Rock Chalk Weekly: The Freshmen Focus

Written by Ryan Levine, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant

It is often difficult to find Kansas football head coach David Beaty on the practice field.  When he steps in between the lines of the gridiron, the football coach has a tendency to blend in with his players like a soldier blends in with the surrounding forest in his camouflage uniform. 
The white pullover Beaty wears on this particular rainy day spells out K-A-N-S-A-S across his chest, which are the same letters seen on his players’ jerseys.  He doesn’t want to stand out amongst his team like many head coaches do.  His goal is to make sure his team knows that he is there for them, just as much as they are there for each other.
In order for the first-year coach to do his job to the best of his abilities, he immerses himself into practices, participating in drills like he is a player.  It is his way of recognizing how to adapt to each individual and turn learning opportunities into teaching moments.
“We have a lot of young players so there’s been a lot more time spent on fundamental training to make sure that we are properly fundamental before we get into the group stuff,” Beaty said.
Which is why he pays particular attention to the freshmen of the Kansas football team.  The talent is there; Beaty knows that.  What he and his coaching staff have to do now is engrave in his players’ minds that the future of his program is as bright as advertised. 
When Beaty arrived in Lawrence on Dec. 12, 2014, one of the first things he promised was to establish a recruiting connection with prospective players in the state of Kansas – and he has done just that with starting quarterback Ryan Willis.
The freshman from Overland Park, Kansas, has already started in half of KU’s games, heading into the Nov. 21 matchup versus West Virginia, has thrown seven touchdown passes, completed 54.1 percent of his passes and thrown for more than 1,400 yards in those contests, establishing a new freshman record.
Despite the impactful stats that the newcomer is producing, the most impressive characteristics about him aren’t even displayed on the field.  They are shown during the odd hours when no one from the outside world is watching. Coaches have seen Willis inside the Anderson Family Football Complex nearly every night, watching film and learning the game in order to get better and raise the level of his already-high ceiling.
“If he keeps improving, I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player in this conference,” Beaty said of Willis’ future in the Big 12. “He has shown me no reason to believe that he will do anything other than that.”
While Willis is looked upon as an up-and-coming star for the Jayhawks, his supporting cast members are just as promising as he is. With guys like Steven Simms Jr. and Jeremiah Booker surrounding Willis on offense, the foundation for a football team that the University and city of Lawrence can be proud of is there.
Many believe that these Kansas freshmen have what it takes to become something special both on the field and off it. They are well-rounded individuals, who are excited to play the game and want to compete at the highest level, which is what Beaty loves most about them: their work ethic, resiliency and willingness to do what is asked of them.
“Those are the things I like about this group,” Beaty said.  “We have a lot of really good kids in there, which is good.  I think that has a lot to do with the older guys.  You’d be surprised how much the environment created by our seniors affects the younger guys.”
Although they are graduating at the end of the year, having seniors like Ben Goodman Jr. and De’Andre Mann around so many freshmen is why Beaty and his staff are so optimistic about the future.  The seniors act as mentors and for someone like redshirt freshman Daniel Wise, who is known for his humorous personality, it is important to have guys around who know when it is time to take care of business.
“I think Daniel Wise is the funniest dude in the locker room,” Goodman said with a smile on his face. “He’s hilarious and just a jokester.  But he’s learning when it’s time to work and turn it on and stop being Jay Leno. That’s one thing that I’ve tried to teach him and talk to him about; that when it’s time to work, it’s time to work.”
When Wise and fellow redshirt freshman counterpart D.J. Williams first walked on campus, the coaching staff gave Goodman a task to be their mentor.  However, the more time the teammates spent with each other, the more that assignment turned into a real friendship.  So much so that Goodman now calls the duo his ‘little brothers.’
Along with Goodman, the upperclassmen on this year’s roster have played a crucial role in the development of the freshmen.  The leadership and desire the veteran players have shown is one of the biggest reasons why offensive coordinator Rob Likens can see the light of Kansas football shining at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s not just looking at yourself and your problems but how can you help the others around you and (the older guys) have done a tremendous job of that,” Likens said about the seniors.
Yet, the most reassuring thing about the potential of KU’s football program does not just lie with its talented players.  It lies with its coaches who are willing to put in the effort and make sure every player gets better every day, both on-and-off the field.
One of the ways the program helps with the process of maturing these freshmen is by having the coaching staff meet with them once a week to develop the guys mentally.  As defensive coordinator Clint Bowen puts it, freshmen have a lot of new things going on in their lives and it is their jobs, as coaches, to make sure the players stay focused on the task at hand.
“It’s a grind for these kids,” Bowen said.  “For a lot of them, it’s a whole change of life. You can see, this time of year, those young kids that don’t know how to manage it; (they) walk in here like zombies some days and life catches up to them.”
As a result of so many newcomers, the coaching staff has also had to restructure practices in order to make sure the freshmen understand how to execute the fundamentals. The staff takes the time to put in extra times toward individual work, so that when it comes time for the freshmen to participate in team activities, they are ready to compete at the highest level. 
Spending extra time on fundamentals due to having such a young squad is a sacrifice Beaty and his staff believe will pay dividends in the future.
“We may wind up giving a sack or two up along the way because we have to be able to teach them the right technique,” Beaty said.  “If (the younger guys) trust it and learn it, they’ll get better at it and we’ll cut off a lot more later down the road.”
For the Jayhawk program to get to where it needs to be, it will require a process they are going through right now.  The progress, which has already been made this season, is exponential and the coaching staff can see it in more ways than one. 
In the weight room, guys are getting bigger, faster and stronger on a daily basis.  One of the biggest improvements in the weight room has been made by offensive lineman Clyde McCauley III.  When he first arrived at KU, the Arlington, Texas native weighed just 275 pounds.
However, McCauley is now up to nearly 295 pounds, making him much more of a force to be reckoned with when he takes the field.  McCauley is just one example of the many freshmen who have revealed their dedication and commitment to get better for not only themselves, but also for the program as a whole. 
The progression toward improvement these players have displayed only convinces Beaty even more of his program’s promising future.  It is a reason as to why he has such high hopes in the years to come.
“Right now they work as hard as we ask them to and do everything we ask of them,” Beaty said of his team’s progress.  “You don’t get third-year results in six months or seven months.  You get that in years.  We’ll get there, we have that time.”
What seems to be the most exciting part about the future of Kansas football is that if the program takes a look down I-70 and sees how similar its situation is to the Kansas City Royals, the coaches, players and support staff all have plenty of reasons to believe they will compete at a high level in the coming years.  
The correlation between the process in which the Royals became World Series Champions and how KU is currently developing its young guys for the future is easily comparable. 
Both teams are young, energetic and want to prove to the outside world that they belong.  From a fan’s perspective, both KU’s freshmen and the Royals are an exciting group of guys who are making significant strides in their development. 
“There is some enjoyment in the kids’ progress as they continue to make improvements,” Beaty said.  “They all have kept a good attitude – our entire team has – about continuing to work hard and keeping the eye on the day-to-day process.”
With that mentality and the work ethic the Kansas players and coaches are applying to the field, there is no reason not to believe why the Jayhawks can’t someday be champions as well.


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