Jason Bean’s athleticism gives Kansas football's offense a fighting chance this year

Jordan Guskey
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas redshirt junior quarterback Jason Bean escapes a South Dakota player during a play in the first half of Friday's game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

LAWRENCE — After Jason Bean took a knee on what would be the final play of the game Friday, he wrapped both of his arms around the football and held it against his chest.

Watch the seconds that follow again, the clock ticking below 30 seconds remaining, and you’ll see an official walk up to Bean reaching for the ball. What may have been said between those two is unclear, but after a couple seconds of standing next to Bean the official walks away. Keeping watching and you’ll see Bean remain there with his arms crossed over the ball, before the broadcast cuts away to Jayhawks head coach Lance Leipold.

Leipold put the ball in Bean’s hands for Kansas’ season opener against South Dakota. Leipold named the redshirt junior who transferred in from North Texas as the Jayhawks’ starting quarterback for the first game of Leipold’s tenure as the program’s head coach. And while Bean didn’t always lead Kansas’ offense on successful drives — two ending on failed fourth-down conversions that were nearly successful — he took care of the football.

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Bean didn’t routinely show poor judgment, throw any interceptions or exhibit lackluster ball control and fumble it away. As the Jayhawks tried time and again to establish the running game with junior running back Velton Gardner without much success, Bean played a key part in keeping enough drives moving by either using his arm, legs or a combination of the two. Understandably it’s going to take some time for Kansas’ offense to reach where it wants, but at least that 17-14 season-opening victory showed Bean has the talent to give the Jayhawks a chance as it does.

“I think everyone sees … much like the program, like our offense, there’s going to be a work in progress in a lot of different things,” said Leipold, whose victory gave the program its first since Oct. 26, 2019. “But (Bean’s) athleticism is something, his speed and quickness when he does decide to keep the ball. I think he has a strong arm. I thought he made some nice throws. I mean, he’s 17-for-26 on the day. But, again, there’s some things that we have to clean up and help him out on. But, again, for him to get a chance to play in this offense in these circumstances I think will give us something to move forward with.”

Junior tight end Mason Fairchild said about Bean: “He did a really great job … running and passing … he seemed to find his stride and he did a really good job and as a leader … he’s getting there. And so, yeah, he’s been doing a really great job since he’s stepped in.”

Bean said he was told earlier in the week that he’d be starting, and that he treated each day after as he would have if the competition was still going on. He feels blessed to have been able to battle with and learn from the other quarterbacks in the running in redshirt senior Miles Kendrick and sophomore Jalon Daniels. Bean volunteered that both Kendrick and Daniels were helping him on the sideline throughout the game against the Coyotes, talking about coverages and other things they were seeing.

Fairchild said there was never a moment when it was outright said that Bean would start — although the day of the game Kansas did announce Bean as the starter. Fairchild, who finished with four receptions for 58 yards and a key fourth-down catch on the game-winning drive, said it was clear what was happening as Bean began to take more and more of the reps in practice and grow more comfortable with the system. Fairchild wasn’t surprised by the decision, given the plays Bean was making, how fast Bean was and more.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Lawrence Arnold, who caught both of Bean’s touchdown passes, feels each of the team’s quarterbacks has the potential to succeed in games. He said he knows it was a hard decision for the coaches to pick Bean over the rest. But even Arnold, whose second touchdown reception gave the Jayhawks the lead with about a minute left, couldn’t help but call Bean a “playmaker,” “electric” and “different.”

Kansas needed a talent like Bean in a game in which things didn’t click consistently offensively, one that could create when a play took that turn. Take into account, too, that there were times when the offensive line wasn’t at full strength and Leipold said they were mixing and matching there because of it. Leipold noted that Scott Fuchs, an assistant coach for the offensive line, would say as he did that the play of the offensive line needs to improve.

Kansas coach Lance Leipold walks out with his Jayhawks before taking on South Dakota Friday at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Bean’s 163 yards passing nearly doubled what the Jayhawks gained on the ground, and it took 41 attempts to reach 82 yards rushing. And, 15 of the attempts and 54 of the yards — including the longest rush of them all at 14 — were Bean’s. Leipold admitted they didn’t run the ball the way they had hoped they would.

“To be a better offensive football team, we’re going to need to play better as a whole unit in some things,” Leipold said. “But … it gives us an idea of what we have to work on and some things. We had some guys banged up.”

Bean also possessed the poise necessary, with his team trailing 14-10 with about five minutes left, to lead the Jayhawks’ comeback drive. He was that “flat-line guy,” as Leipold put it, that a team needs sometimes at the quarterback position. Bean felt it was a realization of a dream kids have to play quarterback at the level he’s at, and that he was playing for his team, school and city.

Yes, Kansas survived Friday. A Big 12 Conference, Power Five team at the FBS level, it almost suffered a demoralizing defeat against a FCS opponent in South Dakota that hasn’t had a winning season since 2017.

But the way the Jayhawks have struggled in recent years, on top of the fact Leipold didn’t get a full spring practice to begin to implement his system, means this wasn’t a guaranteed win. And don’t forget in 2019 Kansas only beat Indiana State by seven points, in 2018 Kansas lost against Nicholls by three points and in 2015 Kansas lost against South Dakota State by three points. The Jayhawks haven’t routinely been dispatching FCS teams.

Aside from a few big plays, Kansas’ defense often stymied South Dakota and had success against the Coyotes and third and fourth downs. Those efforts, alongside a Bean-led offense, were enough. Now, with that momentum and Bean continuing to lead the way, the Jayhawks have a chance to see what’s reasonably possible if improvements are made. Bean helps, but can't solve everything.

The celebration after the game, which included fans rushing onto the field, is something Leipold will remember. For what the team’s been through in recent years, Leipold thought it was “very fitting” to win in the style it did.

“Our fans were great, I thought the student body was awesome,” Leipold said. “… I haven’t been a part of that in a very long time and I really want to thank them and all our fans for their support and … hopefully they’ll continue to come out and support us because they did make a factor in things and it’s exciting. It’s exciting to see our students and fans kind of get behind this football team.”

Kansas junior tight end Mason Fairchild makes a jumping catch in the second half of Friday's game against South Dakota at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks won 17-14.

Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at jmguskey@gannett.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.