A game that in the past has been viewed as a layup against a school known for its basketball program, may be the toughest challenge thus far this season for Steve Sarkisian and the No. 3 Texas Longhorns on Sept. 30th at 2:30 on ESPN in Austin at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
This is not the Kansas Jayhawks team of old — head coach Lance Leipold boasts a veteran roster with speed and depth at virtually every position, good enough for the Jayhawks come to the Forty Acres ranked 24th in the nation and undefeated, marking the first time in the all-time series both teams are ranked.
The Jayhawks are 4-0 for the second consecutive season for the first time since 1914. After taking down BYU last Saturday in Lawrence, these two seasons have been the first time KU has been ranked in the AP Poll Top 25 since 2009.
“Moving on” is the message Leipold has preached in his locker room ahead of this matchup against the Longhorns. “We talked about it a lot today in our meetings with our leadership group,” Leipold said on Monday. “I think they moved on as well as we have on a Monday — they understand we have a lot of work to do and a big challenge ahead of us.”
Maturity and continuity have been the reason for the Jayhawks’ success this season. For the first time since 2004 Kansas has returned the same head coach and all 10 position coaches from the prior year for Leipold in his third season.
The roster has also seen very little turnover, too, as the team returns 17 of its 22 starters from last year, including quarterback Jalon Daniels, the Preseason All-Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, preseason All-Big 12 first-team running back Devin Neal, nine receivers and tight ends, four starters on the offensive line, cornerback Cobee Bryant, and safety Kenny Logan Jr.
This Kansas team is fast on all fronts — in the backfield, on the outside, and in the secondary. They have an explosive offense that is currently averaging 37.8 points per game and a sneaky defense that has totaled seven turnovers already this early in the season.
Leipold has assembled a roster that can score fast and take the ball away due mainly to its impressive speed on all sides of the ball. The Longhorns should be able to out muscle them this Saturday, but it will certainly be a footrace to see who remains undefeated leaving DKR after Week Five.
Most of the offenses that Texas has faced this year have been strong and physical teams that lean on their run game behind a big offensive line — Wyoming and Alabama are good examples. This Kansas offense will be the first of its kind that Texas has seen all season. They are fast at practically every position and can score quickly either through the air or on the ground.
Third-year offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki and the Jayhawks rank 26th in the country in points per game with 37.8, 25th in total offense averaging 463 yards per game, and first in the country on third-down conversion rate converting at an incredible 60.5 percent.
“They’re highlighted by some really cool offensive players,” Sarkisian said Monday. “The quarterback Jalen Daniels is a heck of a player — we saw him first hand in his first start here a couple of years ago, so we know what he’s capable of.”
Daniels is the heart and soul of this Jayhawk team. The 6’0, 206-pounder from Lawndale, Cali. is a matchup nightmare for opposing coordinators as he can torch defenses with his legs and his arm.
Last week against BYU, Daniels carried the ball nine times for 54 yards, including a 17-yard gain on a speed option run. He is also a very competent passer, mostly completing passes in the short and intermediate game, Daniels throws lasers with a ton of zip on the ball.
He is very accurate with the football, only throwing one interception so far this season and a completion percentage of 74.7 percent. With a bevy of veteran wide receivers that have been together for most of Daniel’s college career, they have a certain synchronicity when Daniels scrambles out of the pocket as the Kansas quarterback is capable of keeping his eyes downfield to create off-schedule plays in the passing game in those situations.
Daniels feels like a Lamar Jackson type of quarterback — fast, accurate, and even has an unconventional throwing motion like Jackson.
Two years ago Daniels upset the Longhorns in Austin for Sarkisian’s first season with the team, in a 57-56 overtime thriller. Now 1-1 against Texas, Daniels keeps a level head as he leads a surging Jayhawks team back to the forty acres.
“I mean, it’s the next game, so we’re going to start breaking down film on them,” Daniels said after the win against BYU. “We’re going to come in with the same mindset and we’re going to get to it.”
The Jayhawks love to run quarterback reads and the speed option, always keeping defenses guessing who will take off with the ball — Daniels or the equally dangerous Neal.
Neal is lightning quick and a perfect complement to Daniels in this backfield. As discussed, they love to run the speed option, with Neal following for the quick pitch. Through the first four weeks of the season, Neal is averaging about 14 carries for 98.5 yards per game, including a 48-yard touchdown rush on his first touch of the season.
The hometown kid from Lawrence was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the state of Kansas coming out of high school and the No. 14 running back in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
BYU has a strong and veteran front four with three fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior. Kansas tallied 221 rushing yards against the unit compared to nine rushing yards by BYU. Neal is special, and paired with the speedy Daniels in this backfield, it will be a challenge to contain the dynamic duo.
If Neal is this team’s Bijan Robinson, then fourth-year junior Daniel Hishaw Jr. would be his Roschon Johnson. Hishaw complements this backfield well, averaging about 10 carries per game for 68 yards over the last three weeks and acts as a capable third-down back to support this dangerous Jayhawks rushing attack.
Fourth-year junior wide receiver Lawrence Arnold is the team’s deep threat and Daniel’s favorite target with 18 receptions for 246 yards on the season. At 6’3, 200 pounds, Arnold plays at the X position with enough speed and length to go up and make plays downfield. Fourth-year junior Quinten Skinner at the Y complements Arnold well with more outside speed and length. In the slot, senior Luke Grim works well in the middle of the field.
The Kansas offense utilizes their senior tight end Mason Fairchild in the passing game as well. Standing at 6’4, 260 pounds, Fairchild is a menace over the middle and acts as an effective safety blanket for Daniels, a Mark Andrews for the elusive Lamar Jackson-esque quarterback — four of Fairchild’s eight reception have come on third down.
In total this receiving corps is averaging almost 20 receptions for 245 yards per game in an offense with a healthy balance of run and pass, all supported by their veteran offensive line, which returns four starters this season and has a healthy rotation of juniors and seniors all throughout. They have had some issues protecting the quarterback over the whole of the season, allowing five sacks, mostly due to the dynamic Daniel’s affinity for improvising in the pocket. Kansas did allow only one sack against BYU and the offensive line has been a driving force in their ability to run the ball.
Led by senior left tackle Dominick Puni (6’5, 320 pounds) and fifth-year senior center Mike Novitsky (6’5 305 pounds), this front five has a unique ability to displace defenders and create massive gaps for their talented backfield and space for Daniels to use his legs and scramble outside of the pocket to improvise downfield with these talented receivers. This front five, like every other position on the roster, is deep with a healthy rotation of juniors and seniors in the wings.
The only real hole in this offense is discipline. They seem to start slow and have trouble avoiding penalties in key moments. Against BYU the offense only had one scoring drive on five possessions in the first half and couldn’t get the rushing game in rhythm until the second half — 172 of their 221 rushing yards came after halftime as two takeaways for touchdowns by the defense is what kept the Jayhawks within a possession while the offense found their swagger.
Starting slow is a problem that this Texas team is all too familiar with as well. Whoever can get into a rhythm first and get the ball rolling on offense will have a major advantage in this matchup
As impressive as the offense is, and is certainly impressive, the defense almost seems to be the more exciting unit.
Third-year defensive coordinator Brian Borland and the Jayhawks typically run a 4-3 defense that is strong up front with a hybrid HAWK playing all over the field as both a defensive back and a linebacker. Led by their lightning-fast secondary, Kenny and Bryant create a no-fly zone for opposing teams through the air.
When asked about how confident this defense is, Bryant responded, “We feel like we can play anybody. We know we have the top secondary in the country, but everybody doesn’t believe in us and what we have going on, so we’ve got to keep working.”
This defensive secondary has totaled six takeaways through the air and one on the ground, three of which came from the breakout corner Bryant himself, including an interception and a huge hit against BYU that forced a fumble he recovered and returned for a touchdown.
To put it simply, Bryant is a dog and the reigning Big 12 Player of the Week after an incredible performance against BYU — he very well could be playing on Sundays depending on how this season plays out.
In response to the two takeaways against BYU, Logan said, “We always believe in one another — I trust any one of those boys to make a play at any point.”
Now the issue that this defensive secondary could improve on is containing big plays downfield because they often play with a single-high safety and like to jump passes, which can lead to big breakout plays through the air. The secondary has allowed a 50-plus yard pass play against both Illinois and BYU, both on fly routes against single-high man coverage.
They bite at opportunities to take the ball away, which could create an opening for Texas wide receivers Xavier Worthy or AD Mitchell to break out a big one. Quarterback Quinn Ewers, who has yet to throw an interception all season, will face the arguably best secondary he has seen all year, albeit one with some clear weaknesses.
The defensive front is no joke either. They are strong at their ends, led by fifth-year senior defensive end Hayden Hatcher (6’3, 245 pounds) and senior defensive end Jereme Robinson (6’3, 260 pounds). This defensive front has totaled 12 sacks and 29 tackles for loss on the season allowed only one rushing yards to BYU last week, who up until this past game had been able to control the line of scrimmage on offense. Like every other unit on the team they are fast and able to finesse their way into opposing backfields.
The linebacking corps is composed of veteran talent as well. Do-it-all, fifth-year senior transfer from Ohio State Craig Young plays a hybrid HAWK role for the defense and is flanked by senior Miller Rich at middle linebacker and junior transfer from Bowling Green JB Brown.
Much like the offense, this defense is defined by its speed and veteran leadership. All three levels have a healthy rotation of juniors and seniors giving them depth at every position. As weird as it is to say, this basketball school is the real deal. However, due to their aggressive nature to anticipate and create turnovers, they allow points at a relatively high rate — 17 to Missouri State, 23 to Illinois, 24 to Nevada, and 27 to BYU.
Fifth-year senior transfer from Texas State Seth Keller controls the kicking duties for this Kansas team and is automatic, yet to miss a kick all season going 6-of-6 on field goals with a season long of 44 yards, and 18-of-18 on extra points.
Fifth-year senior wide receiver Trevor Wilson handles the kick return duties. He was able to break out for two 30-plus yard returns against Missouri State, but has yet to create anything too flashy since.
Fifth-year senior Tory Locklin is the team’s punt returner and had a 13-yard return against BYU, one of only two punt returns so far for Kansas, thanks in part to all the turnovers this defense is able to create.
Speed, depth, and veteran leadership are what define this undefeated Jayhawks team — they only start one sophomore on offense and defense — with have continuity and a report with each other that makes them dangerous.
They’re like those European basketball teams that upset Team USA in the Olympics because they’ve been playing together for so long.
The key for Texas on defense will be to limit the rushing attack and make Daniels beat them through the air. If the Longhorns can establish a lead early, then Leipold might be forced to abandon the balanced style of play that has created so much success for this undefeated Jayhawks team.
On offense, this will most likely be a shootout. Kansas is 26th in the nation in points per game and 25th in total offense, so Ewers and the Longhorns will have to bring their A game in order to keep up. Because the Kansas defense is great at creating turnovers through the air, Ewers will have to be smart with the ball and not give the Jayhawks any easy ones.
With that being said, Kansas also has trouble limiting big plays and this Texas offense has made their name this season creating explosive plays. It will be up to the talented group of Worthy, Mitchell, JT Sanders, and Jonathan Brooks to break out some SportsCenter Top 10 material if they want to outscore this high-flying Jayhawks offense.
Texas is a 16.5-point favorite against Kansas, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.