So, What Did We Learn?

I love games like the one at Memorial Stadium yesterday.

I know, I know. Every one of us would have preferred Saturday's match-up with Southern Miss end in a blowout, an emphatic exclamation point on the end of the non-conference portion of our schedule. But after playing three JV teams (Sorry, NoCo, UTEP, and Duke, but it's true) to start the season, I was ready to get some kind of a glimpse at where the Jayhawks really stand.

So what did we learn? Quite a bit, actually. Some of it wasn't unexpected, like finding out that our offense, when clicking as it was in the first half, is as good as any in the country. Other revelations – that our defense is still a work in progress, for example – will probably result in a great deal of hand wringing on the Gridiron Board during the coming bye week.

Still, it could be argued that my favorite bit of knowledge taken from Saturday has less to do with 2009 than it does with 2010 and beyond.

Kansas fans have been salivating over the dream of what Bradley McDougald and Toben Opurum could accomplish on the football field, ever since their LOI's rolled off the fax machine at the Anderson Football Complex in February. That optimism was stoked to a fever pitch when the normally reserved Mark Mangino heaped uncharacteristically effusive praise on the duo during fall training camp.

Though both McDougald and Opurum saw significant time in KU's first three games, I still viewed Saturday as a coming out party of sorts. With Jake Sharp injured and unable to go, Opurum received his first career start and responded beautifully. As Kevin Flaherty remarked to me in the press box midway through the second quarter, "dude is a workhorse," and he really was.

With each of his 28 carries he delivered a blow to Southern Miss defenders. He pass protected like a veteran, and displayed a receiver's hands once again. After the game, Coach Mangino made it quite clear that when Jake makes his return against Iowa State in two weeks, there will be no running back controversy, and that's as it should be. Jake is a dynamic talent in his own right, and a senior captain who has earned that spot. But while watching Toben run on Saturday, it was hard not to get a little bit excited about what his ability means for the future of our backfield.

After the game, I had the chance to ask Bradley McDougald about his explosive third quarter kickoff return, in which he displayed remarkable acceleration and speed on the way to a 46-yard gain.

I asked him if his eyes got a little bit big when he hit the seam, and saw nothing but turf in front of him.

"Actually," he said, smiling. "They did."

It's okay, Bradley. Ours did, too.

After a 2007 season in which explosive kickoff returns were just another cog in the machine that was the Kansas Jayhawks, 2008 was a dud. Something changed, whether it was the blocking or the abilities of primary return man Marcus Herford, and more often than not the Hawks were starting drives deep in their own territory.

Dez Briscoe breathed new life into the unit during the Missouri game, but the fanbase viewed that change with a sense of apprehension. Why give kickoff gunners a full head of steam to take a crack at our most dangerous offensive weapon?

McDougald's seven receptions ranked second on the team on Saturday, and showed just how much confidence Reesing and the coaching staff has in the dynamic receiver. But it was the kickoff return that stood out the most to me. As prolific as Kansas' offense is already, it gets that much more daunting when presented with a short field. With his uncommon agility, speed, acceleration and vision, McDougald has the chance to significantly impact the fortunes of this team.

That both of them are going to help the team this season goes without saying, even if they spend 2009 in the shadows of a quartet of giants – Reesing, Meier, Sharp and Briscoe.

But while looking over the final stats yesterday, it was hard not to smile at the thought of what 2010 could bring.

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