By Bryan Fisher
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Across 16 seasons as a head coach, Lance Leipold has rarely known a time when he hasn’t been busy doing this or worrying about that.
This week, however, the guy in charge of Kansas football is the “good kind of busy,” as the No. 19 Jayhawks are off to their best start since 2009 and preparing to host No. 17 TCU (Noon ET Saturday on FS1 and the FOX Sports app) for a game that could, rather incredibly, have Big 12 Championship Game implications down the road.
The school is no stranger to hearing its name mentioned in title talk, but that has often been in conjunction with the far more prominent basketball program. Despite the calendar flipping to October though, the chatter among the KU fan base has not moved onto hoops — even with preparations being made to hoist another banner at Allen Fieldhouse next month.
No, the story around Lawrence is firmly on what’s happening with a team picked dead last in the preseason conference standings for a dozen years running. Against the Horned Frogs, David Booth Memorial Stadium will be sold out for a third straight game, the first time that’s happened in 14 years.
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Even on a weekend that features the famed Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma, and the dénouement for Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban’s offseason feud, it’s the Sunflower State that is somehow playing host to one of just three ranked-versus-ranked matchups across the sport.
The college football world is marveling at the Rock Chalk revival of epic proportions, happening in just Leipold’s second year after coming over from Buffalo.
“This is the one that’s probably the most unexpected,” Leipold, 58, told FOX Sports of his team’s 5-0 start and top-25 ranking. “At the same time, we have to make sure that we’re staying in the moment of the daily and weekly preparation, and the routine that helped us get to this point. We have to make sure we stay true to it and keep going And I think our players have.”
Leipold certainly has an ally in junior Jalon Daniels, his field general for this campaign, who is seventh in FBS passing efficiency. The dual-threat quarterback is one of just 11 signal-callers who have double-digit touchdown passes and less than two interceptions, plus he ranks in the top 30 nationally in rushing touchdowns and yards per carry.
Amid the bright lights and increased attention, though, Daniels is taking things in stride and looking forward to each challenge that plays out on Saturdays.
“If you’re trying to enjoy it now, then you’re not really focused on what else is able to happen,” Daniels said earlier this week. “You’re not necessarily focused on the future, you’re more focused on the past. Focusing on the past is not something I really harp on. I like to focus on the present, keep my feet where they are and keep on striving .”
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The Southern California native introduced himself to most of the country last year by authoring a memorable 57-56 overtime upset against Texas, but has taken his game — and Kansas’ — to another level in 2022. For the first time since Todd Reesing left campus In 2009, there’s even a little Heisman Trophy buzz surrounding the position at KU.
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“Jalon is such an outstanding young man and how he goes about it,” Leipold said. “He has been a huge part of our success. It’d be hard to say where we’d be without him. That’s not taking away from anyone else. I think the buy-in has been huge.”
Daniels’ development underscores the rebuilding effort that’s gone on within a program that was one of the worst Power 5 teams over the past decade. He arrived at campus as a little-known three-star player in Les Miles’ only full recruiting class, a late flip from Middle Tennessee State. The teenager wound up starting six of the Jayhawks’ nine games during the 2020 pandemic season, but agreed to redshirt last season after an arm issue during camp put him behind North Texas transfer Jason Bean in the QB pecking order.
That was the plan at least. As Kansas players — some on their eighth position coach across three different regimes — can tell you, plans change.
Bean was injured last November against Kansas State, and backup Miles Kendrick went down just two snaps later. That forced Daniels back onto the field ahead of schedule, with the quarterback enthusiastic about blowing up the redshirt proposal following the victory over the Longhorns a week later.
The Jayhawks haven’t been the same since. The signal-caller, who was previously winless in six starts under center, has now guided the team to six wins in their last eight games and is threatening to end a bowl drought that stretches back to 2008.
Both Daniels and his head coach defer plenty of the credit to a staff that knows what it’s like to win, even if such a feeling has been floating in Lawrence. Most of the coaches have been with Leipold dating back to his championship teams at Division III powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski is on his third tour under the head coach and tutored several players to all-conference honors. Veteran line coach Scott Fuchs has led a remarkable transformation in the trenches, as the Jayhawks have gone from dead last across FBS in sacks allowed prior to his arrival to giving up just two so far in 2022. Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki has been in the group for a decade and earned rave reviews from others for his scheme that incorporates RPO’s, full option concepts and a good old-fashioned downhill run game.
On the other side of the ball, coordinator Brian Borland has overseen a defense that has gone from giving up 42.2 points per game to just 24 per game this season.
The staff has also been strategic about using the transfer portal to bolster positions of need and identifying the correct fits to supplement a roster that was generally devoid of talent before they took over. Defensive end Lonnie Phelps, for example, arrived from Miami (OH) and is sixth nationally with five sacks.
Then there’s previously unheralded guard Dominick Puni, a transfer from Division II Central Missouri who has since become one of the team’s highest-graded performers. Should Kansas keep rolling on the gridiron to a bowl game or beyond, the senior may well be celebrated around Lawrence as the second-best arrival from across the border in Warrensburg (a century or so after a certain Phog Allen made the same move).
“You know there were times on each side of the ball that you could see this team being better. I said it to my wife, ‘We’re better, but I just don’t know how much better,'” Leipold said. “Everybody has opportunities to improve their two-deep with the portal. With that though, is as you’re making improvements, you don’t know how much the competition is getting better.
“The improvements that we’ve made, as much as we have with our first group, is that we’re playing a lot of kids and our drop-off from the first to the second unit is not necessarily going to a young freshman anymore.” That’s what’s really helped us make the strides that we have.”
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We’ll see just how far they’ve come on that front for real against a TCU outfit under new coach Sonny Dykes that is rolling into town fresh off a message-sending 55-24 dismantling of Oklahoma. The Horned Frogs are averaging a nation-leading 8.33 yards per play on offense, and they’ve picked off as many passes as they’ve allowed completed into their end zone.
It will be far and away the toughest challenge ahead for Daniels, Leipold and the rest of the Jayhawks. It’s why the team has been steadfastly focused on hitting the field ready to go this weekend, with plenty of additional work under their belts despite all the hoopla arriving in Lawrence ahead of an exceptionally meaningful Big 12 game.
For the first time in a long while at Kansas, they’re staying busy in the heart of football season, mindful of how sweet it is that it’s the good kind of busy at this point in the year, too.
– What we’re watching in Michigan-Indiana and other games this week
– Can Kansas, UCLA or Tennessee remain unbeaten?
– Red River Showdown: Storylines to watch in Oklahoma-Texas
– Inside Steve Sarkisian’s magic touch developing QBs
– Michigan-Indiana, Oklahoma-Texas: CFB Week 6 by the numbers
– Big Noon Kickoff: Everything to know about Michigan-Indiana
– As elite teams reveal flaws, opportunity arises for Ohio State, USC, others
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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