LAWRENCE – Rob Likens is Kansas’ fourth offensive coordinator in less than 21 months, the latest football man tasked with breathing life into an offense that has been near comatose for the last three years. A former Cal assistant, Likens was prepped for the job while working under Air Raid disciples Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin at Louisiana Tech and Cal. In simple terms, he will attempt to succeed where his predecessors could not: The scoreboard.
For two seasons, Charlie Weis served as his own offensive coordinator and play-caller. The results were disastrous. The passing game was anemic. The pro-style system was ill-fitting of Kansas’ personnel. Before the 2014 season, Weis hired John Reagan to install a spread attack. Reagan’s tenure as the chief playcaller lasted until midseason, when interim head coach Clint Bowen passed the play-calling baton to receivers coach Eric Kiesau.
Now it’s up to Likens, and the offense’s progress could be one of the main story lines as the Jayhawks open fall camp under first-year head coach David Beaty. Kansas will begin practice on Thursday, 30 days before the season opener against South Dakota State.
As Kansas prepares for fall camp, The Eagle is breaking down the Jayhawks’ roster and their most pressing questions, beginning with the offense. Here is the breakdown of the defense.
Key returners: Senior quarterback Michael Cummings*; junior quarterback Montell Cozart; senior offensive lineman Larry Mazyck; sophomore offensive lineman Joe Gibson; senior running back De’Andre Mann; senior running back Taylor Cox
*could miss season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the spring.
Key losses: Tight end Jimmay Mundine; receiver Nick Harwell; receiver Tony Pierson; running back Corey Avery; receiver Nigel King; receiver Rodriguez Coleman
Key newcomers: Junior running back Ke’aun Kinner; freshman quarterback Ryan Willis; freshman quarterback Carter Stanley; freshman receiver Chase Harrell; freshman running back Taylor Martin; junior offensive lineman Jayson Rhodes
Three positions to watch:
1. Quarterback: Who will begin the season under center? The early favorite is junior Montell Cozart, who, according to Beaty, is positioned as the frontrunner as Cummings recovers from a torn ACL suffered in the spring. The Kansas staff is still holding out hope that Cummings can return this season, but it could be a long shot. Cummings underwent surgery in June, and even returning back by late October or early November would push the boundaries of modern medicine.
Cozart’s track record is not particularly impressive — he’s completed just 45 percent of his passes while playing parts of two seasons. But Beaty and Likens will hold onto hope that Cozart flourishes in a new system.
If not Cozart, true freshmen Ryan Willis and Carter Stanley could get an opportunity to push for playing time. The Air Raid offense is not a particularly difficult system to learn — Likens says his installation takes three days and Stanley ran a similar system in high school — but there could be a sizable learning curve as both young quarterbacks adjust to football in the Big 12.
Lastly, junior quarterback T.J. Millweard returns after playing sparingly last season. A former UCLA transfer, Millweard has drawn high marks for his football savvy and smarts, but questions remain about his physical tools.
2. Wide receiver/tight ends: For a couple reasons, it’s probably smart to lump Kansas’ tight ends in with their receivers. For one: sophomore tight end Ben Johnson, a Basehor-Linwood graduate, is the program’s leading returning pass-catcher (yes, it was eight catches) and figures to be heavily involved in the Air Raid passing attack. Also: The Jayhawks have a dearth of proven receivers. Senior Tre’ Parmalee, a Bishop Miege grad, has received praise for his leadership, but after that, the position is a mystery. (Parmalee had four catches last year.)
Some names to watch: Sophomores Bobby Hartzog and Derrick Neal; redshirt freshman Tyler Patrick; and true freshmen Chase Harrell, Emmanuel Moore, Steven Sims and Jeremiah Booker.
And one interesting story to track: Receiver Ryan Schadler is a Hesston, Kan., native who began his college career on the Wichita State track team.
3. Offensive line: One year after moving to offensive line, redshirt junior Jordan Shelley-Smith could be positioned to play significant snaps at offensive tackle. Shelley-Smith, a former tight end, represented KU at Big 12 Media Ddays, and Beaty has recognized Shelley-Smith for his “professionalism.” If Shelley-Smith takes one tackle spot, senior Larry Mazyck, who made nine starts at right tackle last season, could compete for time at the other spot.
Others in the mix: Redshirt freshman Jacob Bragg was a three-star prospect coming out of Nacogdoches, Texas, and appears poised to be a factor somewhere in the interior. Redshirt sophomore Joe Gibson, a Rockhurst graduate, started seven games at center last season, while Junior Visinia, a Grandview graduate, started the final three games at guard. Senior Keyon Haughton, meanwhile, began last season as the starter at center and will be in the mix.
The question — yes, the question you’ll hear often — is about depth and numbers. Kansas also added junior-college transfers Jayson Rhodes and Will Smith in the offseason. But how will the unit hold up over the course of 12 games?