In lost season, Jayhawks focus on developing freshmen

Kansas quarterback Ryan Willis (13) passes during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Baylor Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Lawrence, Kan. Baylor won 66-7. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The only touchdown Kansas scored against second-ranked Baylor last week was on a pass from a freshman quarterback to a freshman wide receiver.

Jayhawks coach David Beaty hopes that’s a sign of positive things in the future.

In what is already a lost season, Kansas (0-5, 0-2 Big 12) is banking that playing a slew of freshmen will pay dividends in the future. None of them is arguably more important than the quarterback, Ryan Willis, who made his first start against the Bears.

“I was really impressed,” Baylor coach Art Briles said after the game. “I thought he was really good. He made some really good, nice throws, and he held his composure. If I was a Kansas Jayhawk, I’d be excited because he looked really good.”

Willis and his target on that touchdown pass, Steven Sims, aren’t the only first-year players making an impact. Four true freshmen have started for the Jayhawks at least once this season, and another is expected to make his first start against Texas Tech (4-2, 1-2) on Saturday.

Injuries have pressed wide receiver Jeremiah Booker into action.

“He approaches the game like a pro does,” Beaty said. “He takes care of his body in the training room and the weight room. Everybody that has really been around him has talked about him being a pro. And I think that’s a testament to him.”

Freshman cornerback Tyrone Miller Jr. has started every game this season and is second on the team in tackles, while right tackle Larry Hughes has also started four games.

“It’s hard to do,” defensive coordinator Clint Bowen said. “The bigger part for them is juggling the new college life, the school the studies, the freedom of all that and to be able to stay focused on football at their age says a lot about their maturity.”

Outside of the five starters, four other freshmen — left tackle Clyde McCauley Jr., wide receiver Emmanuel Moore, linebacker Osaze Ogbebor and defensive end Dorance Armstrong — are listed on the two-deep roster. One more freshman, running back Ryan Schadler, is the team’s top kickoff returner and brought one back for a touchdown earlier this season.

“I love that stuff,” junior offensive lineman Jordan Shelley-Smith said, when asked what it’s like seeing freshman debuts. “That first play for those guys is like, ‘Man, that was cool.'”

Beaty said most of those guys aren’t done growing yet. They still need time to develop, and becoming a solid Division I player doesn’t happen overnight.

“The thing they need for the physical part to come along is time,” he said. “Time and development. Time in the weight room. Time with our strength staff. Time for, really, the good Lord to touch them a little bit and let them grow.”

Shelley-Smith is a prime example of how players can grow from their first season to their fourth. When he stepped on campus as a freshman in 2012, he was a 247-pound tight end. Now, he’s hovering around 300 pounds as a left tackle.

With all of those freshmen making contributions early, it’s easy to look toward the future.

“I choose to look at it like this,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens said. “In two to three years, those guys are going to be really good players. As you’re looking at the scoreboard, it’s not very much fun sometimes, but when you see those guys out there playing you see them competing and getting the experience in right now.”

Right now, they’re still freshmen, often making freshman mistakes.

“Sometimes freshmen are a little bit squirrely,” Likens said. “You don’t know if they’re going to do the right things all the time.”

Then, they make a play like Willis and Sims did last weekend.

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