Jayhawks / Bears Preview

When Northern Colorado travels to Lawrence on Saturday, it will mark the first time the two teams have met. But, that doesn't mean the Bears are totally unfamiliar with the Jayhawks.

The Bears are coached by Scott Downing, who knows both Kansas and coach Mark Mangino from his time in the Big Eight, and later, the Big 12. Downing first served in the Big Eight as a graduate assistant and head freshman coach at Nebraska from 1984-1986, then returned to Lincoln as an assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator from 2003-2005. He went straight from that job to the head job at Northern Colorado.

But things haven't exactly been rosy since he took over. The Bears have won just three games in three years, compared to 31 losses during that same time period. Still, there are some reasons for optimism, primarily on offense, where the Bears combine talent with experience.
Senior quarterback Bryan Waggener returns after throwing for 2,456 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago. Waggener can wing the ball — he threw for 402 yards in a game last season. He also has great size at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. He can also run the ball a bit, serving as the team's second-leading rusher despite 217 yards in losses. To be more effective, Waggener will have to cut down on his turnovers — he threw 15 interceptions last season.

Starting at running back will be Andre Harris, who at one point last year appeared to be one of the top junior college running back prospects in the country. Harris combines size (6-0 215) with speed, and looked at one point last year like he could wind up as a late addition to the Missouri Tigers class. Instead, he'll tote the ball behind fullback Andrew Downing (5-9 260) and be a major part of what could be an explosive Northern Colorado offense.

The Bears return two receivers who put up 500 or more yards last year in Alex Thompson (5-10 180) and Brandon Smith (5-7 165). Those two combined for 1,011 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago, and will be joined by Dominic Gunn (6-0 160) and tight end Andrew Emmerling (6-2 250).

The offensive tackles are a bit undersized with Ryan Kemp (6-3 280) starting opposite Lee Barbiasz (6-7 250). The guards are much less so, especially when talking about James Zapp (6-4 325). Tim McGraw (no, not that one) will start at the other guard spot. He is 6-2 285. Alex Shapiro (6-2 275) is the center.

Defensively, the Bears are in a little worse shape, returning just one player who made 60 or more tackles a year ago for a unit that allowed about 30 points and 400 yards per game.

The defensive line returns three starters, including both tackles in Martin Awachie (6-3 255) and Dominique Ceja (5-11 300). Defensive end Ethan Davis (6-1 265) also returns at defensive end, where he'll bookend with V.J. Holmes (6-3 240), who started two games a year ago. Overall, the Bears return all eight players on the depth chart from last year.

None of the three projected starting linebackers, James Schrenk (6-1 205), Cameron Friend (6-0 200) or Matt King (6-3 230), started a game a year ago. Schrenk is a former quarterback who will start on the strong side. Friend, a redshirt freshman from Denver, will man the middle spot, while King will play on the weak side. King is just 12 tackles shy of 100 for his career.

If the defense has a strength, it's at safety, where the Bears return starters Max Hewitt (6-2 205) at free safety and Stephen Michon (5-10 195) at rover. The two mark the Bears' top two returning tacklers, and Hewitt is a playmaker, putting up 6.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions a year ago. Michon had 57 stops, including 2.5 in the backfield. Kory Askew (5-9 170) and Colby Riggins (5-10 165) are new starters at cornerback.

Michael York is a potential all-conference performer at kicker. Cameron Kaman earned the nod at punter. Quincy Wofford and Gunn will serve as return men.

Northern Colorado still has a little way to go before the Bears become an FCS power, but if they continue to land players like Harris, and continue to develop talent, wins could come sooner rather than later.

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