Jake Heaps embracing his fresh start at Kansas
Four different players threw a pass for Kansas last season, yet arguably the most talented quarterback on the roster wasn't among them. Instead, he flayed the first-team defense on a weekly basis as a member of the scout team.
Jake Heaps was ineligible to play in 2012 after transferring from BYU following his sophomore season. He spent the year on Kansas' show team, complying with NCAA rules that mandate an athlete must sit out a season after switching schools. He watched the Jayhawks struggle through a 1-11 campaign.
It was a disastrous result in head coach Charlie Weis' first season in Lawrence, but at least the scout team adequately prepared Kansas for each contest. "[Jake] would go out there and tear [the defense] up on a daily basis," Weis said. "Usually the show team doesn't have that much success. Only problem with that is it foretold a lot of the problems we had during the year."
The Jayhawks will no longer have to deal with that particular issue. Heaps should line up under center for the team's season opener against South Dakota on Sept. 9 -- returnee Michael Cummings could still start, but Weis has called Heaps "the clear frontrunner" -- as he attempts to resurrect Kansas from the college football abyss. The program has a long ascent ahead of it, but there might not be a quarterback in the nation better equipped to guide the team on the long climb. After all, Heaps knows a thing or two about getting up after a hard fall.
Two years ago, Heaps was untouchable. The former top-ranked quarterback recruit in the class of 2010 was coming off a stellar freshman season at BYU, when he passed for 2,316 yards and 15 touchdowns while leading the Cougars to a 7-6 record and a New Mexico Bowl victory. He set BYU freshman-passing records for yards, touchdowns and wins, surpassing program legends Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer in the process.
His first-year success prompted monumental expectations for his sophomore campaign, but he fizzled under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. Heaps threw just three touchdowns and five interceptions in his first four starts as BYU limped to a 2-2 record. At that point, the Cougars benched Heaps in favor of Riley Nelson, and aside from starting Heaps a couple of times late in the year due to injuries, they never looked back; BYU won eight of its last nine games to finish 10-3.
"Sometimes things don't work out and you don't know why," Heaps said. "It's definitely not how I planned it out to be, but at some point there are things that move out of your hands."
Seeking a fresh start, Heaps decided to transfer at the end of the regular season. It didn't take him long to find his desired new school. More specifically, it didn't take him long to find the person who he wanted to be his next coach.
Kansas hired Weis on Dec. 9. Just more than two weeks later, Heaps announced he would join him. Weis, who had originally recruited Heaps when he was the head coach at Notre Dame, was thrilled to have a second chance to mentor the onetime highly touted prospect. "I asked if I could drive out to Provo and pick him and his wife up personally," Weis joked.
Heaps couldn't wait to develop under a coach with four Super Bowl rings to his credit. However, he harbored doubts about his new program's campus.
"I'd never been to Kansas before so I had in my head Wizard of Oz and all that kind of stuff," Heaps said. "I had no clue what the school was going to be like. I put my 100 percent faith in coach Weis and what he's done with his quarterbacks."
After he visited Lawrence, Heaps' view of the area began to morph. Sure, Kansas is a basketball school, as the freckled array of blue shirts and empty seats during home games at Memorial Stadium attest. But he met plenty of fans who were eager for the team to succeed. Now, he just has to nurture belief in the product.
"We have to give them a reason to look forward to Kansas football," Heaps said. "Only a few years ago we won the Orange Bowl. So it's not you can't win here. It's just a matter of reestablishing this program."
That journey back was put on hold for a year because Heaps couldn't even don pads on Saturdays last fall. As he waited for his eligibility, he stood on the sideline at home games, powerless outside of pin wheeling his arms to relay signals and providing vocal support.
His feelings of helplessness only intensified when Kansas went on the road. Unable to travel, Heaps remained in his house with his wife, Brooke, and watched his team get dismantled on TV. Heaps would pace around while yelling at the screen, but the cries went unheard.
"I'm a very competitive guy," Heaps said. "Having to sit out the year without the ability to contribute to my team whatsoever was really difficult for me. ... It was killing me."
The stint away from the field did allow him to grasp Kansas's complex pro-style system, though. Weis' playbook is dense and requires a quarterback who has mastered it. In 2012, that was noticeably lacking: Kansas' passers completed 47 percent of their attempts while throwing just seven touchdowns, the third-lowest total in the FBS.
"If the quarterback position significantly improves from last year that alone will make us a better football team," Weis said. "It could have made a big difference."
Days after the Jayhawks' season-ending 59-10 loss to West Virginia last December, Heaps took control. The quarterback called his team together and organized a workout that roped in around 50 players. These offseason activities are optional. Coaches are even barred from observing, meaning there are no repercussions for players who fail to attend. Still, Heaps wanted to make it clear. Instead of wallowing in last season's defeat, he's ready to turn the page.
"To be frank, our team needed someone to step up in the leadership role," Heaps said. "At that time I was happy to do it."
There isn't a yellow brick road to lead Kansas back to relevance. And it hasn't beaten a current Big 12 member since a five-point win over Iowa State in October 2009. But Heaps and Weis have no intention of turning things around slowly. Heaps has two seasons of eligibility remaining, and Weis has stated publically he's at Kansas on a five-year plan and then will move on. "I think we have the ability to win every game," Heaps said. "In the two years I have I think we can get a lot of things accomplished and catapult [Kansas] toward success in the future."
Four years ago, Weis recruited Heaps to be the next quarterback at Notre Dame, but the pair went their separate ways. Now, they form the unlikely tandem trying to spearhead a Jayhawks football revolution. But while Heaps looks the same -- 6-foot-1 and around 210 pounds -- his tale in 2013 comes with a very different script.
"He's a man now, this isn't a kid," Weis said. "He's married and [his wife] has a full-time job. His head's clear and he knows where he's trying to go."