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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 105: Kansas

Go ahead. Make his day. Try him. He’ll be your huckleberry. See that line in the sand? Cross it, if you dare. All that’s missing is a gun, a holster, a wide-brimmed hat and a six-shooter: Charlie Weis, the new sheriff in town, won’t take any of your sass-mouth, your weak-kneed cowardice, your yellow-bellying. He’d be the Man with No Name, but Weis is far too recognizable a figure to go anywhere, anytime and go unnamed. Instead, he’s rode into Lawrence like Wyatt Earp, bestride his transportation device of choice and with an incalculable degree of confidence — self-christened or otherwise. How has Weis decided to reverse the apathy that has crept up and invaded every nook and cranny of Kansas football? He’s combined two parts schematic advantage, one part N.C.A.A. graduate-student loophole and four parts no-nonsense accountability. Want to challenge the new sheriff in town? Then draw, pardner. But you should pack your bags first.

Conference
Big 12

Location
Lawrence, Kan.

Nickname
Jayhawks

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 100

2011 record
(2-10, 0-9)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 112

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    South Dakota St.
  • Sept. 8
    Rice
  • Sept. 15
    T.C.U.
  • Sept. 22
    at N.I.U.
  • Oct. 6
    at Kansas St.
  • Oct. 13
    Oklahoma St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Oklahoma
  • Oct. 27
    Texas
  • Nov. 3
    at Baylor
  • Nov. 10
    at Texas Tech
  • Nov. 17
    Iowa St.
  • Dec. 1
    at West Virginia

Last year’s prediction

Year two feels suspiciously like year one, as I noted in a post earlier today. And that’s not a great feeling for Kansas, though there’s still hope that this rebuilding project — and this is a rebuilding project happening — won’t last beyond this season. The Jayhawks have a number of issues to address before turning that corner, however. So it’s not as if Kansas is ready to take a leap forward in 2011; even if it was, the schedule is going to make things a struggle. Welcome to life in the new Big 12, Jayhawks. Welcome to yearly tilts with Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Baylor. It won’t be easy, especially when you’re trying to rebuild on the fly.

2011 recap

In a nutshell When you combine a historically bad defense with the weakest offense in the high-test Big 12, you get one of the worst teams in program history. Last fall’s Jayhawks greatly resembled Mark Mangino’s first team, back in 2002; unfortunately, this was Turner Gill’s second year with the program. Still, it was at least somewhat surprising to see K.U. jettison Gill so quickly into his tenure, especially when given his reputation as a program builder, not a coach who can walk right in and turn a perennial loser into an immediate winner. Perhaps the university was alarmed at the rate of the program’s decline: Kansas had won 12 games only four years before, remember, and eight games a year later. What went wrong off the field? Not much, if anything at all. As Notre Dame once famously said of Ty Willingham, Gill was one of the finest coaches in college football from Sunday to Friday. His weakness lay on Saturday, when the Jayhawks found a way to hit new lows every seven days from Sept. 17 through the end of the regular season.

High point It’s rare that a win by a Big 12 team over a squad from the MAC would qualify as an upset, but here you go: Kansas, in its final victory on the season, knocked off the eventual MAC champs, Northern Illinois, by 45-42 on Sept. 17. The defense was terrible — this would be a theme — but the offense was superb. After knocking off the Huskies, the Jayhawks were 2-0. The good times wouldn’t last.

Low point It doesn’t get much worse than losing by 38 points to Kansas State. Then again, it doesn’t get any worse than losing to Missouri in the final Border War. Those two losses made a 31-30 overtime defeat to Baylor — one where Kansas held a 24-3 fourth quarter lead — feel like a moral victory.

Tidbit In 2011, Kansas finished last in the F.B.S. in total defense, scoring defense (43.8 points per game), yards allowed per play and yards allowed per carry. The Jayhawks ranked 119th in rushing touchdowns allowed and yards allowed per pass attempt. The Jayhawks ranked 118th in pass efficiency defense, opposing completion percentage, first downs allowed and sacks. More: 117th in tackles for loss; 116th in total rushing yards allowed and third down defense; 115th in giving up plays of 10 or more yards. What else? The K.U. defense was on the field for 866 plays, which ranked 52nd nationally. So this defense allowed 516.4 yards per game despite being on the field for an average of 72.2 plays per game. If the Jayhawks’ defense had been on the field as often as was Oklahoma State’s — an average of 83.7 plays per game — it would have allowed just shy of 600 yards per game. As it was, K.U. fell shy of Maryland’s F.B.S. record for total defense (553 yards per game) and Louisiana-Lafayette’s record for scoring defense (50.3 points per game).

Tidbit (winless edition) Kansas was not the first team in Big 12 history to go winless during conference play. In fact, this wasn’t the first time K.U. had gone winless in the Big 12 since the conference was formed in 1996; the Jayhawks were held winless during Mangino’s debut season in 2002. Baylor went 0-8 four times: 1999-2001 and 2008. Iowa State has gone winless twice, in 2003 and 2008. But last year’s team became the first to go 0-9 during Big 12 play — remember that the league added a conference game following the loss of Nebraska and Colorado. How long the Big 12 maintains this nine-game conference schedule depends on the league’s future expansion plans. I’m sure something is in the works.

Former players in the N.F.L.

7 WR Dezmon Briscoe (Tampa Bay), OT Anthony Collins (Cincinnati), CB Chris Harris (Denver), WR Kerry Meier (Atlanta), LB Mike Rivera (New England), S Darrell Stuckey (San Diego), CB Aqib Talib (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Direct branches on the Dean Smith coaching tree
1. Roy Williams.
2. Larry Brown.
3. Billy Cunningham.
4. George Karl.
5. Doug Moe.

Coaching

Charlie Weis (Notre Dame ’78), entering his first season at Kansas. Most famously, Weis went 35-27 in five seasons at Notre Dame, his alma mater. Let’s start with the positives: After inheriting a program in disarray following the firing of Ty Willingham, Weis led the Irish to back-to-back B.C.S. bowl appearances from 2005-6. Following the debacle that was the 2007 season – which took much of the shine off his tremendous two-year run – Weis needed a big year in 2008 to completely quiet his critics. He didn’t get the comeback season he needed, though the Irish did return to bowl play; nevertheless, Weis was again placed on the hot seat entering his fifth year with the program. He didn’t deliver, if you can recall. A longtime N.F.L. assistant before taking on the Notre Dame job, Weis coached 10 years under Bill Parcells (1990-92 with the Giants, 1993-96 with Patriots, 1997-1999 with the Jets) and another five under Bill Belichick (2000-4 with the Patriots). He won four Super Bowls as an assistant (1990 with the Giants, 2001 and 2003-4 with the Patriots) – including the last three as offensive coordinator – and participated in another (1996 with the Patriots). After one season with the Kansas City Chiefs and a disastrous year running Will Muschamp’s offense at Florida, Weis was a shocking choice as Gill’s replacement at Kansas. He’s a name, but he does not, as Kansas believes, immediately grant relevance to an irrelevant program. Wins grant relevance, not big-name head coaches.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Meet the new gang. Weis retained only one of Gill’s assistants: Buddy Wyatt will continue working with the defensive line, though he’ll drop the co-defensive coordinator title he carried last season. K.U.’s defensive coordinator will be Dave Campo, who we all know. Weis also brought back former K.U. assistant Clint Bowen, who coached under Terry Allen and Mangino from 2001-9, serving as defensive coordinator over his last four seasons. While Weis will call his own plays, as expected, he did bring in Rob Powlus as his quarterbacks coach and Tim Grunhard, an 11-year N.F.L. veteran, as his offensive line coach. His best hire might be wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello. He was wholly overmatched as the head coach at Akron, but there aren’t many better recruiters in college football.

Players to watch

Here he comes to salvage the day. Don’t ask him to save the day, because Dayne Crist is no superhero. What he is, however, is a proven college quarterback with starting experience under the brightest of bright lights. After two years as Notre Dame’s starter — with his 2010 campaign cut short due to injury — playing at Kansas might allow Crist to breathe, relax and realize his still-sizable expectations. Crist won’t get booed off the field in Lawrence, even if fans grumble under their breath when one of his passes sails above and beyond his intended target, or when his lack of mobility has another promising drive end under a cavalcade of quarterback sacks. But don’t be fooled: Crist can play, and he’ll play better without most of South Bend calling for his neck.

And if Crist is ever going to play like a five-star recruit, it’ll be under Weis. He was a terrible fit for Brian Kelly’s offense at Notre Dame, which demands some degree of athleticism from the quarterback position — not necessarily blazing speed, but the ability to make throws on the run, outside the pocket. Forget that, says Weis. He’ll have Crist in a decidedly pro-style offense that plays well to his strength, which is delivering from between the tackles.

The biggest issue surrounding Crist, K.U.’s unquestioned starter, is whether he can stay healthy. He’s had significant knee issues in the past, furthering diminishing his mobility, so the Jayhawks’ offensive front must keep him clean. If Crist does miss an extended period of time, Weis can turn to either sophomore Blake Jablonski or JUCO transfer Turner Baty, who enrolls over the summer. And don’t forget the other major quarterback transfer, Jake Heaps, who will sit out this season before taking over for Crist in 2013.

Kansas will be without last year’s leading rusher, James Sims (727 yards, 9 touchdowns), for the first three games of this season. Sims broke the program’s new cardinal rule: don’t break any cardinal rules. The Jayhawks will be without last year’s second-leading rusher, Darrian Miller, for all of this season and beyond: Miller was one of 10 players dismissed from the team in mid-January. So it was good to see incumbent, non-suspended running backs like Marquis Jackson, Tony Pierson (396 yards) and Brandon Bourbon (190 yards) step into the vacuum atop the depth chart during the spring.

Based on the way Jackson played in March and April, it might be hard for Sims to reclaim his starting role — that’s if Jackson carries his strong spring into September, which remains to be seen. But Pierson and Bourbon, two sophomores, did a nice job in limited duty last fall, though the sample size is too small to indicate an ability to lead this running game if given the opportunity. K.U. actually has some nice depth here, even if Sims’ springtime replacements lack adequate experience. If Weis learned anything from his time at Notre Dame, it’s that his offense needs a running game to be successful on the college ranks. Hopefully, he’ll balance out Crist and the passing game with Jackson, Pierson, Sims and a dedication to the ground game.

The offensive line is a major concern. It’s been an issue at K.U. for years, in fact, and two factors contribute to this worry reaching a fever pitch heading into the summer: one, the wide majority of the Jayhawks’ depth comes in redshirt freshmen; and two, the transition into a new offensive scheme is always accompanied by growing pains along the offensive line. The key to the whole line — and, perhaps, the entire offense — is senior Tanner Hawkinson, who will move back to left tackle after shuffling between the left and right side over the last two seasons. He’s protecting Crist’s blind side; Hawkinson must give his quarterback time to deliver.

He’s one of three seniors pegged for starting roles, joining Trevor Marrongelli and Duane Zlatnik. Both are likely headed into new spots in 2012: Marrongelli, last year’s left guard, was moved to center during the spring; Zlatnik was moved from right to left guard. Juniors Gavin Howard and Riley Spencer will hold down the strong side. Not an imposing group, no. And this line could fall apart if any of the starting five miss an extended period of time, which would thrust a redshirt freshman — like Bryan Peters or Dylan Admire — into a starting role. The bottom line: K.U.’s offensive line is the key to the whole deal. The offense will fall apart if Crist isn’t give time in the pocket. As of now, the line is a major question mark.

It’s going to take years to fix this defense. Those expecting an overnight turnaround will be severely disappointed: Kansas has none of the things needed to turn a once-in-a-generation defense — not in a good way — into one capable of limiting the sort of offensive attacks it will face on a weekly basis during Big 12 play. For at least another year, opposing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers will salivate at the idea of facing the Jayhawks. Perhaps, with time, K.U. can bring in enough talent to run with an Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or West Virginia without suffering the sort of red-faced embarrassment that defined last season’s defensive efforts.

Don’t expect miracles. Instead, ask for baby steps. Try to hold the Sooners to, say, 42 points. Limit West Virginia to 350 yards passing. Don’t let any game get out of hand. Mount some semblance of a pass rush, don’t turn invisible against the run, force a few more turnovers: just improve, even if by the slimmest of margins. Kansas simply cannot afford to play defense like it did last fall — the Jayhawks must make things more difficult for the opposition.

Campo will run a 4-3 defense, but it will have one 3-4 quirk. As in the latter system, K.U. will use a hybrid linebacker-defensive end as a pass rusher. This hybrid role will give sophomore Michael Reynolds and senior Toben Opurum (42 tackles, 9.5 for loss) ample opportunities to put their athletic ability to good use; you saw this from Reynolds during the spring game, when he put on a pass-rush clinic. Getting a stronger pass rush — K.U. couldn’t get to the quarterback at all last fall — will be a big first step for this defense.

Again, don’t expect any miracles. But the defensive line, an abomination last fall, could take a nice step forward if five linemen play up to their potential. On the interior of the line, K.U. needs a full season from juniors Randall Dent and John Williams, both of whom can provide some much-needed bulk. Pat Lewandowski, a promising sophomore, has added about 25 pounds since the end of last season, which means he should remain inside in 2012. While it’s probably fair to include Opurum at end, the Jayhawks also need snaps from the pair of Kevin Young and Nebraska transfer Josh Williams, who is eligible immediately.

Anthony McDonald’s arrival might change the entire layout of the linebacker corps. McDonald, yet another Notre Dame transfer, could slide into a starting role in the middle or, if he proves nimble enough, on the strong side. If possible, McDonald would be a nice fit on the strong side; that’s because the incumbent starter in the middle, Darius Willis (78 tackles), lacks the speed to play outside. K.U. feels comfortable with junior Huldon Tharp on the weak side, and Reynolds will also factor into the mix in his hybrid role — I’m not sure where he’ll line up, but he’ll make a difference.

The K.U. secondary is beloved in Norman, Waco, Stillwater and Lubbock. Fort Worth and Morgantown can’t wait to be introduced. Last year’s numbers tell the story: K.U. allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just shy of 70 percent of their attempts, allowed 8.9 yards per attempt and gave up 28 touchdowns against 9 interceptions. Crooked numbers. The conference won’t be any kinder in 2012, not with Casey Pachall and Geno Smith joining the fold.

The coaching change has provided an opportunity for a few holdovers to shake off the rust. One, senior Lubbock Smith, started 15 games over his freshman and sophomore seasons but disappeared last fall. He’s the likely starter at strong safety, alongside senior free safety Bradley McDougald (81 tackles), the only defensive back assured of a starting role. K.U.’s cornerback rotation should look surprisingly like last year’s rotation — Greg Brown, Tyler Patmon, Corrigan Powell and Dexter Linton — which, again, is good news for the rest of the Big 12. Perhaps JUCO transfer Nas Moore can step right in and make a difference.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receivers One sign that Kansas feels good about its depth at wide receiver: News that former Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay would not be granted a hardship waiver by the N.C.A.A. was greeted with frustration, but not nail-chewing worry. While McCay would have certainly added some athleticism to the receiver corps, the Jayhawks remain confident in the amount of talent, experience and potential currently on the roster — on the roster and eligible, rather. McCay, like Heaps, will be a major part of this offense in 2013; through December, however, he’ll be limited to scout team duties.

Kansas has a top three at the position: Kale Pick (34 receptions for 343 yards), D.J. Beshears (team-best 40 catches for 437) and Daymond Patterson — all seniors. Pick, a converted quarterback, is entering his third full season at receiver. In addition to serving as the team’s top returning receiver, Beshears has shown an ability to make a difference in the return game. Patterson, a former defensive back, led the Jayhawks in receptions in 2010 but missed all but one game of last season due to injury. There’s your top group, and the group most likely to land Crist’s undivided attention: it’s not a superb group by any stretch, but there’s experience, production and, in Pick, some intriguing potential.

The battle for snaps behind this trio will continue through the end of August. Here’s where McCay’s inability to land his hardship waiver hits home: at worst, he was viewed as a nice compliment to K.U.’s senior receivers. So the snaps headed in his direction are now aimed elsewhere, whether at the lankier targets — Chris Omigie, Christian Matthews and JUCO transfer Josh Ford, for instance — or towards younger, more nimble receivers like JaCorey Sheppard (15 receptions for 252 yards), Connor Embree and Tre Parmalee. Seeing that Patterson and Beshears are on the smaller size, K.U. is probably looking for a bigger receiver to round out the rotation. That bodes well for Omigie, Matthews and Ford, not to mention former Notre Dame tight end Mike Ragone, who transferred into the program near the tail end of spring ball.

Game(s) to watch

The entire season hinges on four games: South Dakota State, Rice, Northern Illinois and Iowa State. These look winnable, even if K.U. won’t enter each game as the favorite. But if the Jayhawks make a clean sweep of this quartet, perhaps they can make a push for bowl eligibility. On the other hand, a 1-3 mark in these games should lead to another double-digit loss season. The Big 12 is incredibly deep.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell You’d be wise not to judge K.U.’s debut season under Weis on the merit of wins and losses, because the Jayhawks are going to be short on the former, long on the latter. To be clear: I see Iowa State — at home, against a weaker offense — as the only conference foe Kansas can beat. That’s why they play the games, of course, but when you weigh what Kansas brings to the table against the rest of the conference, it’s difficult to imagine this team climbing out of the Big 12 cellar. This statement does reflect poorly on K.U., but it’s also a reflection of just how good this league can be: even improved — and the Jayhawks will be better — K.U. stands far removed from the second tier of the league, let alone teams like Oklahoma, T.C.U. and Texas. So don’t judge Weis’ debut on wins and losses; there are no breathers to be found once the Jayhawks reach the third Saturday of September, and barring a significant upset or two, this team is locked in the three-win range.

Now, about Weis. It’s too easy to dismiss his college career to this point; you do have that information at your disposal, to be fair, thanks to his disappointing finish at Notre Dame and last year’s dismal turn at Florida. But I don’t think he’s done a bad job to this point. K.U. may have been too reliant on quick fixes — Crist, Ragone, McDonald, Heaps — but remember: Weis is on a limited time frame, and at this point, transfers give him the best chance at immediately turning K.U. from a laughingstock into a tougher out in Big 12 play. And the Jayhawks will be a better team in 2012, even if they couldn’t get any worse than they were a season ago. How much better depends on Crist, the offensive line and the defense’s ability to mount a consistent pass rush. Don’t expect miracles: just expect a better team. And ignore the standings.

Dream season Kansas sweeps South Dakota State, Rice, Northern Illinois, Iowa State and Texas Tech and Baylor, and nets one major upset — Kansas State? — to win seven games for the first time since 2008.

Nightmare season K.U. lost to North Dakota State in Gill’s debut. Weis loses to South Dakota State in his debut. The Jayhawks rebound to top Rice, but that’s the only win on the season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Kansas fans congregate? As you’d expect, there are a lot of options out there. For message boards, check out Phog.netKUSports.comJayhawk Slant and The Shiver. For a blog’s take, visit Rock Chalk Talk. In addition, Matt Tait does a great job covering all K.U. sports for the Lawrence Journal-World.

Kansas’ all-name nominee RB Brandon Bourbon.

Word Count

Through 20 teams 66,162.

Up Next

Who is No. 104? Tomorrow’s program has had 10 head coaches since 1956. Of those 10 coaches, eight have or had first names comprised of four or fewer letters.

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    I think Minnesota is next, with 10 coaches since 1956 all having four or fewer letters in their first names except for Murray Warmath and Jerry Kill.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Oregon State is already too high lol

  3. GonzoAggie says:

    Dwayne, Hal, Tony, Jim, Mike, Fred, Gil, Jim, Jim, Warren

    Seems to pertain to NMSU. Maybe the longer name brings success. Go Aggies!

  4. David says:

    1956 is the key here. Jim Freeman’s first year as Ball State HC was 1956. He was followed by Ray, Wave, Dave, Dwight, Paul, Bill, Brady, Stan, and Pete.

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