“We are stronger than we’ve ever been, we’re faster than we’ve ever been,” Mark Mangino said.
Mangino had a locker room full of optimism and praise for his team, which is no doubt music to Jayhawk fans’ ears.
“I am really pleased with the progress of our team. We are really poised to have a good football season,” Mangino announced.
For the first time in memory, nearly every KU football player spent the summer in Lawrence, and, Mangino says, the dividends are starting to roll in.
“We have had an extremely good off-season. Our strength staff did a tremendous job of preparing our players physically for the upcoming season and we are in better physical shape than we have ever been here at Kansas,” he said. “We probably have a team that is maturing and really understands what we’re asking of them and the kind of commitment it takes to be a successful football team.”
So where did that leave the usually-reserved coach?
“I haven’t been as excited entering into a season as I am right now,” Mangino stated with no hesitation. But just how excited is excited?
“A lot of people have asked me about the Big 12 North (division). I think everybody’s getting better in the North. But why shouldn’t we throw our hat in the ring and compete? I think there’s no reason why we can’t make a run at it.”
However, Mangino understands, as did Dizzy Dean, that “potential” means you ain’t done anything yet.
“We’ve got to go out and earn our way and how we’ll do that is improve,” Mangino explained. “2003 was a better team than 2002. 2004 was a better team than 2003. And this football club this year will continue that. There’s no question in my mind we’ll be a better football team than we were last year.”
Two recurring themes Thursday were those of toughness and a lunch-bucket work ethic, both of which Mangino thinks his team has in spades.
“We have a gritty bunch of kids. A hard-nosed bunch, very well-disciplined, a lot of self-discipline,” he said.
If the season were to start tomorrow, junior Adam Barmann would more-than-likely take the first snap. But the competition for the starting job that really began midseason last year with Barmann’s injury continues.
“Adam Barmann picked up some ground coming out of the summer. He’s probably the most prepared of our veteran quarterbacks,” commented Mangino, who continued, “But he still has to continue to improve to win the job.”
Don’t count out Brian Luke, though. The senior, a former 4th-string walk-on turned Tiger-killer, has staked his claim to the position, too.
Mangino acknowledged, “Brian Luke has made some really good strides in the last few days. Brian’s just got to be, you know, consistent.”
Even true frosh Kerry Meier is adding to the competition. In fact, Mangino said he’s no longer a cinch to red shirt.
“Kerry’s making strides everyday,” he said. “Each and everyday, (Meier) just learns more and more about our offense. You can see he’s an awfully talented guy.”
So who’s the starter? Mangino stated that a decision hasn’t been made yet, but his comments seem to indicate his lean is toward Barmann, who he says has gotten bigger, stronger, executes better and is making quicker decisions.
“In my mind, that job is still open, and we haven’t resolved anything just yet. But Adam is having a good training camp. He’s put a lot of work in in the off-season. It’s really important to him,” Mangino said.
Conspicuous by his absence in Mangino’s comments was senior Jason Swanson, who came in to spark Kansas on a couple of occasions last year before being hampered by an injury. When asked about Swanson’s status in the QB sweepstakes, the coach was, well, terse.
“(Swanson’s) been slowed down. He doesn’t take many repetitions. He’s lost a lot of ground, consequently. He’s got a long way to go to get back in the race,” he commented.
Not surprisingly, most of the media attention was focused on All-American cornerback Charles Gordon, who Mangino said has looked, “unbelievable.”
Come on, Coach. Quit sugarcoating it. Give it to us straight.
“He’s been on defense most of the camp. Yesterday he was on offense. There’s no question he’s our best corner, but he’s probably one of our two most polished receivers,” Mangino gushed.
Although Gordon has not sat in on an offensive position meeting this summer, he has shredded the staunch KU defense when he’s lined up on the offensive side of the ball.
Mangino smiled and said, “He put a clinic on yesterday running pass routes. I hate to say this, but the truth is the truth: when he’s running pass routes, even our quarterbacks look better.
The coach says Gordon’s ability brings up a dilemma, one that every coach in America would love to have: just what do you when you have a player who could be an All-American on either side of the ball?
“We have some corners that are really developing and getting better. Are we going to be able to use Charles a little more on offense if we wanted to? We feel like we have two very reliable and excellent punt return guys outside of Charles with Mark Simmons and Brian Murph. Where do we reduce reps or where do we add reps to help our team? That’s the question our staff and I are trying to answer,” Mangino explained.
“He’ll play defense, he’ll play offense. We have to solve how much of either side,” the coach continued.
When Mangino took over at KU four seasons ago, it was widely thought that there were no more than four starters at Kansas who would start at any other Big 12 school. What a difference four years can make.
“This is by far the most talented group of kids we’ve ever brought in here, there’s no doubt about that,” Mangino said.
He went on, “Look at the high school players and a couple of the junior college guys. Wayne Wilder’s going to have an impact. Rodney Allen’s going to have an impact. We’re still not certain about some guys we might want to red shirt or might not, depending on where they are on the depth chart.”
The running game
Someone finally brought up the elephant in the living room and asked about the progress of the running game.
Translation: Coach, now that John Randle is gone, will you even have a running game?
Mangino admitted that he had his worries, but they were quickly put to rest.
“I will say, the first day of practice: concerned. And as we went, the running game is one of the areas that is improving fastest on offense, day-by-day.”
However, few expected the third name he mentioned to come up unless someone asked Mangino about Canadian players on the Kansas roster.
“I am really fired up about Jon Cornish. He’s finally maturing. He looks quicker and more explosive than he ever has. He is one of the best-conditioned guys we have, and he’s having a big, big camp to date and I hope he continues that progress,” Mangino stated.
Mangino was not only effusive with his praise of his defensive unit, but he went so far as to make as close to a prognostication as he will ever make.
“Our defensive line is looking pretty good. I don’t like to make predictions because you end up with egg on your face, but I think our defensive line will be among the best in the Big 12 conference,” he said.
Mangino said that his philosophy is that you win with defense first, but that if your offense can’t move the ball, it doesn’t matter. The offense has to help their counterparts.
Mangino said, “Our offense has to get the ball rolling. Now I think we’re going to be able to do that. We can’t have our defense getting three-and-outs and not capitalize on it. We had 27 takeaways last year. We didn’t capitalize on those on offense. I believe this year, we will.
The coach mentioned two of his favorite players – Nick Reid and Kevin Kane – as lynchpins and leaders of the defense, calling one “Mr. Reliable” and teasing the other for a 40-yard dash time you could record on a sundial.
“Mr. Reliable: Nick Reid. He is going to show up and go to work just like the sun’s going to show up every day,” Mangino said. “He is a young man that is a leader on the team, everybody likes him, and you don’t mess with him. We have a group of guys who are committed to winning, and Nick Reid leads that. He will do just anything to help his team win.”
Mangino pointed to Reid’s toughness by relaying a story about Reid’s sophomore year when he played with a screw sticking out of his foot.
“He had screws put in his foot in midseason and didn’t miss a game. The screw was sticking out of his foot, and it’d keep bleeding. Never missed practice, never missed a game was bleeding. At the end of the year, they put the screw back in, he was fine. Nick Reid is a tough customer.”
And blue-collar Kevin Kane?
“Ol’ Kevin, he got his 40 (yard dash) time down a little bit this year. He’s under five (seconds) flat now,” Mangino said, smiling.
But he went on to praise the workaday linebacker, who was second on the team in tackles in 2004, for his intelligence and work ethic, both of which more than make up for a lack of raw athleticism.
“There is something to be said for intellectuals playing football. You can’t fool Kevin. He is an intelligent, hard-nosed football player,” Mangino said. “He gives you 100% every snap. I never once had to say anything to Kevin about finishing and hustling.”
A spring in their step to start 2005
While the KU coach has always brought a positive attitude to work every day, his 2005 brand of outward optimism really could make a fan wonder if something special is brewing in Lawrence this fall.
Mangino said, “I feel like we’ve got a lot of good, hard-working kids with a tremendous work ethic. I feel privileged to coach here,” he said.
A blend of toughness, hard work, upperclass leadership and more talent than we’ve seen since the 1995 Mason-led Aloha Bowl team could all combine to make this a special year in Lawrence.
Mangino is encouraged by what he sees, and opening day can’t come soon enough.
“I can’t wait to see the product we put on the field come September 3rd. We won’t disappoint,” the coach said.