Speed kills – when you have some

The 55-7 Baylor rout of Kansas last Saturday should've been a wake-up call.

Yes, it should rattle the cages of the Jayhawks. That's a given. It should, however, be just as much an epiphany for KU fans as it is for the team.

 

What we saw in Waco was a KU team that struggled to hang with a much faster, more athletic opponent. This wouldn't be a surprise if you were comparing the Jayhawks to, say, Texas or Oklahoma. One could almost let that slide.

 

It becomes more disturbing when you realize you're talking about Baylor. Perennial punching bag Baylor.

 

Baylor QB Robert Griffin threw for 380 yards and added 64 more rushing, bad knee and all. The Bears' offense hammered KU for an Osborne-esque, running-up-the-score-worthy 678 total yards.

 

An awful lot of people want to lay this at the feet of first-year head coach Turner Gill. This would be a monumental mistake. KU's bad defense sits squarely on the very retired, very wealthy shoulders of former coach Mark Mangino.

 

Please remember that I defended Mangino early and through most of his career. It wasn't until the full extent of his motivational strategies came out last spring that I wrote that he needed to either resign or get fired. Even so, I was one of those who swore up and down that Kansas' talent level had been raised significantly during his tenure.

 

Well, I was wrong.

 

This isn't a "Bash Mangino" piece. It's also not a Gill love fest. I'm just going to connect some dots to help us all understand how we find ourselves wondering if the Jayhawks will win four games, less than three seasons removed from the most successful in school history.

 

At football media day this past summer, someone asked Gill a question about what one thing he thought his team lacked.

 

"Speed," he said without hesitating.

 

Here's the deal: Mark Mangino and his staff whiffed on the two recruiting classes following the Orange Bowl. Totally. We all kept waiting for a recruiting bump that never came.

 

I'm not saying the recruits in those two classes stink. What I'm saying is, while the college football world made speed – especially on defense – a priority, Kansas did what Kansas did: recruit 2- and 3-star kids and coach ‘em up. Mangino built a reputation as a coach who could take solid, hard-working kids and make them play beyond their potential. He found that diamond in the rough.

 

He sure looked like a genius that miracle season. The Kansas defense looked pretty stout that year, which makes sense when you consider the nearly-perfect storm that had welled up.

 

KU had the soft side of the Big 12 schedule: no Oklahoma, no Texas. The Jayhawks were anchored by Big 12 defensive lineman of the year in James McClinton. Future NFL players Mike Rivera and James Holt were joined by human wrecking ball Joe Mortensen at linebacker. Finally, you had current Tampa Bay Buc Aqib Talib at one corner. To paraphrase an old football idiom, two-thirds of the world is covered by water; the other third is covered by Aqib Talib. That left current Jayhawk Chris Harris and alums Darrell Stuckey, Justin Thornton, Kendrick Harper and Patrick Resby to help each other out.

 

That team wasn't very fast, but boy, were they good. Like seriously good.

 

From all angles, it looks like Mangino and his staff continued on that same diamond-in-the-rough tack in his final two seasons, even after going 12-1 and beating Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Sure, he secured a few more highly-touted recruits after the bowl win, but none of the recruiting service accolades have translated to performance on the field yet.

 

The Jayhawks underachieved their way to a 7-5 record in the 2008 season, gaining yards and scoring points in big juicy chunks and starting to allow athletic opponents who spread the field to do the same. A 42-21 Insight Bowl rout of Minnesota in which Kerry Meier and Dez Briscoe combined for 74 catches and 2,613 yards lulled us all back into our football happy places.

 

Then there was last season. After winning their first five, the ‘Hawks lost their last seven. Play on both sides of the ball was spotty. Now, in hindsight, we have a pretty good idea why. Acknowledge. Move on.

 

Which brings us to today.

 

We saw last Saturday a defensive unit not as good as that 2007 unit. Speed can make up for any number of ills in football, but unfortunately, they aren't very fast, either. In fact, if you watched last week's game, you'd think they were slower than Christmas morning. I don't think that's true, so I'm not going to go that far. There's no reason to hit the panic button. Not yet, at least.

 

There's a reason that true freshman Keeston Terry was recruited as a wide receiver and was moved to defensive back about 15 minutes after Gill arrived on campus. It didn't take Gill long to figure out he doesn't have any speed on the defensive side of the ball. That position switch should have sent up a warning flare right there.

 

Actually, our first signs came under Mangino with the annual Midseason Position Switch Festival and Barn Dance. Mangino always asserted it was designed to get good athletes on the field. It's not unreasonable now to wonder if it was really to get not-so-good athletesoff the field.

 

Again, this is not an article to rip Mangino or apologize for Gill or to say, "KU's defense sucks." What's becoming apparent is that KU's defensive backs and linebackers are a half-step slower than most of the Big 12 receivers they'll cover this season. It doesn't seem like much, but on the football field, a half-step can make all the difference in the world.

 

But I'm not sure the illegitimate love child of Vince Lombardi and Goldie Hawn in "Wildcats" could have made last Saturday any more palatable.

 

There are certainly things I see with this team and coaching staff that seem, well, interesting. It's also apparently the fashionable thing to do on Phog.net is to rip Gill and his staff for everything from their faith to how they show (or don't show) emotion to how they choose to instill discipline in their players. If I wanted to, I could come up with 50 things to pick at about this team and this coach. I could do the same about the '85 Bears. Whatever.

 

What's undeniable, though, if you'll take time away from blasting Gill for being this, that or the other, is that none of this criticism means a thing until Kansas gets some athletes on the field who can run really, really fast. At least, as fast as most of the other guy's.

 

Can Gill get those guys? I don't know, but I'm not going to assume he can't. And I'm sure not prepared to rip him for what he does off the field just because of a lack of success on it after five measly weeks.

 

For now, it is what it is, and we'll live with it. No one lives with it more than the head coach. Turner Gill has to play the hand he was dealt. Right now, it's fair to say he's not holding pocket aces like many of us thought.


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