LAWRENCE — Thank Jimmy Le for part of the soundtrack to your Wednesday morning, and for the song that may still be stuck in your head, if you were anywhere near the practice field outside David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium that day.
According to Kansas football offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki, Le — the team’s video director — deserves the credit for John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” blaring as the Jayhawks practiced. It was absolutely on purpose, Kotelnicki explained, that the song rang out in the days ahead of Kansas’ game Saturday at West Virginia. When the Jayhawks are preparing for road environments, this is the kind of thing they are going to do.
But whether it’s junior quarterback Jalon Daniels or others on the roster, the turn to focus on the Mountaineers happened days earlier and soon after the win this past Friday against Tennessee Tech. Because Kansas (1-0) is entering Big 12 Conference play with this game at West Virginia (0-1). Because regardless of outcome it comes with a heightened level of competition and a chance to prove even more progress is being made in the second year of Jayhawks head coach Lance Leipold’s rebuild.
“They’re understanding that conference games are going to be slightly different than playing a home FCS game now, but that this is a different football team than what we were a year ago for the better,” said Leipold, speaking to how confident his team is. “But they also know this is probably going to be a big test on the road of truly an evaluation of where we are early, OK? It’s not going to be a do-or-die of where we’re at or where it’s going. But it’s going to be a step along the way.”
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Leipold was encouraged, Friday after the game, to see that this was the mindset the players in his locker room were emulating. He was impressed to notice there were even guys who don’t normally speak up who were engaging that way. To him, it showcased their maturity to understand there’s room to enjoy topping Tennessee Tech and embrace the reality that the challenges they are set to face would rise significantly very soon.
Kansas is not favored in this contest, and at this point likely may only be once — Sept. 24 at home against Duke — ever again this year. The Jayhawks are going up against a Mountaineers squad that has a head coach in Neal Brown who can’t seem to afford a letdown this week after a loss against a rival in now-No. 14 Pittsburgh last week. Kansas hasn’t even won a Big 12 opener since 2009.
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The players and coaches on this team aren’t responsible for the length of that drought. The group in 2022 is different in so many ways from the one that played out 2021. But it can be responsible for ending it despite the less-than-ideal timing of a conference opener coming in the second week of the season.
“Last year, I feel like we were able to handle a lot of adversity,” Daniels said. “Going into this season, I want to see what we’re able to do under adversity no matter when it is during the season. Just be able to go out there and be able to see how we handle it when it doesn’t go our way.”
Sophomore cornerback Cobee Bryant feels the Jayhawks are ready for this test because of the work they’ve put in over the offseason. He pointed to the dedication they’ve showcased under the direction of director of sports performance Matt Gildersleeve. Bryant said Gildersleeve would tell them all that effort, the little things, matter and will translate to the field.
And even if the trip back to Lawrence comes with a loss in tow, that doesn’t mean Kansas didn’t pass the test. Progress, is truly what this season is about for a program that just two years ago in 2020 didn’t win a game. Progress, like how much more competitive the Jayhawks were the last three games last season — including a one-possession loss against West Virginia — would avoid the deflation a crushing defeat might cause.
“Being able to show that we executed as an offense,” said Daniels, asked what they’re aiming to accomplish outside of leaving with a win. “That’s always the plan going into the game, being able to execute every single play. No bad ball. That’s really what our biggest emphasis is every single week. We want to be able to play good ball, just be able to go out there and execute.”
Bryant added: “This is like a test for us, like we ready or not? So, we feel like we’re putting in the work every day at practice to prepare for, like, what’s coming and, like, what we need to stop. Like, take away big plays.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.