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Offseason Overview: Is KU gearing up for a special teams surge?

In our latest KU football camp primer, we take a look at the increased importance the program is putting on the third phase of the game

4 min read
KU's David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium as seen from the north. [Matt Tait photo]

We’ll learn a lot more about the Kansas football program and its outlook for the 2023 season in a couple of weeks, when preseason camp is in full swing and the Jayhawks really begin preparing for the encore performance to last year’s Liberty Bowl appearance.

For now, though, let’s set the stage for how things look heading into camp.

What’s important? What’s known? Key question marks and players in need of a breakthrough performance for the Jayhawks to take that next step all will be covered in our Offseason Overview series.

Next up: Getting serious about special teams

It’s been clear for quite some time that the Kansas football program has been at or near the bottom of the Big 12 Conference in several significant special teams categories.

To be fair, that was the case in most areas throughout the decade of struggles that preceded Lance Leipold’s arrival in Lawrence. But as the Jayhawks’ struggles to score points and stop people contributed greatly to their poor records, so, too, did their inability to make up any ground or close the gap on special teams.

Several former KU coaches talked about the importance of that so-called “third phase” of the game, but few had much success turning it into a positive for the Jayhawks.

Now in Year 3 in Lawrence, Leipold has joined that pursuit, but he finally has the structure in place elsewhere to put more emphasis on the importance of special teams and making sound play there pay off for the Jayhawks.

No longer is special teams play just about survival. More than ever before, this offseason saw Kansas make moves that bring special teams to the forefront of their priority list.

We already discussed KU’s moves to overhaul the kicking game, bringing in two new place kickers — Seth Keller and Charlie Weinrich — and a new punter, Australian-born bomber Damon Greaves.

But there’s been so much more attention paid to special teams strategy, philosophy and approach than just a couple of personnel moves can indicate.

The hiring of longtime K-State assistant Sean Snyder was a huge move. His work in this area at previous stops has been stellar and his special teams units have been among the best in the country throughout his coaching career. He knows how to emphasize it, what to look for and how to coach to get the best out of all of those kick and return units.

The same can be said for special teams analysts Zac Barton and Aaron Miller. Barton joined the Jayhawks after four years of leading the special teams charge at Kent State and Miller has been with the program for a bit longer. Leipold said this spring, after the hiring of Snyder was announced, that both analysts fully supported the move to bring in the veteran special teams guy, and it’s hard to imagine their tag-team efforts in that area not having a huge impact this fall.

The kicking game was the easiest place to identify where KU needed improvement. But the return game is another area where the Jayhawks can really make some moves.

Several starters could play key roles in this department, with safeties Kenny Logan Jr. and O.J. Burroughs, along with wideout Luke Grimm having history as returners.

With KU upgrading the talent and depth at their positions — as long as those upgrades come through when it counts — those guys, and others, could take on even bigger roles as kick returners this season. And we’ve all seen the impact that a game-changing play in special teams can have on the outcome of a game.

It’s not just the guys who get the glory, knocking the ball through the uprights, pinning opponents inside the 10 or taking a kick back for a big momentum swing, that are important on special teams.

Guys like Tory Locklin, a jack-of-all-trades, fifth-year junior who plays more of an anonymous but also important role on special teams, as well as some of the tight ends — Jared Casey and Trevor Kardell — and other depth pieces who are looking to get on the field can help make a difference, both for the 2023 Jayhawks and themselves as they try to create upward momentum for their own futures in the program.

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Here's a look at the other entries in our KU football Offseason Overview series:

• What depth & talent bring to KU's QB room

• The race for running back reps

• Examining the D Tackle position

• The value of the old men of the O-Line

• How many tight ends will KU utilize in 2023?

• Major upgrades for KU's kicking game

• Getting more explosive at linebacker

• Is KU gearing up for a special teams surge?