The Replacements

These Jayhawks – some new, some returning – have some big shoes to fill this coming football season. Good news: the transition may not be as difficult as you'd think.

No great season in any sport is possible without guys who make bigplays. Kansas’ record-setting 12-1 season – complete with a 2008 Orange Bowl victory over #5-ranked Virginia Tech – last year was no exception.

In the past, though, football success at Kansas meant that a small nucleus of playmakers had come together, only for graduation to signal a return to business as usual: 4-7 records and counting the days till basketball starts.

Clearly, Jayhawks head coach Mark Mangino and his staff have raised the talent level at perennial punching bag KU, and the result has been bowl eligibility in four of Mangino’s six seasons as head coach.

But will that talent boost be enough, especially with the tough stops in the Big 12 South finding their way onto Kansas’ schedule? How well will a once-woeful KU program that suddenly finds itself saddled with expectations replace last year’s playmakers?

Quite well, it would appear.

Playmaker: Marcus Henry
Early in his career, WR Henry took a lot of heat for dropping passes he should have caught. By the time he was a senior, Marcus Henry became one of the Jayhawks’ most reliable receivers, sure-handed and always a candidate to turn in a big play. Just ask the Oklahoma State defensive secondary. Henry racked up 54 catches, 1,014 receiving yards and 10 TDs last season. His experience helped bring around a young group that included wide receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Dexton Fields, who were KU’s #1 and #3 receivers in 2007.

Replacement: Johnathan Wilson
Wilson meets KU offensive coordinator Ed Warriner’s wide receiver profile to a tee: a rangy guy who can go up and bring the ball down, good decision-maker, surprisingly strong and fast. At 6-3, 187, Wilson will probably surprise some KU fans who expect to see returning veterans Fields and Briscoe get all the looks. The sophomore from Houston is a hungry player who saw Big 12 action last season and will provide another sure set of hands to KU’s potent offense.

Playmaker: Brandon McAnderson
Lawrence’s own Brandon McAnderson went from blocking back to feature back his senior year and stepped up big-time. B-Mac averaged nearly 6 yards per carry on the way to 1,125 yards and 16 TDs in 2008. He didn’t put the ball on the turf and took a great deal of satisfaction out of putting a shoulder into someone just to make them think twice about tackling him the next time. McAnderson’s work ethic and refusal to be tackled made him model of toughness and desire for the entire squad.

Replacement: Jocques Crawford
Crawford comes to KU as the national junior college offensive player of the year and a juco All-American from Cisco Junior College (Texas). Crawford ran for 1,935 yards his sophomore year on 283 carries (6.8 yards per) while logging five 200-yard games, including a 328-yard effort. He is the kind of big (6-1, 230) bruising runner KU has wanted for years, but you won’t see him getting caught from behind, thanks to a ton of speed. Crawford has legitimate star potential in the Big 12.

Playmaker: Aqib Talib
The AP All-American corner from Texas was a crowd favorite for his ability to break up passes, his size and strength (6-2, 205) and a flair for the dramatic. He took some shots his junior year, often finding himself on an island against the opposing team’s best receiver, but he still led the team with 13 passes broken up. His legacy, though, will be high-stepping into the Orange Bowl end zone after picking off Virginia Tech Sean Glennon and taking the ball back 60 yards.

Replacement: Kendrick Harper
Harper (5-9, 190) came to Kansas as a junior college transfer and missed six games due to injury last year. He made his debut as a Jayhawk in week five in Manhattan and endeared himself to KU fans by intercepting a Josh Freeman pass in the win. When he was healthy, he was the kind of defensive back that keeps a receiver’s head on a swivel; he likes to hit with malice and aforethought. He’s already got a big-play mentality; now the challenge is, can he stay healthy and on the field?

Chris Harris also deserves mention here. The 6-0, 180 sophomore was pressed into duty last year and started 10 of 13 games at the corner, splitting time with Harper. If Harper gets hurt or gets off to a slow start, you may see Harris sliding into this spot.

Playmaker: James McClinton
McClinton was a 2007 2nd-team AP All-American, Big 12 defensive lineman of the year and a 1st-team all-conference performer with an innate ability for blowing up plays before they ever really got started. KU linebackers Mike Rivera, Joe Mortensen and James Holt need to make sure McClinton is on their Christmas card list because he made them look good all season long. Off the field, he was the consummate leader and teammate. Prior to the Baylor game, while his teammates played video games, listened to their iPods or took a nap, McClinton read his Bible. You never needed to worry about James McClinton showing up on the police blotter.

Replacement: Richard Johnson, Jr.
Johnson was on the two-deep prior to the 2007 season until the decision was made to redshirt him. Kansas coaches may look at that decision later and talk about how glad they are they get him for another year. He’s 6-4, 279, so he’s rangier (there’s that word again) than McClinton. He was the 2007 scout team defensive player of the year for the Jayhawks, so he has a ton of ability. Like McClinton, he has the instinctive ability to jump the ball like he knows the snap count. In spring practices, he showed an array of pass rushing moves which may allow KU to pressure the QB more consistently. Finally, like McClinton, his coaches love him because he never, ever takes a play off.

Playmaker: Anthony Collins
If ever you could call an offensive lineman a playmaker, Anthony Collins would be it. He was good enough to be a fourth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, an AP 1st-team All-American and an all-conference 1st-teamer. Collins’ massive frame (6-6, 308), speed and attitude enabled him to log more pancakes than IHOP in 2007. He was probably best known, though, for giving unsuspecting teammates a congratulatory pummeling in the end zone after a touchdown. Kansas QB Todd Reesing was the heart of the KU offense in 2007, but Anthony Collins was the soul.

Replacement: Jeff Spikes
Spikes is another redshirt freshman expected to make a big impact this season, and why not? At 6-6, 314, he’s slightly bigger than Collins. His speed and strength are comparable, and he emerged from spring ball as one of two tackles – along with veteran Matt Darton – who is thought to be the best man to protect Reesing. Mangino says Spikes may be the best offensive lineman he’s had at Kansas before all is said and done. That’s high praise from a coach who holds his cards close to his black velour Adidas warm-up jacket.

Mark Mangino is constantly reminding fans and the media that his team is a “work in progress,” and one of this year’s yardsticks will be how this year’s Jayhawks respond to losing established stars like Henry, McClinton and Collins. The 2008 season will tell KU fans a lot about players like Jeff Spikes and Jocques Crawford.

It will also tell the Jayhawk faithful a lot about the state of the Kansas Football program. Perennial powers don’t rebuild; they reload. We’ll have a pretty good idea by mid-October if KU has turned the corner or whether 2007 was just lightning in a bottle. Top Stories