Kevin Haskin: KU football relies on tight end in season-opening victory

Ben Johnson sensed last spring that new coordinator was serious about role in offense

Kansas tight end Ben Johnson sprints to the end zone for a touchdown against Southeast Missouri State during the second half of Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. The Jayhawks won, 38-16. (The Associated Press)

LAWRENCE – Practice football at Kansas over the past five years, or even watch it as 32,134 did Saturday in Memorial Stadium, and the natural tendency is to compare and contrast coaches.

 

So when Doug Meacham came in wearing his lab coat as a new offensive coordinator willing to tinker with anything and anyone, some skeptics muttered into their helmets.

“One of the first conversations I had with him, he said, ‘You need to stay here, because we’re going to use you,’’’ said fifth-year senior Ben Johnson, who plays a position many offensive strategists consider antiquated, tight end.

“I didn’t believe him at first,’’ conceded Johnson, “because I’ve been told that for so many years by different OC’s. But I saw in the spring how he was going to use me a little bit, and it just went from there.’’

Directly into the end zone, in fact.

Johnson scored on a 57-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Bender on Saturday as the Jayhawks toppled Southeast Missouri State 38-16 in their season opener. The TD was the second for Johnson at KU, while the 90 yards he provided on three catches against the Redhawks was a career best.

Could be that nothing’s conventional when Meacham, a coordinator with vast experience in the Big 12, is calling plays. He too can always evolve.

“It’s another facet of Coach Meach’s mind that he brings to the table that’s really good,’’ KU coach David Beaty said when asked about tight end production. “I mean, (Meacham) did a bunch of different things with a bunch of different (receivers).’’

Tight ends, however, usually do not factor into the offensive freelance that defines the Big 12.

Choosing that particular player for any all-conference team is consistently one of the toughest choices.

Yet there was the 6-foot-5 Johnson, beginning his push for such recognition in the first quarter against Southeast. Towering above an opposing cornerback on a sideline pattern with the Jayhawks already leading 14-0, Johnson was targeted by Bender.

The pass, on the money, was dropped.

“We got off to a really good start and it kinda killed a drive,’’ Johnson said. “I was beating myself up, but you’ve got to go on to the next play. My teammates really helped me get over that and picked me up.’’

Coaches too. Some would not dare call on a tight end again. Maybe for a handful of games.

Johnson, however, shirked a linebacker who attempted to jam him and broke free for his 57-yard score.

“We needed a spark at that point and it was cool to be that spark,’’ said Johnson, whose TD was part of a 17-point salvo KU used to gain command in the second half.

The play call was not even a surprise for Johnson, who came into the season just shy of averaging 1 catch per game after playing each of the last three seasons, beginning with Charlie Weis, the coach who landed the in-state recruit from Basehor.

Back then, Johnson was mostly schooled on blocking.

“Yeah, I like to be well-rounded,’’ he said. “I still like to put my hand in the dirt and get after some fools. I just look at it as helping my team. I like doing the dirty stuff.’’

Yet there was a moment in spring drills that he would get chances as a senior to also put his hands on the football.

“It was cool. Meacham was like, ‘Ben, we’re going to hand you the ball today,’’’ Johnson said. “I was like, I’m getting a handoff. I did it in high school maybe a couple of times. In college? No way.

“That just shows you a little bit of his personality. It was cool to see him do that and see how serious he was about using me.

By Johnson’s estimate, he gained about a yard on that play in practice. The gap was filled immediately by a defender. Johnson took him on. He went down. The whistle blew. Johnson rejoined the linemen.

After the Jayhawks generated 437 yards in their opener and struck quickly for all their scores, nothing seems predictable with Meacham devising plays.

Especially since KU’s quirky coordinator refuses to stamp on expiration date on calls for his tight end.

Contact Kevin Haskin at kevin.haskin@cjonline.com or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.

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