Confident Jayhawks Anxious For New Season

If confidence is sexy, then the Kansas Jayhawks are Brangelina. Of course, the greatest season in KU football history and a BCS bowl game win over the #3-ranked team in the country will do that for you.

“(The team's) confidence level is very high, much higher than it's ever been,” KU head coach Mark Mangino said at KU's annual football media day in Mrkonic Auditorium of the new Anderson Football Complex. “The confidence factor has been a big part of the windfall of being a BCS team a year ago.”

Last year's team had to get a few wins under their belts before they acquired the swagger that eventually led to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl championship over perennial power Virginia Tech. This year's team showed up the first day of practice last Friday with some attitude, Mangino said.

“They have experienced a tough, grueling season. They know what it takes to be successful. They had a chance to experience a highly successful season. They've learned from it, they've learned well, and therefore, they have developed a high level of confidence.”

Mangino said that his team worked hard in the off-season to keep the momentum of last year's dream season going. This group logged more time in the weight room and in preparation for the upcoming season than any Kansas has seen for a very long time – if ever. As a result, 91 percent of the team has already passed KU's conditioning test, a 300-yard shuttle run. That, Mangino said, is a strong indication of how hard the entire team worked during the spring semester and over the summer.

Graduation and a pair of early departures for the NFL left the Jayhawks with question marks, but Mangino was optimistic about the players who would be filling the shoes of departed players including Cincinnati Bengal OT Anthony Collins, Big 12 defensive lineman of the year James McClinton and workhorse RB Brandon McAnderson.

Returning RB Jake Sharp and 2007 national juco player of the year Jocques Crawford are engaged in what Mangino called a “healthy competition” for the starting runningback spot. Mangino gives the edge right now to Sharp, a returner with experience and an amazing work ethic.

“Sharp is a returning guy, and he's rushed for over 800 yards. Jake's a hard-charger. Let me put it this way: Jake gives everything that he has. Even on the practice field. He works so hard, at the end of practice, he's shot.”

Mangino was quick to add, though, that even though Crawford is rusty and his mechanics need work, he's shown in just four practices why he was the national player of the year.

“He's a talented guy. He can do some things, there's no question. He's making that transition from junior college football to Big 12 football, and he's coming right along.”

Mangino continued, “Jocques is learning. He's getting constant instruction. He's asking a lot of questions. He has not run with the (first team) at any time yet; he hasn't earned that right yet, but he is competing for the job, and that's good. Competition makes you better.”

The loss of offensive tackles Anthony Collins and Cesar Rodriguez left some wondering who would protect QB Todd Reesing and open up holes for KU running backs. Mangino pointed to two players in particular but was quick to say that the decision hasn't been made yet.

“We're still working that. We've had Jeff Spikes working at left tackle. We've had Nate D'Cunha there. We're also had Jeremiah Hatch working over there. On the right side, we've had Matt Darton and Ian Wolfe. So there's a lot of competition there. I think Spikes and Hatch, it's boiling down to those two.”

One thing was virtually a done deal, however: Jeremiah Hatch was going to find a spot on the field. His coach raved about him Tuesday.

“Hatch is just an intense competitor who, in this training camp, has played three different positions: he's been a center, he's played at left guard and he's worked at left tackle. He's going to find a slot to play. One of the hardest working linemen in the program. He's a great athlete; he's just not a real rangy guy. He's not a 6-5, long-armed guy, but he's so quick with his feet, he makes up for it. He's going to show up at one of those spots.”

One position at which KU has no questions is quarterback. Junior Todd Reesing hopes to follow up his phenomenal breakout season with another winning campaign. There was however, some question as to who the #2 QB would be. Those were put to rest Tuesday when Mangino said that Kerry Meier would be Reesing's backup.

“He had a chance in spring ball to get more acquainted with pass routes and things of that nature, but what we've done early here is, we've focused him at quarterback. We want to be sure that anything new we're doing, anything he needs work on, he's prepared if something should happen.”

Mangino pointed to the number of practices between now and the season opener and said that over time, Meier will pare back his time under center and focus on wide receiver.

“We want to make sure we're a solid two-deep at quarterback before we move on into (wide receiver) repetitions,” Mangino explained.

Mangino said that the competition at kicker was a three-man race and that the competition at kicker had already yielded results.

“I see a lot of improvement. There's a lot of encouraging signs from that group. We're going to let play out. There's three guys who are competing for it. All of them do something very, very well and all of them have areas they have to work on. At the end of the day, we'll be okay.”

The three presumably in the running are redshirt freshmen Jacob Branstetter and Stephen Hoge, along with Butler County Community College juco transfer Grady Fowler.

The coach was also hesitant to indicate his lean on whether Kerry Meier would see more deep snaps at punter position or whether transfer Alonso Rojas would get the nod. Mangino mentioned that Rojas had shown at Bowling Green that he had a strong leg, but he wouldn't dismiss the possibility of Meier being the #1 punter.

“We'd prefer Kerry wasn't the punter, but if he's the best punter, he'll be out there,” Mangino said.

He was adamant, however, that punt returns would be an area of vast improvement this season. When asked who was competing to help remedy one of KU's few glaring weaknesses in 2007, Mangino said, ““It's down to me and (Jayhawks offensive coordinator) Ed Warriner. I've got better hands, but Ed runs better.”

But seriously, though, folks,...

“Everyday, we're working four kids rotating, getting a ton of reps. I don;t want to say right now because I'm not ready to pull the trigger on that. We want to see in a scrimmage situation who's going to field that ball when they can get hit.”

Mangino didn't lay all the blame at the feet of the cast of thousands who paraded through the punt returner position last season. He said there was another factor to consider.

“I thought our corners didn't do a very good job of keeping the gunners off of our return men. We're working the heck out of it. Believe me when I tell you, we're really focused on that.”

For the first time in a long time, the Kansas Jayhawks enter a football season with the kind of expectations most KU fans only dreamed about just a few years ago. Mangino even reminded the media, “When I came here in 2002, there were (no expectations). That was a terrible feeling.”

He said he, his coaches and his players look forward to the expectations of the coming season because of the early days.

“We now embrace any expectations that people have for us, whether you're on the outside of the program or the inside.”

Mangino remembered other teams noticing KU in 2007 and, as the season progressed, the Jayhawks started getting opponents' best shots each week. This year, Kansas will get everyone's best shot starting at 6 p.m., Saturday, August 30th, when they kickoff  the season against Florida International.

Having a target on your back is all part of becoming a consistent winning program, and Mangino says even that will make them a better team.

“As I told our players, the top teams in the country are used to that, they're used to getting everybody's best shot. If you can't handle that, we're not going to be as good as we want to be.”

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