When Kansas wide receiver Quentin Skinner grabbed the black dry erase marker and stepped to the white board in Offensive Coodinator Andy Kotelnicki’s office, the room fell silent.
All eyes were on the board and KU running back Devin Neal quickly noticed a problem.
“Your receiver’s on the same plane as the quarterback, Q,” Neal told him as Skinner began to draw up the first of two plays he brought with him to the day’s meeting.
“You’ll see it,” Skinner responded while drawing. “Trust.”
Seconds later, after a few more letters and arrows symbolizing players and routes went up on the board, Neal saw it.
“Ohhh, shit,” he said.
Welcome to player-pitch August at the University of Kansas, where, for a few days during preseason camp, Kotelnicki opened his door — and his mind — to all five offensive position groups to see if any of the Kansas players could add something of substance to the Jayhawks’ playbook.
The offensive line, tight ends and quarterbacks went first. And Kotelnicki said he was impressed by some of the ideas they brought to the table. A few of their plays even made it into the playbook. Whether they’ll ever see the light of day or even reach the point of being installed remains to be seen.
But as if from a scene taken out of American Idol, KU’s offensive players all sought the coordinator’s approval. Instead of a golden ticket to Hollywood, however, it was a page in Kotelnicki’s playbook that inspired the Jayhawks to bring their best ideas to the white board.
“Just so you know, if I take out this book and I write it down, that’s a good sign,” Kotelnicki said from behind his desk while scarfing down a salad for lunch. “That means it goes in the bible.”
Up first was veteran wideout Luke Grimm, who clearly had done his homework. Grimm pitched his plays in the proper terminology, used familiar comps for the concepts he presented and had no problem communicating his vision.
The back-and-forth between Grimm and Kotelnicki was as natural as can be, almost as if the two had come up with the play design together.
“OK, Lukie, lemme think here for a second,” Kotelnicki began, sitting back with his eyes closed to visualize Grimm’s play. “You don’t want to do that out of (this) because that will expose (you here). But you might want to do it out of (this).”
All the while, the song “Smooth Operator” by Sade played softly over the Bose speaker on Kotelnicki’s desk from the Sirius XM channel he was listening to.
The tunes were merely background music, white noise even. All of the attention in the room was on the plays being pitched, and both Kotelnicki and the KU players themselves treated it with the seriousness of a few final instructions before kickoff.
Finally, after some tweaking, Kotelnicki had reached a verdict.
“OK. All right. OK. It’s going in the big book,” Kotelnicki told Grimm.
That prompted a, “Woo-hoo, let’s goooo,” from Neal, who sat nearby waiting his turn.
Grimm and Kotelnicki went over the new play one final time to make sure (a) it worked and (b) they understood each other.
“What do we call it,” Kotelnicki concluded.
Next up was junior receiver LJ Arnold, and he, too, came ready. He had two plays and both impressed the KU coordinator.
The first featured a little trickery with KU’s running backs.
“LJ comes in here and he’s got touches for the running backs,” Kotelnicki said. “I’m just saying.”
“That’s love 2,” said KU newcomer Dylan McDuffie, who sat by Neal awaiting his turn.
As Arnold drew up his play — erasing and redrawing routes a few different times — Kotelnicki fired questions at him.
“Why are you doing it out of that?” “Any time you go empty, what do you have to worry about?” “What made you think of that one?” On and on.
The questions were never designed to be confrontational. Instead, they were asked from the perspective of trying to accomplish three things — to teach, to understand and to create the best play possible.
Around this time, KU head coach Lance Leipold, whose office is just one door over, peeked his head into the room.
“Holy cow,” Leipold said. “Is this a meeting of the minds or what?”
Laughter filled the room.
“I’m worried this office is going to implode,” Kotelnicki replied. “There’s too much awesomeness here at one time.”
Back to Arnold’s play.
“The only other question I have for you, is why did you pick (that formation) instead of (something else),” Kotelnicki asked.
“Because it can convert,” Arnold said, quickly explaining that his play can be run against both man coverage and zone looks.
“Gosh dang, that might actually work out pretty good versus (this defensive look), too,” Kotelnicki said. “OK, LJ. I like that. I see that. You’re thinking a little outside the box with that one. It’s good. I don’t have a name for it.”
It’s clear by now that naming a plane represents the final stamp of approval, and the Jayhawks and their leader explored everything from their own names to principles of science to label the newest additions to the KU playbook.
Second-year Jayhawk Doug Emilien was up next but he had already sent video versions of his plays to Kotelnicki. The coordinator liked that just as well.
“You know what they say about a picture,” Kotelnicki noted.
Off to treatment for Emilien.
Regardless of who was explaining what play, the pitches all sounded the same. “Quasi-this,” “kind of like that,” “it’s like how we do this” and “it’s the same as that,” were all regular disclaimers, and the plays they pitched covered everything from red zone to green zone to goal line and more.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of ‘Hey, let’s put eight linemen on the field and throw me the ball’ kind of stuff,” Kotelnicki told reporters while explaining the process. “All we’re trying to do is get these young men to critically reflect on what they’re doing and what their goals are.”
Next up was Skinner.
“What are we thinking here, Skin,” Kotelnicki asked. “Is it fully outside the box or are we in the wheelhouse of things?”
“You know what, you’ll just have to see,” the wideout replied.
Like his teammates before him, Skinner was ready with every detail. He declared that his first play was a cover-3 beater and quickly went over which receiver was “hot” and how the others would line up.
“You can do (this) or (this),” he said. “But I feel like (the first option) would be better because the timing is going to bring that backer.”
Kotelnicki saw a lot of these things unfolding before the players even finished their pitches. And a lot of times he took over and wound up telling them how to draw it up.
He wasn’t a bull in a china shop trying to take over. Rather, he used his engagement and enthusiasm as a sign to show the players that he was with them and they were onto something.
“Here’s where my mind just went,” he told Skinner, encouraging him to tweak the play ever so slightly. “I see it now, Q. That’s all you had to do.”
Put it in the book.
Skinner’s second pitch was a little lighter than most and needed only a minute to be shot down.
“I have a whole library of Statue of Liberties,” Kotelnicki told him before the receiver could even finish drawing it up.
“That’s cool, coach,” Skinner said. “You’re on it.”
A quick handshake for a job well done and it was on to the next one.
It was now Neal’s turn at the board. Although the KU running backs came up with several of their plays together, Neal was the first to draw, with McDuffie and Daniel Hishaw Jr. supporting him from the couches.
“Let me guess,” Kotelnicki began. “Four running backs on the field. I take the snap, Devin Neal, who hands it to Daniel, who hands it to Sevi (Sevion Morrison), who hands to McDuffie and then back to me.”
Laughter ensued. But Neal quickly locked back in. As he drew it up, Kotelnicki began to recognize it.
“Have you looked at your install yet,” Kotelnicki asked.
“No. We just got done lifting,” Neal said.
The new play was already in the playbook and the plan was for the KU coaching staff to introduce it to the Jayhawks the next day. There goes that play, Neal thought.
“What do you mean there goes that play,” Kotelnicki said. “It was so good it literally got put in the next day.”
“That was my play, though,” Hishaw added. “So, do I still get credit?”
“Sure you get credit,” Kotelnicki replied. “What do you want me to do, tomorrow when we install it you want me to stop and say Hishaw had this idea?”
“Yeah. That’s Hishaw’s play,” Hishaw said. “I know you liked it.”
“That’s only fair,” Neal added.
Neal had two more. The second play was one Kotelnicki used to run at Buffalo but stopped because there was always one spot where it broke down.
“You remember that,” he asked McDuffie, who was with the current coaching staff at Buffalo from 2018 to 2020.
“Yes sir,” McDuffie said, nodding his head.
Neal’s final play was a little more complicated and needed a little extra work. It involved some misdirection, trickery and unusual personnel packages, but Kotelnicki was still liked it.
“I do think it’s interesting,” he said. “Do me a favor. Draw that on the left there that same size and I’ll use it as stimulation for a later date.”
McDuffie’s first play was already in the playbook, but still seemed new to him because KU installed it last fall before the running back joined the program.
“Oh, I know this one,” Kotelnicki said. “You don’t even need to draw it, Duff. I’ve already got it. What’d we used to call it? I think we called it Colorado.”
McDuffie’s second play had a chance.
“Ohhhhhh, I see what you’re doing,” Kotelnicki exclaimed before following up when the play was drawn to completion.
“Why are you having the R do that,” he then asked.
“Just to get something in this window,” McDuffie said.
“Don’t you think the Y is gonna get there,” Kotelnicki explained.
Without hesitation or so much as a hint of frustration, McDuffie erased the R’s route, redrew it a little flatter and revised the play on the fly.
“I like it, Duff,” Kotelnicki said, adding another one to the book.
Finally, it was junior Trevor Wilson’s turn to finish things off. His first play had already been taken. Veteran offensive lineman Ar’maj Reed-Adams proposed it during the first round of pitches a couple of weeks earlier.
“It’s good, though,” Kotelnicki said.
The second one looked familiar, too. Wilson himself asked Kotelnicki if KU already had that installed and the coordinator said they did but that they run it out of a slightly different look.
Onto the final pitch. An unbalanced play that Wilson seemed particularly fond of but also was still working through.
“I don’t know what the R’s doing,” Kotelnicki said. “I don’t get that. I don’t see it. Aren’t those layered a little too much.”
“I see what you mean,” Wilson replied.
With a staff meeting looming and Wilson and Kotelnicki still hammering out the details of this final play, there was only one way to proceed.
“Leave that up there,” Kotelnicki said. “I’ll think about it and see if there’s a way to make it work.”
The past few weeks produced a lot of plays like that, some that will wind up being used and others that may never make it out of that office.
Either way, the exercise inspired the players to think a little deeper and gave Kotelnicki an even better look at the kinds of minds he’s working with in the KU offense.
“For them to be able to do (this) and not come in with a bunch of just BS shows that they’re getting it, that they understand what we’re trying to do,” Kotelnicki said.
With or without these new plays available, KU will kick off the 2023 season at 7 p.m. Friday night at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
— For tickets to all KU athletic events, visit kutickets.com