Craig Has The Scout - Kansas 2023
Here I am, saying "this is the last time you'll see me writing an intro for Craig Has The Scout because the new site debuts next week" again. I said it last week and I'm saying it this week. But this time I mean it.
(Seriously, though - renewals begin in 10 days, so the upgraded/updated site has to debut in the next nine days. There's no other choice because the paywall has to go back up or else I'm just running a charity.)
So I should probably say that I might be writing an intro for CHTS next week as well (and publishing it under my byline). But then the following week, there's a 99% chance the new site will be up, Craig will be able to publish on his own, and you won't have to see me writing these intros. 96-99% chance.
Who: Kansas Jayhawks
When: 6:30 pm - September 8th, 2023
Where: David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium
Head Coach: Lance Leipold. Leipold is a winner and has shown himself to be a program builder as well. His first season as a head coach resulted in him winning a Division III national championship at Wisconsin-Whitewater. He won six titles there, ran a fun offense, and broke the stranglehold Mount Union had on Division III. He took the Buffalo job after Jeff Quinn tanked the joint (replacing esteemed DC Lou Tepper in the process). Leipold was a program builder at Buffalo, and over six seasons built a MAC power. Leipold's name was attached to two jobs after the 2020 season; Illinois and Kansas. When Illinois hired Bielema, Leipold was soon thereafter named the coach at Kansas. I was a huge advocate of Leipold to Illinois and was not alone. For many, this game is a review of Whitman's vetting and hiring.
Offensive Style: Wide zone run scheme setting up deep shots. Offensively, a lot of the same principles from the Toledo offense will be present this weekend. Kansas has a mobile quarterback similar to Finn, and will use motion to try and create confusion. They will run zone read-option with their QB Daniels. The offense looks to isolate him and create mismatches in the run game. The passing concepts are designed to confuse zones and create wide-open receivers. Illinois' man principles will help mitigate, but the passing concepts are solid and Leipold is probably saving a few tricks for the Illini.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 Cover 4. The Kansas DC Brian Borland described his defense as the weak link in 2022 and vowed to improve in the off-season. The first step was bringing in a wave of new bodies in the transfer portal. The goal was to increase the athleticism on the defensive front. Against Missouri State, they were schematically similar to last year. The defensive scheme looks very similar to what Toledo ran last week. Borland is banking on upgrading the personnel alone will improve upon the 110th-best SP+ defense last season. We'll see if the bet pays off.
Specialists: Kansas was among the worst special teams units a year ago. After one game against an FCS team, I'm not ready to say they fixed it. That said, the units all looked solid a week ago.
2023 Kansas at a Glance:
2023 Record: 1-0, 0-0
Rushing Offense: 245.0 ypg
Passing Offense: 276.0 ypg
Total Offense: 521.0 ypg
Scoring Offense: 48.0 ppg
Rushing Defense: 74.0 ypg
Pass Defense: 143.0 ypg
Total Defense: 217.0 ypg
Scoring Defense: 17.0 ppg
Turnover Margin: +1
Three Things to Watch
Number of Kansas receivers targeted. Part of Kansas' balanced offense is spreading touches around. The Illinois man scheme adds a new challenge, and if the Illini stymie the attack, the targets will be focused on fewer receivers.
Illini TE Targets: The first Illini drive featured the TE extensively, then Lunney went off script and the TEs were absent from the passing attack. The Illini need a balanced attack that includes the TEs, so Lunney will need to integrate the TE to control the tempo.
Penalties: Illinois simply needs to clean up the amount of laundry on the field. If the Illini are anywhere close on penalties as they were last week, the game is lost.
Scouting Review - Offense
Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki has been with Leipold all the way back to their time at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Leipold had a very successful program when Kotelnicki joined, and the two have created one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Kotelnicki is the play-caller in the booth, and loves to use similar formations and motions to run multiple plays, and then will turn and run the same play out of multiple formations.
With Kotelnicki calling plays at Kansas, the Jayhawks offense finished last season #9 in SP+. The offense generates explosive plays and is prolific at scoring points. A large part of the success lies in Kotelnicki not being a strict adherent to a single offensive philosophy. Kotelnicki mixes multiple schemes, and parts of his offense would be at home at Army, and another portion of the play-calling would make USC smile. The flexibility allows Kansas to take advantage of their best players. In particular, Jalon Daniels has shined in the offense. The scheme is not player reliant though, when Daniels has been injured, Jason Bean has also been effective.
The part that gives Kotelnicki the most to smile about this season is the return of 10 starters from that #9 offense. The Jayhawk offense was very balanced last season and started the season against Missouri State the same way. Daniels is a more dynamic runner and a better passer than Bean. With Daniels at the helm, the Jayhawks run the ball more often, but the passing attack is also more vertical.
The base play of the Kansas offense is the wide zone. The offense has a ton of eye candy, motion, and trickery. Peeling back from that, the foundation starts with a wide zone blocking scheme utilizing multiple option reads. The basic play is a pure wide zone.
The wide zone blocking is the foundation of the entire offense. The Jayhawks will use the pistol formation often and will utilize a stacked H-back behind a TE on the front. The only thing this play was missing to be pure Kansas was a pre-snap motion.
This version of wide zone does utilize the pre-snap motion and stacked the H-back into the backfield.
The H-back is the lead blocker, and the Jayhawks generate a numbers advantage at the point of attack by motioning across the formation. The Kansas RBs are a patient lot and will bounce through holes as they open. Illinois will need to keep track of the personnel on the field, Kansas will start with TEs and RBs on the perimeter before motioning them back in to create mismatches.
The other nuance Kansas adds to the wide zone is the read-option element. Kansas utilizes all types of option, a version of the triple, the RPO, a standard read-option, and speed-option. Here is the wide-zone read-option.
Bean is reading the backside DE. The H-back flares to the flat to freeze the DBs (they run an H-back flat pass out of the look as well). Bean is a good runner, Daniels is a dangerous runner. The Illini DEs and OLBs need to force the give on this play.
The flat pass is one way the Jayhawks quick-strike opponents. The play is a single-route concept, like many of the plays in the Kansas playbook. I mentioned above that they use the flat pass off the read-option, and here is a different formation utilizing the same concept.
This play is one that is a concern for the Illini. The Illini LBs were not particularly good in pass defense last week, and this play will put them into conflict. The H-back is utilized as a blocker and receiver alternately, and the defender will need to know his assignment on the play (QB or receiver). Here is the same concept with the QB run.
Daniels at his best might break this to the endzone. Bean gets the first down. Illinois being in man coverage will pull the secondary away on the play leaving the sidelines exposed. It is imperative the Illini line holds the edge.
One of the other option looks that Kansas will present is the speed option. Kansas likes to move side to side against opponents, making the defenders chase plays and tackle in space. Daniels is a particularly dangerous running speed option.
The play-side DE and LB both get sucked up on the play, leaving the edge exposed. Bean gave up on the pitch option early as he took off when the lane appeared. The Kansas skill position players are all good blockers as well opening up additional running room for the backs.
Kansas uses a great deal of motion in the offense and will use orbit motion often. Illinois does the same with Isaiah Williams, and it tends to get the motion man in coverage against a LB. Kansas adds another wrinkle, creating a triple-option look out of it.
The DE held the edge, so the dive option was utilized. The orbit motion man was 1:1 with the LB though (#23) if Bean had kept it and pitched.
Against Missouri State, the Kansas offense ran almost exclusively (I didn't chart every play, but every run play I did fell this way) out of zone blocking. When the Jayhawks used a gap blocking scheme, they were running play-action against the Bears. Here is one version of it, using a counter blocking scheme and orbit motion.
The orbit motion is away from the counter blocking scheme. The counter blocking pulls the DL and LBs eyes toward the pulling side. The Orbit motion puts the LB into conflict. The LB here read it well, but the H-back released as a blocker leaving the WR isolated against the free safety. The Illini will need to force this back inside if possible. The strength of Kansas is isolating play-makers in space and winning individual battles on the perimeter.
Here is another example of the Jayhawks using a counter blocking scheme away from a quick-hitting pass play. In this instance, Kansas ran the play out of a bunch formation.
The playside LB (#17) was frozen on the play and allowed Kansas to have success. The Kotelnicki offense looks to create confusion like this to freeze defenders out of plays.
The power blocking scheme is also used to set up quick hitting pass plays. In this instance, the Jayhawks move the receiver from a Bunch formation, motioned into a double H-back set on the opposite side. The Bunch and stacked H are two of the most popular formations for the Jayhawks.
The dual H-backs run a flat-curl route combo. The read is simple for the QB, and a quick-hitting concept. Kansas simplifies the scheme for the QB while creating conflicts for the defense. The Jayhawks do a great job of using motion and quick-hitting to lull defenses to sleep. Once the defense is cheating up, the Jayhawks will take deep shots. Here is a deep shot they took against Missouri State off the power blocking scheme.
Bean underthrew the ball badly, the receiver was wide open. Daniels won't miss the opportunity.
The other gap scheme I saw in the passing game was the Dart block, while running a bubble screen.
The playside tackle pulls, freezing the DL. The LB blitzed on the side, and the WR had two blockers against two playside defenders. Again, the play was set up off of motion. A better throw by Bean takes this to the house as well.
The final thought around the Kotelnicki offense is his ability to innovate using established concepts. He utilizes space well and opens up his players in space. This concept is mesh.
Most teams will run mesh over the middle and drop the TE behind the mesh point. Here, Kansas runs the concept on the Field side and clears the space for a WR. It is a twist on an established concept and part of what makes Kansas so dangerous on offense.
Kotelnicki is a great playcaller, and gets the most out of his talent. Like Lovie on defense, Les Miles left some play-makers on offense for the Jayhawks. Leipold and Kotelnicki make the most of their talent and create space to create man-on-man battles. Kansas is going to try and make this a track meet, and the Illini defense will need to stay disciplined to slow the attack and tempo.
Scouting Review - Defense
Brian Borland is the defensive coordinator for the Jayhawks, and like most of the Kansas staff has been with Leipold for since Wisconsin-Whitewater. Leipold actually inherited Borland at Wisconsin-Whitewater and has brought him with him at every stop since.
The book on Borland will call his defense a 4-3. It is similar to the Iowa 4-3, and the Will linebacker takes on a role similar to the Illini Star. In practice, the Jayhawks are running a 4-2-5. Borland historically has run a lot of Cover 4. During his tenure in Buffalo, the Bulls' defense was very opportunistic creating turnovers. The talent level has not been available in Lawrence to replicate that success.
The front four for Kansas is completely new this season courtesy of the transfer portal. Kansas has increased the athleticism of the defensive front, but it lacks experience. Borland's scheme is a good one for an inexperienced line. The defensive front is a single-gap scheme (similar to the Lovie defense), and the DL will be tasked with holding a gap vs. reading the play. The Jayhawks will rely on the safeties to play downhill and support the run game.
The biggest difference between 2022 and 2023 is the attacking defensive front. Last year the Jayhawks struggled to create pressure. This year, they have turned loose the front four to create pressure. Here is the defensive line in attack mode against Missouri State.
The Jayhawks are sitting in Cover 4 behind and shut down the passing options for Missouri State and flushed the QB. Altmyer will be able to create more with his legs than the Bears could, but the Illini OL will need to hold up against the aggressive pass rush.
Here is the same aggressive DL in their run fits.
Again, the DL is aggressively attacking their gaps at the LOS and creating havoc in the backfield. The Borland defense is effective this year in playing in the opponent's backfield, but do leave vertical seams in the defense. The defense is disciplined, even when shown motion across the formation.
The LBs bounce their coverage, and the corners are set up in their quarters coverage. This allows both safeties to quickly play downhill and flood the box.
Prior to his Kansas stop, Borland was known for his zone blitz schemes. He has used this less at Kansas, but it is still in the arsenal. Here is the look against Missouri State.
I don't think Illinois will see this much on standard downs, but the OL will be susceptible to the pressure on standard passing downs.
Borland is a defensive coordinator in the Iowa - Phil Parker mode. He relies on his defense to play sound fundamental football. Similar to Nebraska in recent years, the scheme is susceptible to being overrun by offenses that can pound the rock. Will an Illinois OL a bit battered, Kansas will turn the DL loose to generate pressure and play in the Illini backfield. The constant pressure should disrupt the Illini run game and prevent it from getting on track. Toledo did a nice job of bottling up the Illini last week. Kansas will try to do the same with a more athletic front.
What does it mean?
The health of Jalon Daniels is the real question for the game. Leipold says he was healthy enough to go last week, but a QB with back tightness for a month is a major concern. Bean is effective as a QB, but he lacks elements to his game that Daniels brings to the table. I believe Daniels will be good to go at the start but may be lacking his entire skill set.
The Illini defensive front seven will be moving sideline to sideline against this Kansas attack, then the Jayhawks will try to bust a big play up the middle. Illinois needs to hold the point of attack and not get lost with the eye candy. Sound assignment football is required, and I think the Jayhawks will be able to take advantage of the inexperience to break enough plays to build an early lead.
Kansas is going to put up yards. The Illini needs to prevent the yards from becoming points. The Illini extended too many Toledo drives last week, and that would be a show-stopper this week. Kansas is going to try and wear down the Illini front with side-to-side plays and getting the secondary in man-on-man battles. Illinois will need to win a majority of those, and last week against a similar scheme they didn't.
Kansas garnering an early lead will allow them to control the pace of the game. The Kansas defense struggled stopping run games between the tackles a year ago, but a beat-up Illini front may not be able to take advantage.
For Illinois to Win:
The Illinois defense needs to be closer to their preseason pub than week 1. The Illini front seven had serious issues against Toledo, and now have to face off against a better version of Toledo. In the second half the Illini defense settled down and played closer to the unit that was expected. The first half penalties and inability to contain a mobile quarterback are issues that are not easily remedied.
Kansas had a first half in their game against Missouri State. They pulled away for a 48-17 win, but the offense and defense struggled in the first half. Nick Petrino was able to take advantage of the Kansas run defense, which was the Achilles Heel of the Jayhawk defense a year ago. Illinois will need to be better in the trenches and control the line of scrimmage to establish the run game.
For Kansas to Win:
Kansas needs to control the tempo and pace of the game. If Illinois is able to slow the game down and limit possessions, it favors the Illini. Kansas wants a high-tempo shootout. The explosive nature of their offense maximizes their chances to win with more possessions. The Jayhawks can't start slow like they did against Missouri State.
Defensively, the front seven for Kansas needs to be disruptive and create havoc in the Illini blocking scheme. Altmyer is a mobile quarterback which is a change from last week, but playing downhill as a DL is a winning solution.
The calendar has turned to September, and my August syndrome has been cured. If this game occurred later in the season, I believe it favors Illinois as they work out the kinks with the offense and the secondary. A game this early against a unique offense played on the road is a cause for pause. With the game occurring on a Friday night, I'm more concerned. I have no real logic behind the pick, this game just feels like Indiana last year though. I'll take Kansas to cover.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: