As camp opens, questions abound

With fall camp now underway in Lawrence, Kan. that means football season has at long last returned to Mount Oread. Much regarding the Kansas Jayhawks of 2011 is yet to be determined, however, and Phog.net takes an in-depth look at a few of the more intriguing storylines to follow as the season opener with McNeese State draws near.

1. Will a legitimate leader emerge under center this season?

Last year, to call the quarterback situation in Lawrence merely "unstable" would have been a rather sizable understatement. After winning the job out of fall camp, junior Kale Pick was replaced in Week 2 by sophomore Jordan Webb - who promptly led the team to an upset victory of a ranked Georgia Tech team.

Problem solved, right? Not quite. Webb's play was inconsistent which, in all honesty, shouldn't have been surprising as he was just a redshirt freshman in 2010. But then he went down with an injury, which left junior college transfer Quinn Mecham with the quarterback duties, and depth at the position all but nonexistent.

The spring was a different story. With Pick now entrenched - and thriving - at receiver, Webb distanced himself from Mecham and appeared to make some significant strides on the field. However, Gill hasn't been shy in his praise for the freshman class, stating in his February Signing Day press conference he expected many of them to vie for playing time right away. And that class includes a pair of talented freshmen gunslingers in Brock Berglund and Michael Cummings.

Berglund's off-the-field issues have been well-documented and much-discussed this summer. He's spent much of the past few months shuttling between Lawrence and his home in Colorado dealing with legal matters, but prior to his initial departure scuttlebutt from workouts was that he looked good. Which isn't unexpected, as the kid has talent.

Cummings is something of a wild-card. One of the most dynamic talents in the state of Texas, a serious knee injury sidelined him for the final games of his senior season at Killeen (TX) High, but he's healed at a super-human rate and is now operating at 100-percent health. That's exciting news, because he has more in the way of physical gifts than any other quarterback currently on the roster - with 4.6-second speed, excellent moves in the open field and a cannon for an arm.

At this point, however, this appears to be Webb's job to lose, so the improvements he made during the spring are a positive sign.

"With Jordan Webb, I just want to make sure he comes back from spring football, and in the first couple of weeks he's still at that same high level, because that's important," Gill said during Big 12 Media Days in Dallas last month. "That's no different from a game. Every week I want to see you being consistent. Now you're more mature, you've had more reps, we should not see as much of an up and down inconsistency as far as what we're trying to get done."

Though in the end, Gill reiterated that the player who gives the team the best chance to win will play - regardless of their experience level. This philosophy applies to quarterbacks just as it does to defensive linemen, fullbacks, tight ends…whatever.

After all, Gill has seen a freshman assume command of the huddle and earn the QB1 designation before - Nebraska legend Tommie Frazier, for example. That's why the book has yet to be closed on the position, and may not be for some time.

"Sometimes, it may not happen immediately," he said, of a leader emerging. "It may be two games down the road, maybe five games. I don't know. There's no exact science to figuring out when and where it would all happen."

2. How will the Jayhawks improve the pass rush?

It's okay to be honest. The Kansas pass rush in 2010 wasn't just bad. It was…well…horrific.

The Jayhawks defense ranked 11th in the conference with just 14 sacks all season last year, and Gill makes no bones about the necessity of improving that aspect of their game in a hurry.

"I demanded it out of my coaching staff," he said, laughing. "I said 'I don't want to ever see those numbers again."

This year, Gill believes the defense to be improved on every front - better players, better scheme and (a point he emphasized repeatedly in Dallas) a greater comfort level between the coaches and the athletes.

The most obvious candidate to ramp up the sack numbers is Toben Opurum - the junior running back-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive end. Opurum showed flashes of some serious potential late last season, while running on nothing but his athleticism and instinct. At 6-foot-2, 245-pounds, he's got an excellent combination of quickness and strength which, combined with improved technique, should lead to great things. It's certainly led to great expectations.

Gill and his staff added several exciting defensive end prospects in the Class of 2011, but the second-year head man has indicated they may need more time than some other players to adjust to the speed and complexity of Big 12 football. Fortunately, there are other candidates to help Opurum shoulder the load.

Keba Agostinho played significant snaps last season as a true freshman, and was one Gill singled out. Fans should also keep an eye on 6-foot-6, 275-pound Pat Lewandowski. A redshirt freshman, the Overland Park native wreaked havoc in an experimental stint at DT during the spring, and has a lot of potential as a pass rusher no matter where he lines up in the trenches.

Keep an eye on the linebackers as well. The scheme under newly-minted defensive coordinator Vic Shealy and co-coordinator Buddy Wyatt - promoted after former DC Carl Torbush retired following the spring to look after his health - could shift to more of a 3-4 look in certain situations. The Jayhawks are somewhat thin on the defensive front but appear to be loaded with speed and talent at linebacker, so the unconventional (at least in the college game) look could be beneficial in a number of ways.

Of the newcomers at 'backer, perhaps of greatest interest is Highland (KS) Community College signee Akintunde "Tunde" Bakare. At 5-foot-11 and 220-pounds, Bakare runs a legitimate 4.5-second 40-yard dash and, in the words of Gill during the Signing Day presser, is part of a linebacker group that just knows how to splatter people.

Bakare, Huldon Tharp, Malcolm Walker and potentially freshman Colin Garrett - all outside linebackers - have the ability to contribute to an improved Kansas pass rush in 2011. It'll be interesting to see how the revamped defensive staff handles the glut of speed and depth, when both were such an issue in 2010.

3. Just what in the world are they going to do with all those running backs?

Look, to be honest, fans of every program across the country are looking at their teams - or at least certain pieces of their teams - through rose-colored glasses. The veterans are all stronger and more experienced, the newcomers are all upgrades - or will be after a redshirt year - and glory on the gridiron seems all but assured.

But where the running backs at Kansas are concerned, at least, that perception is true. No really, it is.

The 2010 season went awry for the Jayhawks during Gill's inaugural year for a number of reasons, and which was most important was a hotly contested topic on message boards, around the water cooler and even in the stands at Memorial Stadium last season.

Was it talent or was it coaching? In reality, as with most things in life, the answer lie somewhere in the middle. However, that the Jayhawks suffered from serious depth issues at several positions and a lack of dynamic talent isn't really debatable. That's just simple fact.

One of those positions was running back. With Toben Opurum's shift to defense, Kansas was suddenly left looking for a new workhorse to take over the workload in the backfield.

The player to emerge from a three-man field that included senior Angus Quigley, sophomore Deshaun Sands and even sophomore wide receiver D.J. Beshears was freshman James Sims. The Dallas native - a highly-touted prospect as a prep athlete - topped the 100-yard mark in his first college action, playing a critical role in the victory over Georgia Tech, and didn't look back.

Sims would go on to lead the team in rushing with 742 yards on just 168 carries - good for fourth in Kansas history among freshmen. He also led the team in touchdowns with 10, and broke through the 100-yard barrier three times, including a 123-yard, four touchdown effort in the epic comeback win over Colorado.

It's no secret that Gill values speed. He wants dynamic playmakers around whom opposing defensive coordinators have to gameplan every single week. Sims might not be one of those guys, but he's the guy in Lawrence right now nonetheless.

"I think he's solid for 40-50 yards," Gill explained. "But he has some of the other intangibles. He's tough, good feet, good vision. He's going to be able to make more than what is blocked. That's the kind of guy we're going to put on the football field at running back."

Of course, Sims can't shoulder the entire load himself, particularly when it appears as if the Kansas offense will tilt at least slightly run-heavy if for no other reason than it appears to suit the personnel on the roster.

Thankfully, he won't have to. Because those home run hitters Gill covets so highly? They're on the roster now, and though they're young that's not going to stop them from seeing the field.

"I'm very excited," Gill said. "This is exactly the way I wanted it to turn out. I told the staff we're going to find running backs. I said 'We will have big-time running backs at the University of Kansas. That will happen.'"

In addition to Sims, a trio of newcomers are expected to vie for playing time, beginning with redshirt freshman Brandon Bourbon. The Potosi, Mo. native was arguably the most highly-regarded member of the Kansas Class of 2010, and redshirted during his first year on campus. The reality is he almost assuredly could have factored into the rotation last season, but Gill instead opted to keep him off the field with an eye toward the future.

Then there are the two newcomers - Darrian Miller and Anthony Pierson. Miller turned heads throughout the entire spring and Pierson's high school film has had fans drooling in anticipation from the first grainy, hand-held frame.

What the three freshmen have in common, what has Gill so excited, is speed. Lots and lots of speed. Their presence ups the athleticism quotient of the Kansas offense considerably, and gives Gill the options in the backfield he so craves - even if they are inexperienced options.

As to how it's going to play out, and who is going to get the carries, he doesn't know. But the way he sees it, no matter which separate themselves from the pack he's going to be smiling, and that probably means Kansas fans will be as well.

"We're going to have at least two guys - I wanted to have two running backs that are very good and feel like whenever they touch the football they have a chance to take it the distance," Gill said. "We have that in our repertoire now."


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