In the northwest Atlanta suburbs, hard along Interstate 75, a shiny, new football program and an undersized quarterback are redefining the art of possible.
Kennesaw State, in just its second season and fourth year of existence, sits near the top of its conference with a burgeoning offense already among the elite within the Football Championship Subdivision.
“I believe I’m playing well enough, but there’s always areas for improvement,” quarterback Chandler Burks said. “It’s not just me, it’s all of us out there, we have things to work on. The good thing about it is we’re coming out with Ws, even when we’re making a few mistakes. We’re far from where we want to be, but we’re having some fun doing it, so it’s a positive thing.”
Indeed, the Owls (7-2, 2-1 Big South) parlayed administrative support, quality coaching, a fertile recruiting area and a wise approach into almost instant, if hard-fought, success.
Kennesaw State, which hosts conference rival Presbyterian Saturday on ASN, clinched a second consecutive winning season and is tied for second in the Big South behind Liberty. The Owls’ spread option offense is ranked among the top 10 nationally in scoring (41.8 points per game), rushing (334.7 yards per game) and total offense (493.1 ypg).
Though the numbers are a bit inflated thanks to an understandably manageable non-conference schedule, the Owls racked up 472 yards versus Liberty in a 36-21 loss in which two drives stalled at the Flames’ 1-yard line. They rushed for 393 yards and totaled 567 yards versus Southern Conference member Furman. They surpassed 500 yards in recent Big South wins against Gardner-Webb and Monmouth, including a school-record 482 yards rushing versus Monmouth.
“I think relative to the youth of our program, we’re starting to execute our offense closer to what we expect it to be,” head coach Brian Bohannon said. “It’s not where we want it, but we’ve made a ton of progress.”
Bohannon, in his first head coaching gig, was a longtime assistant to Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and brought the spread option to Kennesaw. The scheme’s rarity in college football presents headaches for opposing defenses and has permitted the Owls to be productive immediately despite a two-deep loaded with underclassmen.
“That’s the great thing about option football: You don’t have to block everybody,” offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut said. “When you’re playing with a young team, and you don’t have to put a (blocker) on everybody to keep the ball moving down the field, it definitely helps.”
The flip side is that the spread option demands a great deal from its quarterbacks, who must make split-second decisions on nearly every play. That’s where Burks comes in.
The 5-10, 189-pound redshirt sophomore stepped in after Trey White, the incumbent starter and Big South preseason Player of the Year, was injured in the opener. Burks is the leading rusher (632 yards, 9 TD) and has thrown for 1,010 yards and 10 touchdowns in a sneaky-effective passing game that gives defenses one more thing to consider.
“The way I prepare is, you’re one play away from playing, whether you’re second-string, third-string, whatever,” Burks said. “Next man up, you’ve got to prepare like you’re the guy each and every week, no matter how far you think you are from playing. It only takes one play and you’re up. I took a lot of pride in that and making sure I was ready.”
A superior leader, Burks is one of four backs with at least 330 yards rushing. Chaston Bennett and Darnell Holland both average better than 10 yards per carry. The top four pass catchers – Bennett and Holland among them — average at least 16 yards per reception.
“What we’ve always preached in this offense,” Bohannon said, “is that all we’re asking you to do is execute the offense, distribute the ball, take care of the football, and you don’t have to do anything heroic. I think that’s the reason that Chandler Burks has had so much success. He understands what we’re doing. He’s extremely intelligent, he knows how to get us in the right play, and he’s done a great job of distributing the ball.”
Burks, Kennesaw State’s first commitment and first signee, overcame his own struggles. He tore the ACL in his left knee during the program’s redshirt, practice-only season in 2014. He rehabbed relentlessly and used the time off to study the Owls’ offense and opposing defenses.
“This game to me is 95 percent mental and five percent physical,” Burks said. “Mentally, when you’re ready out there on Saturdays, you’re going to be in great position to win. It was a learning curve for me, but it was a process that I’m glad I went through.”
The future is bright, as the Owls return almost everyone and play out Bohannon’s five-year plan that pulled from recent start-ups such as Old Dominion, Charlotte and South Alabama. They will refine and improve an already potent offense and shore up a young defense.
“We never really put a number on anything,” Bohannon said. “The one thing I told the first signing class as they came through was, ‘You’re going to compete for a championship before you leave here, so get yourself ready.’ That’s what we kind of geared (ourselves) up for. We know this is a process. We know there’s ups and downs in the process, but understand the end goal is for you guys to compete for a championship before you leave. I think we’re making progress in that direction. We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely making progress.”