Arlington, Texas — Respect was one of the most common words uttered by the four Kansas football players who made the trip south this week to represent the school, the program and themselves at the annual Big 12 Media Days.
And while Jalon Daniels, Devin Neal, Kenny Logan Jr. and Rich Miller have been talking about that word for the past few years, the way it was used on Wednesday was something completely new.
Rather than seeking it, they felt it. Rather than believing they deserved it, they actually were getting it. Isn’t it funny what winning can do?
“Last year, you come here and they kind of just giggle and laugh like, ‘You guys aren’t really going to be a contender,” said Neal, who, as a first-team all-Big 12 preseason pick has earned a fair amount of respect himself in recent weeks. “But now we’re here, we’re serious about football. It’s not just basketball. And it’s cool to get that kind of respect.”
Neal, who joined Daniels and Logan in making his second consecutive trip to the preseason media showcase, said there was never an actual moment last year when he heard or saw anyone laughing. But based on more than a decade of sub-par results by the KU program, he was pretty sure it was happening.
“Last year, I don’t think many people respected us. I don’t think many people still respect us now. But we're not really into that. We’ll worry about all the things that’s in front of us and what we can control. We can’t control what the outside world says about us, but we’re going to make sure that when we go out there we’re doing everything in our power so that you will respect us.” — KU safety Kenny Logan Jr.
Past Jayhawks who attended the event surely could relate to the feeling Neal was talking about. And many of them would tell you they felt, saw or sensed the same thing.
Daniels, the current media pick for preseason offensive player of the year, knew the vibe. But, for Daniels, who flashed some serious confidence and swagger with his flashy gold suit on Wednesday, the more haunting feeling from the past was one of irrelevance.
He probably would not have minded if people were laughing at him last year because at least that would’ve meant they were paying attention to him.
“Last year, I feel like I was walking around here and nobody knew me, nobody was talking to me at all and (they’d) look at the Jayhawk and be like OK,” Daniels recalled. “But now it’s a level of respect here, shaking hands with us, communicating with us and everything like that.”
“It’s just cool,” added Neal, who said he and his teammates anticipated that type of reception but felt even better about it when it actually came. “You always (used to) get that feeling where you turn your back and guys are kind of like, ‘Whatever.’ That’s kind of the feeling we got last year. But there’s more people that are keeping eyes on us this year, just respecting us in a friendly manner. It’s just a lot better feeling.”
While they enjoyed the 2023 trip more than ever, the Jayhawks said they did not blame anyone for the way they viewed or interacted with the Jayhawks in years past.
“(Last year we didn’t) really have anything (we could) bring to the table,” Neal said.
This year, though?
“We have more confidence,” he said.
Regardless of who said or did what, the Jayhawks have done a masterful job in recent years of sticking to the plan and letting their work speak for them. Ever since Leipold arrived, it has all been about the process, not the results.
The goal, the Jayhawks have emphasized over and over, is to get 1% better ever day. The belief has always been that if they do that, the rest will take care of itself. Last year certainly demonstrated that.
KU started 5-0, won three conference games, reached a bowl game for the first time in 14 years and showed in a triple-overtime Liberty Bowl loss to Arkansas that it could compete with a power conference program on the biggest stage.
While that made for a hell of a season internally, this group believes it still has work to do in order for the Kansas program to be respected on a full-time basis.
“Last year, I don’t think many people respected us. I don’t think many people still respect us now,” said Logan. “But we're not really into that. We’ll worry about all the things that’s in front of us and what we can control. We can’t control what the outside world says about us, but we’re going to make sure that when we go out there we’re doing everything in our power so that you will respect us.”
With that comes the whole key about where Kansas football currently sits. It’s still building. The momentum is real. And you don’t have to squint that hard to see some really good days on the horizon.
But these guys aren’t interested in doing anything different just because there’s been a break in the clouds. They’ve been around long enough and are mature enough to realize that the only way to get where they want to go is by doing the same things that got them to this point.
That, they’ll tell you, has allowed them to keep their grip on the underdog mentality. Things like being picked to finish ninth out of 14 Big 12 teams in the preseason poll only make that squeeze stronger.
“We still know people don’t necessarily believe in us, so we’re ready to rumble,” Neal said. “We’re ready to play some football.”
Added Daniels, when asked about the ninth-place prediction and how it related to last season: “Was it worse last year? I don’t even remember last year. I’ve just got to say that we’ll see.”
“We’ve always wanted to be people that walk with our chests out high and proud,” Daniels added. “At the end of the day, we’re doing what we’re doing. We keep on making these 1% improvements and it’s showing on the field.”
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