Light at the end of the tunnel

Okay, so maybe the 2010 football season didn't turn out like anyone hoped. Hope springs eternal in the mind of even the most dour of college football fan, and Jayhawk Nation is no exception. Phog.net takes a look at some of what went right this season, and what it means for 2011.

"Thank God that's over."

It's okay. You can be honest. That was what you thought when the final horn sounded on the Kansas Jayhawks 2010 football season, wasn't it?

You're not alone. It was an unquestionably rough start to the Turner Gill Era in Lawrence, Kan., as the team battled injuries, a lack of depth and inconsistent play at key positions – all while adjusting to the nuances of a new coaching staff.

Add all that up and, well, what you have is a 3-9 season.

But before you go walking for the collective ledge, hold up for a second. If you had a crystal ball, and it was capable of showing you the future of college football, you'd see that things aren't all doom and gloom for the Jayhawks.

So amid everything that went wrong for Kansas football in 2010, let's take a look at a few things that went right – and what they mean for 2011 and beyond.

1. James Sims is a stud.

Sims hit campus in May as one of the brightest stars in the recruiting class of 2010, so that he emerged as arguably the team's top offensive player this season should probably come as little surprise.

Let's go ahead and discuss his one fault – Sims isn't a track star. This doesn't mean he's slow, but rather that he's probably not going to be ripping off any 80-yarders for touchdowns in the near future.

What he is, however, is fast enough, particularly when one considers how well he does everything else on the checklist for a Big 12 running back. At 6-foot and approximately 215 pounds, he packs a great deal of punch into a smallish frame. He's relatively elusive in the open field and, more importantly, he's an instinctive runner who knows how to wait patiently for lanes to open.

By the end of the season he was even pass blocking effectively – which is typically found to be a notoriously difficult task by freshmen backs nationwide.

His 749 rushing yards easily paced the team, as did his nine touchdowns. He tacked on another 134 yards receiving and a touchdown reception as well.

Those numbers are made all the more impressive by the offensive line's struggles this season. In the midst of adjusting to a drive blocking scheme from the zone-blocking system implemented by former offensive coordinator Ed Warriner, the already-thin unit lost two starters for the season to injury in Jeff Spikes and Trevor Marrongelli. But Sims found a way to make things work.

Not that the starting job in 2011 will be his by default. Gill has said all along that his ideal offense is one that places an increased emphasis on the run, and heading in to next season the Kansas stable will be packed with potential. Fellow 2010 signee Brandon Bourbon will push Sims for carries, as could incoming freshmen Dreamius Smith and Darrian Miller – both highly-touted and very talented in their own right. Sophomore DeShaun Sands and senior Rell Lewis will be in the mix as well.

It can't be said for every position on the field, but running back should be one spot where the Jayhawks have a great deal of quality depth.

2. The defensive backfield.

Rather than single out one player, it's easier to talk about this group as a unit due to how many underclassmen saw playing time.

It's easy to throw out the dreaded p-word "potential" every year. And the reality is that most of the kids who sign in a class won't become stars. At best it's reasonable to hope they become solid, steady contributors – and hope for one or two game changers.

That's what it appears Kansas will have in their secondary moving forward. Isiah Barfield, Greg Brown and Tyler Patmon form a strong nucleus of cornerbacks – each with excellent speed, acceleration and size for the position – while Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald lead the pack at safety.

Barfield will be a senior next year, but outside of him that group is also exceedingly young. Patmon and Terry will be sophomores, while Brown and McDougald will enter their junior years.

Terry remains perhaps the biggest question mark in the secondary moving forward, though he is also arguably possessed of the most potential. He was outstanding in the Jayhawks' Week Two win over Georgia Tech, playing assignment-sound football and causing a fumble in the second half. But because he was lost for the season to injury in the very next game, questions persist about his ability to cover in pass defense – something Kansas safeties struggled with all season in 2010.

The tools are there, however. His 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame will only get stronger with another off-season workout regimen behind him, and while his 4.6-second speed might not turn heads at receiver, at safety it makes him extremely fast.

Brown, McDougald and Patmon each showed flashes of brilliance as the season wound down. Patmon was critical in the Jayhawks' huge come-from-behind victory over Colorado, intercepting a pass and coming within a hair's breadth of another, and returning a fumble for a touchdown.

Brown was inserted into the starting lineup at corner versus Iowa State in Week 8. He recorded six tackles that first week, following up with five against Colorado before exploding in Lincoln versus Nebraska, logging 10 tackles. He also snagged an interception in the season finale versus Missouri.

Fans have speculated about McDougald's switch to safety ever since the talented Ohio product committed to Kansas late in the 2009 recruiting process. A dynamic athlete with the potential to make a difference at both receiver and safety, he played both for the Jayhawks as a true freshman and ultimately pulled double duty again this season.

Should he stay at safety, however, Kansas has a real playmaker on its hands. He possesses ideal size and speed for a safety, while displaying equal proficiency against both the run the and pass. Despite only switching to defense in the final games of the season, he recorded an interception against Missouri displayed a nose for being around the ball.

Barfield had a 2010 that was equal turns brilliant and frustrating. One of the top five fastest Jayhawks on the roster, he would somehow lose coverage and get burned for a monster touchdown one play, before coming back and breaking up a pass on the next series; or find a way to lay a devastating hit on a ball carrier only to get flagged for taunting moments later. He has the tools, and with an off-season dedicated solely to the defensive backfield (Barfield was a receiver in 2009), he still has plenty of room to grow.

All of this isn't to say that this group is without its faults. On the whole, it's a collection of talented and promising players, who ultimately lack a great deal of experience. At times in 2010, their tackling in run support was atrocious – something the entire defense needs to improve before Opening Day of 2011.

But in a league where speed and athleticism are a necessity if one hopes to compete, the Jayhawks finally have a good dose of both in their defensive backfield. And those are awfully good cornerstones upon which to build.

3. The offensive line can't get any worse.

That's mostly tongue in cheek, yes, but there's a nugget of truth buried in that sarcasm.

The Kansas offensive line dealt with a lot this year. Like...a lot.

Jeff Spikes? Lost for the year without ever taking a snap.

Trevor Marrongelli? Out for the season after suffering a knee injury in the conference opener versus Baylor.

Jeremiah Hatch and Brad Thorson? Battling injuries all year long.

While it's true that every college football program has to deal with these types of setbacks, it's not unreasonable to suggest that it hit the Jayhawks harder than most. With Spikes and Marrongelli unavailable, Gill and the offensive staff had precisely eight scholarship offensive linemen with which to work – Hatch, Thorson, Duane Zlatnik, Sal Capra, Tanner Hawkinson, Riley Spencer, Gavin Howard and Chad Kolumber.

Of that group, five are sophomores or younger. So not only was depth thin, but it was battered, bruised and inexperienced depth.

Now, here's the good news. The returning starters along the offensive line are also the unit's most talented members. Jeremiah Hatch and Duane Zlatnik are prototypical maulers in the run game; in fact, Hatch could even stand to lose a little bit of weight from his 330-pound frame.

Hawkinson has a world of talent but struggled more than anyone with making the adjustment to a run-heavy philosophy in 2010, and should benefit greatly from another year of experience.

The line next season will probably look a little something like this:

Left tackle - Hawkinson

Left guard – Zlatnik

Center – Hatch

Right guard – Marrongelli

Right tackle – Spikes

With the possible exception of Marrongelli, every member of that group should easily top 300 pounds. There are not guarantees, obviously, but they have all the size and athleticism one could want in an offensive line. And that's something, right?

Even better is that the depth issue should be remedied, at least on paper, thanks to a huge influx of offensive linemen in the 2011 recruiting class. As of now, the Jayhawks have six linemen scheduled to hit campus as freshmen next season. Which is good, because it's a safe bet at least a couple of them will be pressed into service on the two-deep right away.

4. Toben Opurum has a bright future on defense – even if he doesn't want one.

Of everything that happened within the football program this year, perhaps nothing generated as much conversation as Toben Opurum's move from running back to linebacker.

On some level, the surprise and frustration were understandable. Opurum was the Jayhawks' leading rusher a year ago as a true freshman, with his bruising and powerful style. But the Jayhawks had a wealth of talent at running back – at least on paper – and...not so much on defense. In fact, when it was announced that Huldon Tharp was out for the season, defensive coordinator Carl Torbush had to work with just three available scholarship linebackers during the season.

Additionally, Gill has placed an emphasis on making this team faster, which at running back wasn't really Opurum's game. Sims isn't a burner, but he plays at a much faster speed than the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Opurum.

At first, it didn't look as if his move to to defense was going to bear much fruit in 2010. He was sullen in media interviews despite saying the right things, and appeared lost at outside linebacker – which was, all things considered, entirely understandable. He'd only been playing the position for a matter of weeks, after all.

But then he got switched to defensive end, and everything just seemed to click.

Undersized ends who rely on a speed and quickness advantage aren't unheard of. Arguably the Big 12's most dominant defensive player, Texas A&M defensive end Von Miller, is far from prototypical size, for example, and Opurum took to the change like a fish to water.

His technique isn't great, but he still managed to be the most disruptive down lineman at KU's disposal for the final third of the season – including even senior Jake Laptad.

The Jayhawks have failed to produce a consistent pass rush with the front four since Charlton Keith and Jermial Ashley graduated in 2006. But in Opurum, if he embraces the change with everything he's got, they have a potential pass rusher capable of impacting the game on every single down.

5. Daymond Patterson and D.J. Beshears are fast.

On a team that doesn't seem to have much of it, speed like that possessed by Patterson and Beshears is a precious commodity. It's no coincidence, then, that the two undersized talents were key cogs in the Kansas offense all year long.

Patterson led the Jayhawks in both receptions, with 60, and yards, with 487. As part of an offense that was rarely fun to watch, the junior from Mesquite, Texas was one of the few components capable of drawing "oohs and aahs" from the crowd. It's a safe bet that his pinball machine of a touchdown run versus Georgia Tech will be played in the intro video at Memorial Stadium in the year 2020.

Beshears was something of a utility man. Nominally a receiver, he caught 10 passes for 69 yards. He also had 55 carries at running back, rushing for 226 yards, and worked as the Jayhawks' most dangerous kickoff return threat, averaging 25.6 yards per return – including a 96-yard touchdown return in the non-conference finale versus New Mexico State.

Kansas has some talent at receiver outside of these two, with the likes of Chris Omigie, Erick McGriff and Brian Maura. But Beshears and Patterson are unquestionably the two most explosive members of the club, and will continue to be huge pieces of the puzzle moving forward.

Wrap-Up:

In no way is this list meant to suggest that everything is peachy-keen for the Jayhawks heading into next season. There's still a ton of work to be done here, folks. Linebacker, defensive line and quarterback remain huge question marks, with no immediate or obvious answers at hand.

Rather, it's meant to suggest that there is reason for some optimism. There are building blocks within the program.

So smile a little, Jayhawk Nation. Hope springs eternal, and even on the heels of a 3-9 there's reason to believe things will be better next year.


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