His knee is healthy. He declares it 100 percent. He doesn't plan even to wear a protective brace. He's in the best condition of his life. Yep. Bill Whittemore is the picture of health weeks before the kickoff of the 2003 college football season.
Whittemore a season ago completed 151-of-305 passes for 1,666 yards and 11 touchdowns and also ran for 549 yards and 11 scores, despite missing the final three games of the year because of a knee injury that came at the end of a run-for-your-life scramble against Missouri.
The 6-0, 195-pound native of Brentwood, Tenn. broke the KU single-season record with his 22 touchdowns (11 rush, 11 passing). He also ranked in the top 10 on several other single-season lists, including total offense (4th, 2,215 yards), passing attempts (5th, 305), passing completions (6th, 151), passing touchdowns (t-10th, 11) and rushing yards by a quarterback (2nd, 549).
The Jayhawks' Tennessee titan begins his senior year just 32 passing yards shy of entering KU's top-10 career passing yards list.
But Kansas' senior quarterback, who was league coaches' choice for Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year in 2002, still faces the question. Can he survive a pounding similar to what he endured last season, when he too often was seen pulling himself from the turf after a sack, a hit-after-the-throw or a mad scramble for yardage?
Certainly, Whittemore hopes he doesn't have to find out. But the six foot, 195-pound Nashville native also isn't backing away from reality.
"I'm not going to go in there planning on not taking punishment," he says. "This is the Big 12. I guess that's all I know of the Big 12, really. But that's all anyone's accustomed to. I've always taken hits. I mean, yeah, I hope I don't have to take near as many hits this year, but as far as I'm concerned, that's one of the things a quarterback does."
Coach Mark Mangino, whose second season at the helm commences Aug. 30 in Memorial Stadium against Northwestern, is emphatic about getting Whittemore better protection.
"First and foremost we are working hard to keep Bill healthy, and keeping him healthy means a good offensive unit which is important in our program," Mangino says. "Bill is a talented young man and we expect great things from him, but we also must work hard to build a strong supporting cast around here.
"The stronger the supporting cast, the better Bill will be."
Make no mistake, when he mentions Whittemore's supporting cast, Mangino's thoughts include better balance in the KU attack--more rushing yards and better routes and fewer dropped balls from receivers.
But the greatest concerns begin, inexorably, with an offensive line that lost to graduation all five starters. To fill a glaring need, KU signed three junior-college offensive linemen, just one of whom participated in spring drills. Good news is, he turned out to be a stud: Northeastern Oklahoma A&M center Joe Vaughn locked down the starting job. Mangino is thrilled with Vaughn, an NJCAA second team All-American, calling him "a tough, hard-nosed kid and a good leader."
"We have to develop an offensive line with all five starters gone from last year," Mangino said. "I am confident that we will. With the kids that we have in the program now, and some of the junior-college kids that we have brought in, we are confident that those kids will improve our offensive line."
Whittemore is placing his trust in those linemen, and in his coaches.
"It's going to be up for grabs, what's going to happen, but I like the way it's playing out right now," he says. "Everybody's watching film, learning. We had our center (juco transfer Vaughn) in for spring. Tony Coker moved from right tackle to right guard. Adrian Jones moved from tight end to left tackle. They got a sense of things in the spring. I like the way it's panning out."
He pauses, then adds, "It's still going to be based on whether they can pick (the system) up and whether they can play. It doesn't matter what you look like; it's what you do when you put the pads on. But we've got some pretty good looking players around here. We plan on making an impact in the Big 12 this year."
More than anything, perhaps, the positive and focused attitudes of his teammates give optimism to Whittemore, a co-captain who is one of the team's best-liked and most-respected players.
"I'm a leader of this team, but there's nobody on this team who stands out because we all feel like we're on the same page," he says. "As far as stature, we're all right in there together and I think that's the way it should be. Everybody has confidence in each other."
"Our motivation is exciting. When we're running, people are chatting, bouncing around, laughing. We're excited about this year. We've got a bunch of new guys and they expect to win, as well as those of us coming back."
"We have a lot of guys coming in who will help. Our running game will be different--I think we'll run the ball a lot more. With the guys we have coming in, I think we're going to have a completely different team. I don't think you'll be able to base much of it on what we did last year."
Having come to Kansas from the juco ranks, Whittemore seems the perfect fit to lead this edition of Jayhawks, with so many community college transfers expected to make significant contributions.
Case in point: Lyonel Anderson. Mangino and his staff found Anderson, a promising tight end target from New York's Alfred State, to give Whittemore a viable short- to medium-yardage target. Anderson snagged 26 receptions for 534 yards and three scores last fall at the juco level.
"He is a very athletic guy, good hands, intelligent and is going to be a real asset to our ball club," Mangino said. "He is tough and he can make plays at tight end that I am accustomed to seeing."
Whittemore likes what he's seen of Anderson. He calls him a hard worker, says he's going to be a team leader because he's already earning his teammates' respect in the way he trains, and is not afraid to speak his mind.
"I think that's the main thing for a junior college guy is how they fit into the team when they come in. That's something I like about this team: We don't have any hotdogs or showboats. Everybody's on the same page. We know we've got to come together as a team and we know it's going to take a team effort to win games.
"(Anderson's) got great hands. He runs well."
And then--certainly not as an afterthought--Bill Whittemore says, "I hope he can block just as good, too."