Big 12, Year Two: Les Miles' KU Turnaround is Coming Soon

John. E. Hoover

The Big 12 Conference had four new head football coaches in 2019 — a 40 percent turnover. SI Sooners publisher John E. Hoover caught up with all four before they began spring practice to ask how they expect their programs to look different in their second offseason. With the Coronavirus shutdown all but ending spring practice for all Big 12 teams, their plans must certainly adapt. But the offseason words of Neil Brown, Chris Klieman, Les Miles and Matt Wells are now more relevant than ever as they try to evolve in Year Two.

Can anyone put their finger on exactly why Kansas football has been so dreadful for most of the last decade?

What about coach Les Miles? He’s been there for a year now. He’s seen the program up close, from the inside. He’s explored all the nooks and crannies, he’s pored over the books, he’s pressed everyone for insight, from the athletic director to the janitor. He’s watched the players, he’s coached the players, and now he’s recruited the players.

So what gives, Les? Why can’t the Jayhawks field a competitive football team?

“I want you to know, I look at it exactly the opposite way,” Miles said in a phone interview last month. “I look at this community, the green hill that lines up beside my office, and the I can remember standing on the 50-yard line as the head coach at Oklahoma State thinking to myself, ‘Why aren’t these guys just killing it?’ ”

Big 12 Year 2

BIG 12: YEAR TWO

To Miles’ point, although KU went 3-9 in his first season, they lost three of those games by five points or less. That included a walk-off field goal by Texas in a 50-48 Big 12 Conference classic. They also lost 29-24 at home to West Virginia (KU had the ball at the end) and, somehow, lost 12-7 at home to Coastal Carolina in Week 2.

“I think this football team and this community, I think they want to be proud of the football team, and frankly, I do too,” Miles said. “So I would expect that we would gain a structure and a toughness that will allow us to play every team like we played those three teams that you mentioned.”

Well, maybe not the Chanticleers. After a touchdown on their opening possession, the Jayhawks managed just 195 yards and got into the red zone once.

That performance soiled what should have been a 3-0 start — which included a stunning 48-24 blowout victory at Boston College — and who knows where KU goes from there behind its new coach? Maybe the Jayhawks’ confidence rises against WVU and Texas, and maybe — just maybe — Kansas goes to a bowl game.

Instead, Miles finds himself in Year Two still nurturing his team’s intangibles: confidence, mental toughness, competitive desire.

FACING OKLAHOMA

  • 2019: OU 45, KU 20
  • 2020: Nov. 21 in Norman

In Year One, Miles’ priority was to get to know his players and teach them his system, his philosophy and his expectations. In Year Two, he gets to coach more football.

“We do a number of quality assessments, if you will,” Miles said. “We want to know if that guy’s really as good as we think he is. And so what we’ll do is we’ll do one-on-one — like, it was called Big Cat at another place, but it’s called Jayhawk Drill here — and we’re going to do some throw-and-catch that is done, you know, like the gauntlet drill in the NFL. And we’re going to, especially to start, do a lot of personal evaluations, and get ourselves in a position where we can say, ‘OK, put this guy here and this guy here,’ and then make make moves.”

Before spring football practice began, and well before the Coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, Miles had another priority this offseason: hiring assistant coaches.

After firing offensive coordinator Les Koenning midway through last season (Brent Dearmon was promoted and the offense surged), Miles lost four KU assistants and his strength coach this offseason.

Jordan Peterson was hired to coach safeties, Jonathan Wallace was brought in to coach running backs and coordinate special teams, Chidera Uzo-Diribe was promoted to outside linebackers coach, and Joshua Eagle was promoted to coach tight ends and coordinate recruiting. Also, receivers coach Emmett Jones was promoted to passing game coordinator.

Miles lost strength coach Zac Woodfin to Missouri, so he brought in old LSU associate Ben Iannacchione from Wyoming. Before the shutdown, that last move changed the complexion of the Jayhawks’ offseason.

“I knew that I was getting somebody that, you know, really would have the opportunity to transform a team — weight, strength and conditioning-wise, as well as speed development. And, you know, he's not made anybody disappointed. He’s a very capable guy and I think you have to have discipline and you have to have a great weight-strength coach because they’re the only coaches, besides the head coach, that coach the entire team.”

Hiring capable coaches and testing the players’ mettle in the offseason training cauldrons is one thing. In college football, sustained success is rooted in recruiting. After a year in Lawrence, Miles knows better than anyone that part had to get dramatically better — and it has. KU’s 2019 class ranked 70th in the nation, according to Rivals. Miles’ first class ranked 48th. And the 2020 class ranked 26th.

“In terms of filling in holes in recruiting, I think that I think we got better,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll have more speed under kicks and I think our special teams will be more talented. And, I think, a capable group of runners that we ought to be able to get some yards on the ground.”

KU ranked eighth in the Big 12 in rushing offense last year, and seventh in passing offense. Those aren’t good, but the Jayhawks didn’t lack for explosiveness in 2019. Pooka Williams ran for 1,061 yards. Khalil Herbert led the team in rushing twice before a season-ending injury and transfer to Virginia Tech. Andrew Parchment was the Big 12’s best new receiver and, with Stephon Robinson, helped form one of the league’s top wideout tandems. And quarterback Carter Stanley threw for 2,664 yards and 24 TDs.

“I felt like our receiving corps and our quarterback were extremely talented and really, we just had to get on step with them,” Miles said. “I felt like the offensive line is certainly a group that I spent a little bit of time with and I felt like they got better as the season went on.”

But 22 seniors graduated, including Stanley, All-Big 12 tackle Hakeem Adeniji and a handful of reliable defenders.

Whenever this new normal has abated and real life has resumed, Miles must turn to whatever pages in his coaching manual helped him produce a lasting turnaround at Oklahoma State and two Southeastern Conference titles and a national championship at LSU.

That’s why athletic director Jeff Long courted the now 66-year-old Miles for so long and so hard after Miles had been out of coaching for 2 1/2 years.

Miles’ first season certainly didn’t end according to plan. Not only did the Jayhawks finish 3-9, but they lost their last four games. Three were blowouts, including a 61-6 debacle in the season finale at home to Big 12 runner-up Baylor.

And so, what was once a season filled with potential and promise inevitably became another KU flop.

That alone has energized Miles in his first full offseason. Winter workouts were as demanding as they’ve ever been at Kansas, with what Miles called “fourth-quarter drills” beginning at 5:55 every morning.

“I think it speaks to the culture of our football team, as well as the expectations of our football team,” Miles said. “I think they’ve come into that drill, if you will, really wanting to compete. And I’ve enjoyed the team’s efforts. And if they’ve improved significantly in that drill, and we take the field and they recognize that that drill, as well as many others, are now our culture, I think it’ll make a tremendous difference as we play these games. … There is an opportunity to improve your win-loss record if you just to play like you’re capable.

“I think we’re capable. I think this this football team wants to step onto the field and play like they’re going to be able to play here very shortly.”

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