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How diversity in the passing game is affecting targets for KU's top options

10 Jayhawks have already caught passes from QBs who have completed 75% of their throws

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Kansas tight end Mason Fairchild runs with the ball during the season opener against Missouri State on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. [Chance Parker photo]

The goal for Kansas tight end Mason Fairchild entering the 2023 season was to make the jump from second team all-Big 12 honoree to first team.

And while that very well may still happen, the first couple of games have not done much to help his candidacy.

Through two games, Fairchild has three catches for 37 yards, with a long reception of 14 yards and an average of 18.5 yards per game.

Not to worry, says KU offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki.

“It’s probably as much to do with the distribution and who else is open,” Kotelnicki said this week, when asked if teams were doing something specific to keep Fairchild under wraps. “If we were in a situation where we were completing less than 50% of our passes then I’d be more concerned. But we’re not forcing balls to anybody, and it’s just a matter of where people are at within a progression on a given day.”

KU’s offense, which ranks 10th nationally in total offense and 22nd in passing efficiency, has been terrific in its first two games, lending support to Kotelnicki’s claim.

Quarterbacks Jalon Daniels and Jason Bean have completed 75.4% of their pass attempts and the numbers show that the Jayhawks are very much spreading the ball around. Ten different Jayhawks already have caught passes and this Kansas team, perhaps more than any other, has really made it a point to emphasize the multiplicity aspect of its offense.

It’s not just finding a balance between the run and the pass nor is it just about showing a bunch of different looks. Spreading the ball around early and often is another way for Kotelnicki and company to keep defenses guesses and the KU offense humming.

“We’ve said all along and I’m proud of our guys right now because there’s a lot of ball distribution that’s occurring,” Kotelnicki said. “I mean, if you look at the number of people who are repping and getting targets and touches, it’s good and that’ll have a compounding effect through the course of the year.”

Kansas tight end Mason Fairchild (89) looks for the play during the season opener against Missouri State on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. [Chance Parker photo]

The idea of tracking targets and touches might be one of the easiest ways to analyze Fairchild’s impact so far.

While he only has three catches on the season, those grabs have come on just three targets. So, it’s not as if he’s dropping balls or the QBs are missing him with their throws. They’re just not always reaching the point in the play where they need to get to wherever Fairchild sits in the progression pecking order.

Here’s a quick look at the target breakdown for the Kansas offense through the first two games. It’s worth noting that the tight ends as a whole — Fairchild, Trevor Kardell and Jared Casey — have only been targeted nine times in the two games, so even if every one of those balls went to Fairchild, it’s not as if his numbers would jump off the stat sheet at you anyway.

Kansas Targets/Catches through Week 2

• WR Quentin Skinner – 10/6

• WR Lawrence Arnold – 9/9

• WR Luke Grimm – 8/7

• RB Devin Neal – 8/7

• WR Trevor Wilson – 6/5

• TE Jared Casey – 4/1

• TE Mason Fairchild – 3/3

• RB Torry Locklin – 3/2

• TE Trevor Kardell – 2/2

• WR Doug Emilien – 2/1

Fairchild’s lower target share thus far may be keeping his numbers down so far this season, but the same concept was a big part of the reason for his success last season. Of his 35 grabs and 6 touchdowns in 2022, Fairchild was probably the first read on a very small percentage of those.

“I go back to some of those last-year catches and he wasn’t always the main progression either,” Kotelnicki said. “You find your way to him.”

Maybe as the games get closer and KU’s opponents have more data on film to formulate their game plans with, the Jayhawks’ quarterbacks will have to find Fairchild on some more of those down-the-seam throws that they hit him on a season ago. He so often seemed wide open when they hit him and also found his way into the end zone on a lot of those.

But, again, that was about finding him in the progression, which likely meant that the first or second reads were covered and the offensive line held up long enough for Daniels and Bean to get to Fairchild when he found open space.

Kotelnicki loves that aspect of the offense and believes that this group is right where it needs to be as it prepares to close out the first quarter of its schedule on Saturday night at Nevada.

“We’re not just targeting a single player; we’re not just giving it to a single running back,” the OC said. “We’re able to distribute it, which means you’ve got to cover all of them and defend all of them.”

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