FanSided’s Kansas expert breaks down what Illinois football should expect

Kansas junior running back Devin Neal (4) runs off the field after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of Friday's game against Missouri State outside of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
Kansas junior running back Devin Neal (4) runs off the field after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of Friday's game against Missouri State outside of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. /

Illinois football doesn’t get a cakewalk game in week two, as the Kansas Jayhawks await.

The Illini are coming off a narrow win last week against a tough Toledo team. This victory, while a close one, still manages to put us a 1-0 heading into the second week of the season.

Kansas enters the Friday night contest 1-0 as well. But this Jayhawks program put a hurting on Missouri State in week one. Is this a team that should be greatly feared or did they just beat up on an FCS team?

The Writing Illini had a chance to pick the brain of Through the Phog’s site expert, Joshua Schulman on what to expect out of the Jayhawks on Friday night. He had some great insight for Illini fans.

Here is what the Illinois football team should expect from Kansas on Friday

  • Kansas Football Strength

Josh: Kansas lives off of the run. They make a living off of read options, designed quarterback runs, and whatever else you can think of. The Jayhawks have a creative offense, which is the product of excellent offensive line play and two ultra-fast signal callers. So the two biggest strengths for Kansas are the run game and offensive line.

After finishing 39th in FBS rushing yards per game in 2022, I expect that rank to increase. Each of the top four running backs in the season-opener amassed over 29 rushing yards and a touchdown. Of 521 total offensive yards, 245 were on the ground.

The offensive line is headlined by Mike Novitsky, arguably the best center in the Big 12, and Dominick Puni, who shifted to left tackle this season. Simply put, the KU front five typically dominates opponents in the trenches. They are terrific at protecting the quarterback or creating big holes for the running game.

This is an aspect of the game I think Kansas could capitalize on. Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer’Zhan Newton are two of the Illini’s best defensive players, and I feel the Jayhawks will at least be able to limit their impact in the backfield.

  • Kansas Football Weakness

Josh: You could name any position group on the Kansas football defense as a weakness — besides the linebackers — but I’ll identify what stood out to me most vs. Missouri State.

The secondary played very, very poorly last week. They made FCS-level receivers look like they belonged in a Power 5 conference, even against preseason All-Big 12 First Team selection Cobee Bryant.

Expect monster performances from Isaiah Williams and Pat Bryant. Cornerbacks Mello Dotson, Kwinton Lassiter, and Kalon Gervin are liabilities for Kansas, and there certainly isn’t anyone who can slow down Williams in the slot.

Another weakness you will probably notice is that Kansas players often swing and miss on routine tackles. That has become the norm at this point. Missed tackles will affect the Jayhawks one way or another, whether it be on a crucial third down or a late-game play.

  • Kansas Football Most Dangerous Player

Josh: While Jalon Daniels is the face of Kansas football, running back Devin Neal is the most dangerous player on the team. He has the ability to break open the game at any given moment, and we’ve seen it happen before. Neal posted 334 scrimmage yards in a lucrative outing against Oklahoma State a year back.

Despite spending just two years in Lawrence, Neal is about to launch into the top 10 of all-time Kansas football rushing yard leaders. You could make that into a testament to how bad KU has been over the years, but my point is that Neal has been insanely impressive.

I expect him to build on his strong two-touchdown game from last week against Illinois. He is someone that Illini fans need to keep an eye out for at all times.

  • Kansas Football Most Underrated Player

Josh: As I mentioned before, the rushing attack is what separates Kansas from other offenses. Devin Neal is the only returning 1,000-yard rusher in the Big 12, and KU’s quarterback tandem totaled 647 yards on the ground in 2022. But to me, Daniel Hishaw Jr. is the most overlooked player on the offense.

Everyone likes to say that Kansas’ season went downhill last year when Daniels went down with a shoulder injury. While I won’t argue that it had a negative impact, I think a more important turning point was losing Hishaw to his season-ending injury.

If you are unfamiliar with Hishaw’s game, watch his electric catch and run touchdown against Duke last season. He bears an outstanding amount of athleticism and power in his 220-pound frame. Hishaw is an essential component of offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki’s oft-utilized triple option, and things don’t feel the same when he is not on the field.

Some of the Jayhawk faithful believe Hishaw is the best back on the team, and although I don’t share that same sentiment, I understand where they are coming from. Illinois fans probably know Neal by now, but I wouldn’t turn my eye away from Hishaw. He has sneaky big-play ability and will likely receive about a dozen touches on Friday.

  • Kansas Football Adjustments From Week 1

Josh: I saw a stat online that said KU trailed after the first quarter in two of its 13 games last season. That stood true when they went down 14-10 to Missouri State at one point in the second quarter. Slow starts have plagued Lance Leipold since he took the Kansas head coaching job, and I wouldn’t expect anything different Friday night.

If Kansas is going to beat Illinois, they need to come out firing without looking back. Late second-half comebacks are always fun to watch, but that’s not the formula to win games — especially when you have one of the worst defenses in Division I.

Defensive adjustments will need to be made, primarily with the secondary. Defensive coordinator Brian Borland missed last week’s contest due to a personal issue, so hopefully we can chalk up the struggles on that end of the ball to not having the right playcalling.

When this team is on their A game, they’re one of the best units in the Big 12. The question is whether they can sustain it throughout a 60-minute match. It should be a dogfight until the game clock expires.

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