach Eric Kiesau to the role of co-offensive coordinator and play-caller.

John Reagan, hired in the offseason by Weis to be KU’s new offensive coordinator, was stripped of his play-calling duties.

“We wanted to try to open things up a little bit more,” Bowen said, “create a little bit more of an offensive identity that we want to move to.”

In the long term, the move might not signal much. The Jayhawks’ offense has been struggling during an 0-5 start in the Big 12. Bowen looked for a solution.

But the move does reveal something about Bowen’s offensive philosophy — one that could shift more into focus should Bowen be retained as the full-time head coach. Bowen, a defensive guy by trade, has grown increasingly fond of offensive systems that rely on what he calls “run-pass conflict.”

The basic concepts of the tactics are what you might see run at Baylor, Oklahoma State or any number of juiced-up spread attacks across college football. The tempo is blazing, the offense hustles to the line of scrimmage, and often, even the offense doesn’t know what the play will be. If the defense stacks the line, the quarterback will call for a run. If the defense is guarding against the pass, the offense will power ahead on the ground.

“Take all the rules that you ever teach a defensive kid, and it uses those rules against him,” Bowen said. “For example, a tight end releasing on a pass route should equal pass, but it doesn’t. It’s the ball being run. (An offensive) guard pulling out on a power play should equal run, but it’s not; it’s a pass. It’s those kind of things. It takes the rules that you teach defensive players and uses it against them.”

While his offensive background is varied, Kiesau is well versed in the schemes of conflict. While spending the last two seasons as Washington’s offensive coordinator, Kiesau helped install a no-huddle, spread offense that averaged 38 points per game and ranked 14th in the country in total offense. Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian parlayed the success into the head job at Southern Cal, and Kiesau landed at Kansas as the receivers coach. In an earlier stint as a position coach at Colorado during the mid 2000s, Kiesau coached alongside coordinator Mark Helfrich, now the offensive guru guiding Oregon’s vaunted “Blur” offense.

“To make it very simple, it stresses the defense,” Kiesau said. “They can’t just lock in on, ‘You’re a run team, or you’re a throw team.’”

For now, Kiesau says, there is only so much overhauling that can be done at this point, with just four games remaining.

“You can’t wholesale change everything,” Kiesau says. “So the core of what we’re doing is still John’s system or our system. What I’m trying to do is put some of the wrinkles that I can do.”

The early returns from the offensive shakeup were mixed. Junior quarterback Michael Cummings continues to settle into the starting job, completing 70 percent of his passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns against Baylor. But the offensive line was leaky again, handcuffing the rushing attack.

Now the Jayhawks — and the altered offense — will enter their second week. Kansas returns to Memorial Stadium on Saturday to play Iowa State and its own first-year offensive coordinator: Former Kansas coach Mark Mangino.

For the moment, Kiesau is not promising too many drastic changes. Last week, he installed a new communication system on the sideline, using large signs to relay in the plays. But most of his influence will come in little trinkets, layered on the spread system that Reagan installed during the spring.

That’s one reason, Kiesau says, that you might not have noticed too much different about the Kansas offense against Baylor. Still, four games remain, just enough time to offer some conflict to opposing defenses.

“If you’re speaking Chinese and all of a sudden you go to English, there’s a learning curve,” Kiesau says. “So you have to find that happy medium.”

Injury updates — Defensive lineman Keon Stowers could be available to play this weekend after being carted off the field on Saturday against Baylor, Bowen said. Freshman defensive back Derrick Neal, who was also carted off the field, is unlikely to play this week, Bowen said. In addition, running back De’Andre Mann, who missed last week’s game, is day to day and could be available against Iowa State.