Five Questions: Kansas Jayhawks

Thursday, spent a few minutes chatting with the enemy - which this week means the Texas Longhorns and publisher Kevin Flaherty. The former team member had a few questions about the Kansas running game, the gamebreaking ability of Tony Pierson, and the defensive woes that have plagued the Jayhawks all season.

Kevin Flaherty, Publisher: First, talk about the Kansas running game, as that seems to be the strength of the team.

Aaron Cedeño:"Yeah, the Kansas rushing attack has been much improved this season thanks in large part to the quartet of talented running backs available to offensive coordinator Chuck Long. James Sims is the group's elder statesman and leading rusher - though still just a sophomore - but it could easily be argued the three freshmen - Brandon Bourbon, Darrian Miller and Tony Pierson all possess more physical talent.

"Miller is, in our opinion, the best all-around back of the bunch. He had nice games versus Georgia Tech and Oklahoma and has started to earn more and more carries as the season progresses. He's really a fun kid to watch. Built like a fire hydrant at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, he's got great acceleration and strength and a positively uncanny ability to stay on his feet after taking a hit.

"Of course, the offensive line has to be credited as well. Last year, the group resembled nothing so much as a M.A.S.H unit, but an excellent freshman recruiting class has helped provide depth and the starters are - at last - all healthy. The Jayhawks have a couple of guys on the interior in Jeremiah Hatch and Duane Zlatnik who will get long looks from the NFL at a minimum, and stand a chance to be draft picks.

"It's not all sunshine and roses lately though, as even the run game has struggled to find consistency - particularly after halftime. The Jayhawks have to find a way to exit halftime with some momentum in their remaining games if they're to have any hope of salvaging this season, and the ground attack is a huge part of that."

Flaherty: Let's hear more about Tony Pierson. I know you keep up with Texas a bit. Is Pierson Kansas's version of D.J. Monroe (a great-speed, low-touches back)? Does that get frustrating at all?

Cedeño: "It does and it doesn't. Pierson is such a tantalizing talent because he's one of those kids who could have played anywhere he wanted were he solely a defensive prospect. In fact, he originally committed to home-state Missouri as a cornerback, before Kansas swooped in late and nabbed him after he decommitted with their promise of the chance to play tailback.

"And he really is a uniquely gifted talent at the position, particularly by Kansas standards. His pure speed and acceleration is the equal of pretty much any other back in the conference, and he's displayed surprising vision in the open field.

"So on the surface, yeah, it's frustrating that he doesn't get more carries. That type of home-run ability is something the Jayhawks desperately need. But the reality is his body type limits what they can do with him physically right now. Because he's so slender - at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds - running between the tackles is pretty much out of the question with him. They do what they can to get him the ball on jet sweeps and misdirection plays, but at this point in his career he can't really be used as a traditional tailback.

"He's a great talent, but also a bit of a double-edged sword."

Flaherty: What do you think is behind the Jayhawks' second-half (particularly third-quarter) woes?

Cedeño: "Man, if we knew the answer to that one we'd have already run it over to the Anderson Family Football Complex.

"Without being inside the locker room it's impossible to say. The staff swears up and down they come out wanting to try different things, but the results are just so lopsided toward the opposition it's pretty clear whatever is happening during intermission ain't working. Speaking statistically, Kansas has been outscored a billion-to-27 - or something close to that - in the third quarter this season.

"There have been occasional glimpses of steps forward. The Kansas defense - currently challenging for the dubious title of worst defense in the nation - held Oklahoma to just three points in the third quarter two weeks ago, and actually played a very solid game overall despite what the stats may say. The offense just did them absolutely no favors in that one.

"But for every small step forward there's been a giant leap back. Last week against Kansas State, the third quarter once again saw things get completely out of hand.

"If the defense that took the field versus OU shows up, Saturday's game could be interesting for a while. If not…well…"

Flaherty: What's the story on the Kansas defense? What needs to happen for that unit to improve?

Cedeño: "It wouldn't hurt if the NCAA temporarily passed a by-law allowing the University of Kansas to pillage the rosters of the top 10 defenses in the country and recruit, say, 10 defensive tackles.

"That's this defense's most glaring weakness. Sure, the passing yardage the secondary has given up has been absurd, but even when they do provide solid coverage they can only hold it for so long. Outside of buck linebacker Toben Opurum, nobody on the depleted defensive front for the Jayhawks has proven themselves capable of providing pressure on the quarterback - and there's only so much one guy can do.

"The linebacking corps is actually somewhat solid. Steven Johnson is out of position as an OLB, but he's still putting up absurd numbers. He's not going to wow anyone with his athleticism but he's strong, intelligent and a sure-handed tackler. If Kansas ran a traditional 4-3, he'd be the ideal middle linebacker.

"Big things were expected of sophomore Darius Willis alongside Johnson, and lately he's started to come on. But the real surprise has been true freshman Colin Garrett, from Beaumont, Texas, who is earning increased playing time with his speed. He's undersized, at 215 pounds, but he's so aggressive and quick he's able to get off blocks and get to the ball carrier in situations where by all rights he should be swallowed up.

"The reality is this unit is never, even under the best of circumstances, going to be a group of world-beaters. The defensive line is thin and largely lacking in talent. The linebacking corps is okay, and the secondary features a group of four primaries who are all in just their second season as starters on the defense.

"If the staff can land a few defensive tackles in this class, the defense could take steps forward in 2012 similar to what the offense has experienced in 2011. But for this season, the outlook is definitely a little bleak."

Flaherty: Kansas has had its share of competitive halves with teams. What do the Jayhawks have to do, in your mind, to have a chance to win Saturday?

Cedeño: "They can't make mistakes. It's such a football cliche, but it's pure truth. Kansas was down to Oklahoma by less than two touchdowns at the end of the third quarter - 30-17 - largely because they forced multiple turnovers and didn't give the ball up themselves.

"Texas is loaded with talent offensively, but they're young. Kansas needs to find a way to force the Longhorns into third-and-long situations - which, oddly, hasn't really been a problem this season (it's been stopping opposing teams from converting) - and make David Ash complete passes downfield.

"It would also help if Malcolm Brown decided he simply didn't want to carry the football Saturday. At all.

"Offensively, the running game has to come to play. In the first half versus Oklahoma, the Kansas linemen were fired up - pancaking OU defenders and talking trash. It was exciting, because they seemed to be responding to the challenge of playing a more talented group overall on a big stage.

"They'll need that same type of fire Saturday, and Darrian Miller will need 20-25 carries. And if that perfect storm of factors come together, Kansas has a chance. If not, it's likely to be another notch in the loss column." Top Stories