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Back from injury, KU QB Jalon Daniels picks up where he left off

Kansas junior sharp, confident and efficient in his first start of 2023

4 min read
Kansas QB Jalon Daniels winds up and prepares to unleash a pass during the Jayhawks' 34-23 win over Illinois on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. [Chance Parker photos]

It’s amazing what getting your quarterback back can do for a team.

One week after several Kansas players and coaches went out of their way to gush about the performance of backup QB Jason Bean in KU’s season-opening win — and it was a damn good one — Jalon Daniels returned to the starting lineup in Week 2 and showed why JD6 is QB1, over and over and over again.

Words like escapability, improvisation, vision and feel came raining down from all four corners of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium as another great KU home crowd (45,809 announced) watched Daniels zig and zag and zip and pass the Jayhawks out to a 34-7 lead over Illinois and hold on for a 34-23 victory to move to 2-0 on the season.

For the better part of three quarters, the Jayhawks dominated every facet of Friday’s win. And Daniels played a big part in that, leading the Jayhawks to a whopping 20 plays of 10 yards or more on a night when the home team surpassed 542 yards of total offense and outgained the opponent by 200 yards.

We’re past the point of wondering what Daniels can do. But it can’t hurt the quarterback himself to be reminded of it, especially a week after missing a game because of back tightness and in his first game of the 2023 season.

“It felt great,” Daniels said after the win. “It felt tremendous, honestly. I feel like we picked up right where we left off.”

Kansas coach Lance Leipold did not put any specific numbers or goals on Daniels’ return. But he did expect him to play well and have fun. Their pregame walk-through at the team hotel before arriving at the stadium only cemented that notion.

“I could tell today in the hotel when we were doing some walk-through stuff that he felt really good,” Leipold said. “He was really (eager) to play, he felt really in command of calls and I felt he was ready. I didn’t see any apprehension that he was worried about anything.”

Daniels finished his Friday’s victory with good numbers.

He completed 21 of 29 passes for 277 yards and 2 touchdowns and also ran for 41 more, though his rushing total landed at 24 yards because of sacks and stops behind the line of scrimmage.

But it’s so rarely about the numbers when it comes to identifying Daniels’ impact on this football team.

Of course it helps when he puts up huge stats. That’s more fun to watch, that gets the crowd going and that looks outstanding in the box score.

But it’s the five-yard gains or the yardage saved that could’ve — maybe even should’ve — been lost if not for his elusiveness and competitive nature.

“It’s always good to have your guy back,” KU safety Kenny Logan Jr. said after the win. “And having 6 back was definitely exciting. He brought a lot of energy and made a lot of plays tonight.”

There were plenty of scrambles and eluding tacklers that led to big completions and chunks of yardage. But one of the more memorable plays came on the first snap of the game, when both Daniels and Bean lined up in the shotgun position and put their hands up as if either player could take the snap.

Daniels said after the game that he was directly behind center Mike Novitsky — “on that play” — and that Bean was offset just to his left.

The play is one they had shown before but never to open a game.

“If you look back at the film last year, we had that play in and literally the exact same thing happened,” Daniels said of a mid-range competition to Lawrence Arnold. “Maybe we’ll get to the second part of that play someday.”

Asked after the win if he knew which QB was going to get the snap in that moment, Leipold said simply: “I knew who was going to get to the snap. It was who’s going to get the ball after that.”

Those plays, which are owed as much to Offensive Coordinator Andy Kotelnicki’s ingenuity as Leipold’s faith in the system and the players’ ability to execute, are always good for a few laughs and make for good stories.

But it’s plays like the one that came just before halftime that best define who Jalon Daniels is and what he means for this team.

After appearing lifeless for much of the first half, Illinois finally scored to pull within 21-7 with 41 seconds to play in the half. Rather than being content with a two-touchdown lead, the Jayhawks went looking for more.

“It used to be, 40 seconds left, we’ve got a lead, they’re kicking off, let’s run the ball and take a knee and go in for the second half,” Leipold said. “(But) Andy said let’s run one and see what happens and if we get a first down let’s get aggressive.”

“He was on, you know,” Leipold added of Daniels. “And that’s impressive. It was a good day.”

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