AMES — Kansas hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009, when it won five.
Head coach Les Miles knew the pathway to improvement wasn’t going to be easy for the Jayhawks. But given their 3-9 record last year and 0-5 start this season, it may be more difficult than he anticipated.
Here are five things to know about the Jayhawks as Iowa State prepares to face them at 11 a.m. Saturday.
1. Improvement needed
Kansas has six underclassmen listed as starters on its depth chart and 22 total listed on the offense and defense.
“We met today (Monday) as a staff to talk about improvement and what really needs to take place across the team,” Miles said during a Big 12 teleconference. “I think our guys are working toward a much improved football team but I think also there are some youthful men that are playing a lot of football for us.
“We’re going to enjoy them, eventually, but there are some growing pains.”
For comparison, Iowa State has 23 underclassmen listed on its depth chart on the offense and defense.
2. Pooka Williams opts out
In the COVID-19 era, players have been given the option to opt out of the season.
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Kansas running back Pooka Williams exercised that right after the Jayhawks’ fourth game two weeks ago.
It wasn’t because the Jayhawks weren’t doing well (Miles expects him back by January) but because his mom is dealing with health issues.
“Opting out because your mother has an illness, in 20 years, he’ll look back and think, ‘It was the best decision of my life to spend time with my mom,’” Miles said. “We miss him and recognize his ability. But we’ll be fine and hopefully he can enjoy that time that he’s spending with his mom.”
Williams has been Kansas’ best and most reliable offensive weapon in his two-plus years as a Jayhawk. As a freshman and sophomore he rushed for over 1,000 yards and had over 200 yards receiving.
3. Young playmakers
As Miles mentioned, Kansas has to rely on young guys to carry a large portion of the load.
Quarterback Jalon Daniels is a true freshman and has made three starts. He’s completed about 57 percent of his passes for 381 yards and has yet to throw a touchdown pass. In Saturday’s 55-14 win over Kansas State, he threw for 207 yards, rushed for two touchdowns and threw an interception.
“We don’t want the turnover but when he makes a quality decision, he throws a ball that’s very, very capable,” Miles said. “He can move his feet and get himself out of trouble and can gain yards. Down the road, he’s going to get rid of the ball a little quicker and will make sure he has the opportunity to hit an open seam and go.”
Williams’ replacements at running back are sophomore Velton Gardner and freshman Daniel Hishaw.
Gardner actually leads the team in rushing with 324 yards and two touchdowns.
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“We’ll have some guys who will step in there — Daniel Hishaw is a really good player who will give us a fresh set of legs and Velton Gardner is a talented guy who has ability,” Miles said. “We feel comfortable with who we’re putting out there in terms of our running backs.”
4. (Not so) special teams
In Kansas’ most recent game against Kansas State, the Wildcats returned two punts for touchdowns and almost returned a third.
Kansas is down to its third-string punter, so things aren’t necessarily looking up for the Jayhawks.
“Obviously special teams, we have to be better,” Miles said. “Kansas State’s special teams is a very, very strong unit and we need to match their energy and do the same things that they do.”
5. Kansas legacy
Kansas linebacker Jay Dineen comes from a long line of Jayhawks.
His brother Joe Dineen was a four-year starter and an All-American for the Jayhawks, his mom Jodi (Oelschlager) Dineen was a volleyball player for Kansas in the 1980s, his grandfather Ron Oelschlager was a running back for Kansas in the ’60s and his great grandfather J. Roy Holliday played basketball in the ’30s for Phog Allen.
Jay has nine tackles and two tackles for loss through four games.