For the first time in four decades, Jayhawk Conference football teams will not compete with tighter roster limits than other NJCAA schools when the eight KJCCC programs step onto the gridiron this fall.
Conference presidents unanimously approved the adoption of NJCAA football roster guidelines in October of 2016, upping the active roster limit from 63 to 85, and eliminating the out-of-state player limit of 20.
And no one quite knows what effect that will have on the product on the field when the KJCCC season kicks off on Aug. 24.
“We have been trying to figure that out since the rule passed,” Butler head coach Tim Schaffner said during the KJCCC media day held at Newman University in Wichita on Friday.
As expected, the rule changes were the topic du jour for the afternoon, and the coaches seemed to agree on three main points.
- Parity should increase.
- The depth for all teams should be much improved.
- The largest effect will be seen on offense, and specifically the offensive line.
But there were also some questions raised, such as what happens to the amount of in-state players on rosters, and their playing time? Also, how are schools building their teams with the rules in place? And what about the officiating, will it also progress with the teams?
“I think (the conference) was already really competitive,” Hutchinson head coach Rion Rhoades said, referencing previous changes made to the limit on out-of-state players allowed. “I think the parity became pretty evident — anybody can win every year, and anybody can win every week, and that’s just going to be intensified, magnified moving forward. I think there’s going to be eight really, really good football teams that would be dominant in other leagues.”
A good measuring stick will be how the Jayhawk teams perform against the three Iowa schools — Western, Central and Ellsworth. The Jayhawk has essentially dominated the inter-conference scheduling agreement, but national power Iowa Western has gained its fair share of wins.
“In November and December, and we see where everybody’s record is, I think that will really be a good indicator,” Schaffner said.
Only one team, Fort Scott, enters 2017 with a new head coach, Dodge City native Kale Pick.
The Greyhounds were last in the Jayhawk in 2016 at 1-6 in the conference. With a new head coach, growing pains may be expected, with Fort Scott picked to finish last in the preseason coach’s poll.
But Pick is banking on the new roster limits to help him rebuild a little faster than expectations.
“I really do think it helps as a first-year head coach,” he said. “We struggled my first year at Fort Scott getting those Kansas kids. It was hard to battle against Hutch, Butler, Garden and all these great schools. I think that helps with our depth right away.”
Depth is the largest area the coaches expect to see improve.
“Hopefully, one injury or two injuries isn’t going to kill your season,” Coffeyville head coach Aaron Flores said.
Previously, some KJCCC coaches have said that they have felt forced to play players earlier than they wanted because of the roster limits. Now, that may not be an issue.
“Late in the season, Weeks 6, 7, 8, teams are still going to have great players out there on the field,” Highland head coach Aaron Arnold said. “I think that’s really good from a safety standpoint. You don’t have to play guys who are hurt. You can maybe give them a week off or two.”
That ability to sustain injuries and continue to be competitive was the largest point for most of the KJCCC coaches.
“That’s going to be the biggest thing,” Shaffner said. “Other than probably your quarterback, one injury isn’t going to set the tone for the rest of the season.”
That depth doesn’t just allow teams to sustain injuries, some coaches said, it allows for some roster versatility.
“If you’re going to play Kale (Pick), and he’s going to throw the ball 90 times, you’re going to be able to change up how you defend it,” Dodge City head coach Gary Thomas said.
That was echoed by Schaffner, who said he can find spots for players on the roster now such as exclusively third-down pass rushers, or long field goal kickers or nickel cornerbacks and third-down running backs.
“It gives guys more opportunities to get scholarships and move on,” he said.
Independence head coach Jason Brown said it allows for some flexibility in practice, as well.
“I’m going to use my 13-year experience in California (where there were no out-of-state limits) and make guys compete at practice in order to travel, because we couldn’t really do that before,” he said.
If the Jayhawk Conference has been known for one thing, it’s been defense. With Garden City’s historically great defenses, as well as Butler’s and recently Hutchinson’s, and of course the Busters’ title-winning defense from a year ago, defense has been the foundation.
In recent years, conference teams have used most of their 20 out-of-state players on the defensive side of the ball, saving spots for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers on offense. That dynamic may change some, according to Dodge City’s Thomas.
“I really do think the biggest difference is going to be the offensive line play,” he said. “And that’s not a knock on the Kansas players, because we’ve had some really good offensive linemen and some really good offensive lines … the difference is how quickly do you fall off there. There’s going to be some more physicality at the point of attack now.”
Thomas’ point, as well as a few other coaches, was that the ability to develop some undersized freshmen offensive linemen without having to play them right away will increase the level of play up front. Perhaps now, offensive lines will be better able to match-up with the elite play that many of the teams boast up front on defense.
“I think some of the offenses can catch (up to) the defenses,” Thomas said. “We’ll see.”
“We’ll see,” was the most used phrase the coaches uttered when asked about what they expect from the rule changes. None of them really know for sure.
“The dynamic has changed, obviously,” Thomas said. “I thought we had a really good recipe for the old rules, and now we’ve got to find out the recipe for the new rules…”
Butler’s Schaffner said the Grizzlies are going to stick with the program’s decades old plan of trying to build around Kansas players. Butler won five national championships in the 1990s and 2000s with the bulk of the team comprised of in-state players.
“We’ve stayed with what our plan has been for years,” Schaffner said. “If we need to make a change, we will. At least in the state, people are hoping there’s a place for these kids, but if there’s not then you’ve got to put a good product out there.”
The overall talent will increase, Brown is sure, but what effects does that have?
“The refs are going to have a hard time refereeing the game because it’s going to be faster,” he said.
Arnold says the biggest change might not even be seen this year.
“This year, we’ve got how many out-of-staters on our roster who are going to play? Last year, it was 20, so maybe you bring back eight kids that played meaningful minutes,” he said. “Next year, everybody is going to have 20 kids coming back that have played in games.”
Could the rule potentially help some Kansas players in the long run?
“You can have depth at the O-line, and it gives you time for those Kansas kids to develop, or red-shirt,” Pick said. “Or even if they are an out-of-state kid. I hate when people isolate the Kansas kids. There are good in-state kids in this state.”
No matter what, the effects will be evident as teams complete the 2017 season. What those effects will be exactly, well, “We’ll see.”