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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. 67: Kansas

Remember those days? Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes at Kansas.

Kansas saw an opportunity: after winning 20 games from 2007-8, the Jayhawks tumbled to a last-place finish in the Big 12 North a season ago. All of a sudden, news began to leak out of the K.U. athletic department. Mark Mangino yelled at this player. He put his hands on this player. His ranting and raving was wearing thin. His long-term viability as the head coach was called into question. So long, Mark. Hello, Turner. Fans of the Countdown know how I feel about Turner Gill. Prepare for a love fest.

Conference
Big 12, North

Location
Lawrence, Kan.

Nickname
Jayhawks

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 32

2009 record
(5-7, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 80

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    North Dakota St.
  • Sept. 11
    Georgia Tech
  • Sept. 18
    at Southern Miss
  • Sept. 25
    New Mexico St.
  • Oct. 2
    at Baylor
  • Oct. 16
    Kansas St.
  • Oct. 23
    Texas A&M
  • Oct. 30
    at Iowa St.
  • Nov. 6
    Colorado
  • Nov. 13
    at Nebraska
  • Nov. 20
    Oklahoma St.
  • Nov. 27
    Missouri (in Kansas City, Mo.)

Last year’s prediction

This is not a schedule conducive to success. In no way am I saying Kansas will struggle for a bowl bid, or does not have at least a solid chance at winning 9 or 10 games; I just cannot put the Jayhawks in the top 25 when given my confidence that the team will lose four games. Nevertheless, in my mind, this is an eight-win team, but no more. Even if Kansas does beat Nebraska, I don’t think its over all conference record will be good enough to take the North.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Through five weeks, Kansas lived up to its preseason expectations. The Jayhawks were 5-0, though not an overly impressive 5-0, and entered the heart of Big 12 play hoping to land another major bowl berth. Seven weeks later, of course, the Jayhawks were home for bowl season. It didn’t have to end this way for Mangino, who posted his first losing season since 2004. Kansas lost several games in heartbreaking fashion, most notably at Colorado — a game K.U. entered ranked No. 17 in the country — and against hated Missouri in the season finale. Yet when the dust settled, Kansas stood as one of the biggest disappointments of the 2009 college football season.

High point The 5-0 start included wins over Duke, Southern Mississippi and Iowa State. The offense was as strong as advertised, scoring 44 points on the Blue Devils and 41 points against the Cyclones. In hindsight, perhaps the fact that all three of the above teams gained at least 394 yards of offense on Kansas – Iowa State had 512 – was an indicator of future struggles.

Low point A loss at Colorado, the team’s first of the season, put the Jayhawks into an irreversible tailspin. That defeat, by just four points, was joined by two narrow rivalry losses: by seven to Kansas State and by only two to Missouri. The 2009 version of the Border War saw Kansas, not Missouri, spit the bit in the final minute.

Tidbit The last six Kansas coaches (Mangino, Terry Allen, Glen Mason, Bob Valesente, Mike Gottfried and Don Fambrough) have combined to win 18 games in their debut seasons. Both Mangino and Mason lost 10 games in their first seasons in Lawrence; Valesente and Fambrough each won three games, though Valesente dropped back to one win in his second year; and Gottfriend and Allen won four and five games, respectively, with Mason’s solid nine-year span laying the groundwork for Allen’s solid debut. Gottfried, who won four, five and six games in his three seasons, is the only Kansas coach in the modern era to improve his win total in each of his first three seasons. A brief history of the K.U. football program in 114 words, not including this sentence.

Former players in the N.F.L.

12 WR Dezmon Briscoe (Cincinnati), OT Anthony Collins (Cincinnati), TE Derek Fine (Houston), C Justin Hartwig (Pittsburgh), WR Marcus Henry (New York Jets), LB James Holt (San Diego), WR Kerry Meier (Atlanta), FB Moran Norris (San Francisco), LB Mike Rivera (Tennessee), S Darrell Stuckey (San Diego), CB Aqib Talib (Tampa Bay), S Justin Thornton (Pittsburgh).

Arbitrary top five list

Best players in Kansas City Royals history
1. 3B George Brett.
2. RP Dan Quisenberry.
3. 2B Frank White.
4. OF Hal McRae.
5. SP Paul Splittorff.

Coaching

Turner Gill (North Texas ’90), entering his first season with the Jayhawks. Gill’s turnaround at Buffalo was nothing short of extraordinary. Offensively, the Bulls improved their scoring average from 18.3 points a game in 2006 to 27.6 in 2007 to 30.3 in 2008, when Buffalo set a school record with 424 total points. On defense, U.B. went from allowing opponents to score 35.9 points per game in 2006 to only 23.8 last fall, a program record on the F.B.S. level. Buffalo’s play earned Gill well-deserved national attention, and has made his name a popular one for B.C.S. conference job openings. Three years ago, Gill was heavily connected to the open Nebraska job, and was one of the two finalists to replace Bill Callahan. After leading Buffalo to the MAC championship in 2008, Gill was connected to job openings at Syracuse, Auburn, Mississippi State and Iowa State. Of course, it is hard to speak of Turner Gill without mentioning his long connection to Nebraska, which undoubtedly helped raise his chances at the open head coaching spot in 2007; that his mentor, Tom Osborne, was Nebraska’s recently hired athletic director also didn’t hurt. Gill was first a tremendous quarterback for the Huskers from 1981-83, leading Nebraska to a 28-2 record and three consecutive top-five finishes. After his playing career ended, a one-year stint as the receivers coach at S.M.U. led Gill back to Lincoln, where he coached the quarterbacks from 1992 to 2002, was the assistant head coach in 2003 and coached the receivers in 2004. Gill was part of three national-championship-winning teams with the Huskers (1994-95, 1997) and coached a Heisman Trophy winner in Eric Crouch and a Heisman finalist in Tommie Frazier. His experience under Osborne, whose stoic, calm demeanor Gill inherited, served him well at Buffalo. It will continue to serve him well at Kansas; the Jayhawks hired a good one.

Players to watch

Like Duke, a team previewed yesterday on the Countdown, Kansas entered last season with question marks along the offensive line. Even more so than the Blue Devils, however, K.U. looks stacked up front in 2010. The Jayhawks return every single offensive lineman from a year ago: all five starters, all five top reserves, every single offensive lineman from last season’s roster. This includes two multiple-year starters in junior center Jeremiah Hatch, who played tackle as a freshman, and junior right tackle Jeff Spikes. While Spikes entered the summer behind senior Brad Thornson at strong side tackle, sophomore Tanner Hawkinson, a future all-American left tackle, and senior left guard Sal Capra remain in the starting lineup. Spikes could earn significant time at right guard, where he made a pair of starts last fall, though sophomore Trevor Marrongelli currently stands atop the depth chart.

Jake Sharp is gone, taking with him 2,239 career yards rushing to go with 23 touchdowns. His departure will spell even more action for the talented sophomore Toben Opurum, who led the Jayhawks in both rushing (554 yards) and scores (9) as a freshman. Opurum’s rapid development allowed Kansas to use Sharp more in the passing game — he chipped in with 34 grabs for 266 yards — though the fullback-sized lead back added 13 catches of his own in his debut campaign. He was banged up a bit during the spring, limiting his availability, though he’ll have no lingering effects. Look for Opurum to challenge for a 1,000-yard season under Gill’s new offensive philosophy, which will incorporate more of a traditional ground game than did Mangino’s. Another big back, senior Angus Quigley, returns to running back (309 yards rushing in 2008) after spending last season at linebacker.

It’s impossible to ignore what Kansas has lost at wide receiver, as both Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier — the two most productive pass-catchers in school history — have moved on to the next level. This pair’s departure will propel senior Johnathan Wilson and sophomore Bradley McDougald into lead roles, one year after serving as secondary options. Not to say Wilson and McDougald were not important cogs in rotation: they combined to make 68 receptions for 757 yards, though neither scored a touchdown. Junior Daymond Patterson will round out the starting lineup after playing cornerback in 2009; he did play receiver a freshman, making 14 grabs for 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Some unproven receivers will need to step up to provide depth. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Chris Omigie, who has the size to be a red zone weapon for Kansas. Tight end Tim Biere (14 receptions for 183 yards) will also see his role increase in this offense.

The K.U. defense struggled last fall, ranking in the bottom third in the Big 12 in each meaningful statistical category. There has been a steady decline on this side of the ball since 2007, when the Kansas defense ranked among the stoutest in the country. This year’s group will feature a nice mix of experience, youth and athleticism, leading me to believe we’ll see a better performance from the defense in 2010. Of course, as Texas A&M fans can attest, new coordinator Carl Torbush does not have the most sterling record of performance in Big 12 play.

The star of the Kansas defensive line is senior end Jake Laptad, a two-time all-conference honorable mention selection. While Laptad has been a fixture at end for each of his three seasons in Lawrence, last fall marked his finest season yet: 49 tackles, a new career high, with a team-leading 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He’s a typical Big 12 end: strong, physical and productive, with a wonderful motor. While senior Quintin Woods is the lone returning end with significant game experience, it will be difficult for him to take the top spot away from the physically gifted redshirt freshman Kevin Young, who has impressed during his limited stint with the program.

The interior of the line features sophomore John Williams and junior Richard Johnson, who alternated starts at tackle alongside departed starter Caleb Blakesley. Williams actually began the year at offensive tackle before being moved to the defensive side of the ball; he was immediately inserted into the starting lineup, replacing Johnson, and started the final seven games of the year. While Johnson currently holds a starting role, it warrants mentioning that it was his often unsteady play that led Kansas to transition Williams over from the offensive side of the ball. Look for some of last year’s reserves, like Patrick Dorsey and Darius Parrish, to hold bigger roles in 2010.

Kansas hopes to find more consistency from its secondary, at least in terms of locating a more concrete starting lineup; 10 different defensive backs earned at least one start in 2009. Two of the more productive starters, safeties Darrell Stuckey and Justin Thornton, have been lost to graduation. Kansas will move from a 4-2-5 defensive look to a more traditional 4-3 set this fall, which will help matters in the secondary. Sophomore Lubbock Smith, who started six games last fall, will start at free safety. He finished his debut season with 42 tackles. Senior Phillip Strozier, a longtime reserve, will move into the starting lineup at strong safety.The Jayhawks return each of last year’s starting cornerbacks in Chris Harris and Anthony Davis. Harris, who made 84 tackles and a team-best nine pass breakups last fall, has shown the ability to play at an all-conference level at both cornerback and safety for the Jayhawks.

There will be a similar cast of characters at linebacker, though K.U. will play three linebackers in its base set in 2010. Senior Drew Dudley returns in the middle after making 88 tackles, second on the team, a year ago. Another senior, Justin Springer, will fight Dudley for snaps at middle linebacker. Sophomore Huldon Tharp and junior Steven Johnson will start on the outside. Tharp was a pleasant surprise in 2009, making 59 tackles in seven starts as a true freshman.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Four K.U. quarterbacks entered the spring looking to fill the role played — and played extremely well — by departed starter Todd Reesing, the most prolific passer in school history. By the end of the spring, two had distanced themselves from the pack: sophomore Kale Pick and redshirt freshman Jordan Webb. Seeing Pick land in the final pairing is no shock; he was Reesing’s backup last fall, playing in seven games with limited attempts. Pick had a major impact in the ground game, rushing for 167 yards — third on the team — with an outstanding 11.9 yards per carry average. I was slightly surprised to see Webb, not JUCO transfer Quinn Mecham, tied with Pick atop the depth chart after the spring. I thought Mechem, who played in a pass-heavy system on the JUCO ranks, had the ability to immediately step into the mix at quarterback. So Pick and Webb will enter fall camp on equal footing; anyone familiar with Chuck Long, formerly the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, is not surprised about that development. To be fair, however, the job seems Pick’s to lose: he has the experience — albeit limited experience — and presents a dual-threat look to this offense. Look for Kansas to get him out of the pocket, whether in designed runs, option plays or bootlegs, in an effort to take advantage of his athleticism.

Game(s) to watch

A very easy Big 12 schedule. Kansas avoids both Oklahoma and Texas out of the South division, instead facing off against Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. In terms of play against the North, it’s all about Missouri and Nebraska; it’s always about Missouri, of course, but this coming season will see the end of the longstanding Kansas and Nebraska series, at least on a yearly basis.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Any reader familiar with the Countdown knows how I feel about Turner Gill, dating back to his early days at Buffalo. I love his enthusiasm, the way his players rally around his vision, his deft touch in handling the daily grind of running a football program. Gill needs to grow as a game-day coach, often stumbling — or lacking confidence — in close games. However, Kansas picked a winner in the former Nebraska assistant, a coach who can continue to build upon the success of the Mangino era. And he’ll do it the right way, without the negativity that pervaded Mangino’s latter days. Had enough? Let’s look at this season. Some have Kansas ranked higher than fourth in the Big 12 North; some have K.U. as a borderline Top 25 team, which seems a stretch. To be honest, I don’t think these Jayhawks are going to win more than seven games — perhaps better than last year’s team, at least in the win column, though not a realistic North division contender. I think K.U. is far closer to Kansas State — coming soon on the Countdown — than Missouri, a team I’m high on, and is far off the pace set by Nebraska, a national title contender. I’m not going to get into the program’s future in the Big 12, other to say that it’s not altogether bright. I can say that Kansas has the right man to keep it in yearly bowl contention, beginning in 2010 and extending as far as the university will have him — or can keep him.

Dream season Welcome to the Turner Gill era: 9-3, 6-2 in the Big 12.

Nightmare season Kansas falls to 4-8, though it improves upon last season’s conference mark by winning a pair of Big 12 affairs. It’s a different type of losing season, however, without the off-field fanfare that accompanied last year’s disaster.

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.net, KUSports.com, Jayhawk Slant and The Shiver. For a blog’s take, visit Rock Chalk Talk. Remember, I will include any blog, message board or local beat reporter you think warrants mention in this section. It can be your blog, viewed only by you, and I’ll include it. Just post a comment below with the link.

Up Next

Who is No. 66? Our next program has had three head coaches since Nov. 29, 2008, as many as the program had from 1970 through Nov. 28, 2008.

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Comments

  1. Ed says:

    Tennessee

  2. Seth says:

    Paul, do you mean 2007?
    If it’s 2007, then Michigan seems like the school you’ve got slotted next.

  3. Seth says:

    Whoops. Never mind. Of course it’s Tennessee.

  4. Jim Narby says:

    nebraska is #66

  5. jjtiller says:

    Turner Gill as a North Texas alum? I don’t think so

  6. BFahey says:

    Right on, Paul. Turner Gill is the real deal and the epitome of class act.

    Who guessed Nebraska at #66? Could this be more wrong? You just said they were a national title contender and they have had the SAME coach since 2008. Could people please check Wikipedia before wasting space posting?

  7. Jim Narby says:

    that was me, jim narby

  8. CW O'Brien says:

    Actually, Turner Gill IS a North Texas alum. He was a few hours shy of graduating from Nebraska when he went to the CFL. He finished his degree when he was an assistant coach at North Texas.

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