KU football looking to 'shock a lot of people' at spring game

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas senior safety Ricky Thomas, right, and the Jayhawks will hold the team's annual spring game at 6 p.m. Saturday at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.

LAWRENCE — Kansas football, of course, won’t have an opportunity to snap its 13-game losing streak when it takes the field this weekend for its annual spring game.

But at least one Jayhawk thinks the team can achieve something almost as meaningful.

“I feel like we’re going to shock a lot of people,” said Ricky Thomas, a senior safety. “With everything going on, we’re just keeping our head down, working. I just feel like we’re going to wake a lot of people up.”

And perhaps the program's new head coach might be surprised by a thing or two, too.

The 6 p.m. Saturday scrimmage at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium (streaming on ESPN+) will represent an opportunity at a first impression of the Jayhawks for Lance Leipold, who KU hired on Friday morning to fill its vacancy at head coach. Leipold replaces Emmett Jones, who guided the team through its spring practice slate following the buyout of remaining three years of embattled head coach Les Miles’ contract.

Thomas and teammate Miles Kendrick, a redshirt senior with two years of eligibility remaining, commented Tuesday ahead of the spring game and prior to Leipold's hiring on what the Jayhawks have been able to accomplish across the last month despite those significant off-the-field distractions.

“The No. 1 thing this whole spring has been about family,” Kendrick said. “We’re a family here. We’re a team. We’re all here working toward the same goal. We don’t want to take steps back after this spring. We want to keep going forward. We want to pick up where we left off in the spring, obviously, in fall camp. To do that we’ve got to stay together and we’ve got to keep going.”

Practicing this spring without a permanent head coach in place, Thomas said words from defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot have proven invaluable throughout the process.

“He always tells us, ‘Once you cross these lines, man, it’s just football.’ We try to carry that with everything,” Thomas said. “We just try to focus on what we have to do and not everything else that’s going on.”

So what can KU fans expect to see this weekend?

For starters, look for the players to take the field with the same zest that the team’s top contributors have mentioned as a highlight at news conference after news conference.

“The energy that we’ve created this spring, I mean, it’s been unmatched since I’ve been here,” Kendrick said. “We’ve had a lot of energy, a lot of effort and that’s been put into practice every day. We’ve gotten 1% better every day. That’s just our focus.”

Jones, Kendrick continued, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that intensity.

“You see his focus and his passion each and every day," Kendrick said. "The next day you expect, maybe Coach Jones is going to change his message, maybe he’s going to change his passion, his attitude. No, he’s consistent. He’s consistent every day. Through this adversity, through all these challenges that we’ve been through, he’s stayed consistent, and I think that’s what he wants us to do as a team, is stay together and stay consistent on our mission of getting better every day.”

Two Jayhawks that Thomas expects to show out Saturday are freshmen safeties O.J. Burroughs and Jayson Gilliom. Burroughs, a 5-foot-10, 167-pounder out of Savannah, Ga., has been labeled a player to watch by multiple KU teammates throughout this spring, while Gilliom, a 6-2, 190-pounder out of Suwanee, Ga., has caught eyes while manning the Hawk position.

“(O.J.)’s got a knack for the ball like no other. Like, he’s going to be special,” Thomas said. “And Jayson, he just brings the energy. He’s flying around. He’s going 100% every single play and he’s making plays.”

Thomas said the defense has improved on the whole this spring, attributing that progress to the coaches “taking the thinking out of the game.”

“It’s beneficial because you’re flying around (and) it’s not like you’re thinking before a snap, you know? It’s just the calls that (the coach) is calling,” Thomas said. “It’s not like we’ve got to think about, ‘Oh, I’ve got to fit this gap, I’ve got to fit that gap.’ He’s just made it so simple for us.”

Kendrick also remarked on strides made by the defense this spring and gave a shoutout to the team’s improved offensive line. He identified Kyler Pearson, a 5-8, 147-pound redshirt freshman wide receiver out of Tulsa, Okla., as an emerging contributor to watch.

“He’s just impressed me with how he attacks every day,” Kendrick said. “Guys look at his size and they want to say, ‘Oh, he’s not big enough, he’s not going to make an impact.’ But you know, when he’s gotten his opportunities he’s made the most of them. He’s just been one of those guys that I’ve seen improve a lot from not only last season but the start of this spring ’til the end.”

Following Saturday’s scrimmage, KU will have one remaining spring practice, which will present an opportunity at a second impression, if you will, for Leipold, who is expected to be officially introduced at a Monday news conference. Whether the Jayhawks will see significant turnover in either their roster or within the coaching staff already in place will then become the biggest matter left facing the program this offseason.

No matter what direction KU went in this coaching search, the team’s challenges and overall mission would've remained mostly the same, Kendrick said.

“At the end of the day you’ve still got to prove yourself, you’ve still got to work hard and you’ve still got to be a part of the team and part of the family,” Kendrick said. “None of that changes with the coaches that are here now and the coaches if we get a new set. It doesn’t matter. The family remains the same and the goal remains the same, and that’s just get better each and every day.”