First, with the positive:
offensive line is better than expected.
No one will mistake Kansas' non-conference slate for the gauntlet of
the SEC East, but for a group that was supposed to be one of the team's
biggest question marks, the re-tooled Jayhawks o-line has been a key to
KU's 4-0 start.
Fans have mentioned that QB Todd Reesing hasn't played like himself
through the first four games, and the offensive line is a big reason
why. After all, Reesing doesn't have to throw 45 times a game when the
offensive line opens up holes to the tune of 209.2 rushing yards a game.
The youth of Tanner Hawkinson and Tim Biere complement the experience
of Jeff Spikes, Brad Thorsen, Jeremiah Hatch and Sal Capra to create a
unique chemistry and balance that may keep opposing defenses guessing
all season long.
speaking of the Jayhawks run game,...
The big beneficiaries of the offensive line's quick development, along
with Reesing, are RBs Jake Sharp and Toben Opurum.
It's hard not to see some parallels between this thunder-and-lightning
duo and the 2007 combination of hiccup-quick Sharp and bruiser Brandon McAnderson. KU coach Mark Mangino loves the options that having two
running backs offers. It reduces wear and tear over the course of a
season – we all saw how beaten up feature Jake Sharp was at the end of
last season – and it also gives opposing defenses vastly different
looks, which can be especially effective in the late stages of a game.
Opurum and Sharp give Kansas an unexpectedly effective 1-2 rushing
Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks was the Jayhawks' defensive
lines weakness in 2008. KU registered 28 sacks last season, but only 11
came from the defensive line. As a result, Kansas gave up 273.6 yards
per game through the air. Opposing quarterbacks just had too much time.
The 2009 Jayhawks start Big 12 play with 15 sacks already, and 10 have
come from defensive linemen, including 4.5 from known quantity Jake Laptad and 3.0 by a surprising new force, Max Onyegbule. Jeff Wheeler,
Kansas' reincarnation of Ted "The Stork" Hendricks, has also gotten in
on 1.5 sacks while his sheer height (6-7) and massive wing span create
chaos for opposing quarterbacks trying to find a passing lane.
It's also worth noting that the newfound pressure is being applied not
by a bunch of recent recruits brought in to be rush specialists, but
rather by the same guys who struggled so much last season. Credit new
defensive line coach Tom Sims for the increased production. He has been
a tremendous upgrade.
of the Year?
Mark Mangino doesn't care if you're a true freshman or a fifth-year
senior. If you can play, he wants you on the field. This season, three
young Jayhawk are benefiting from Mangino's open-mindedness.
RB Toben Opurum is running both over and past defenders while averaging
4.6 yards per carry. As mentioned earlier, at 6-2, 235, he evokes
comparisons to Brandon McAnderson. Now, think McAnderson with an extra
gear. He's a terrific complement to backfield mate Jake Sharp.
WR Bradley McDougald is 6-2, 195 and has already shown a savvy and
maturity that belies his age. Four games into his Kansas career, he's
averaging 4.5 catches a game at 10.0 yards per. He plays with a
controlled abandon and has great hands, which are a good fit for his
gunslinger QB Reesing and the brand of spread offense the Jayhawks run.
Finally, on defense, LB Huldon Tharp has seen more and more action with
each passing week, making 16 tackles (eight solo, eight assisted) in
the four noncon games. He's only 6-2, 215 – small for a Big 12
linebacker – but he has moxie and the kind of nose for the ball that
you're either born with or you aren't. The local boy from Mulvane, KS,
brings needed depth and playmaking to a position at which the Jayhawks
aren't exactly flush.
Now, for four unpleasant discoveries:
offensive line hasn't been tested|
Oh sure, the line has been better than expected. LT Tanner Hawkinson is
playing like an experienced junior, rather than a redshirt freshman in
his first year on the line. Jeremiah Hatch appears to be an
All-Conference caliber player. And the Jayhawks have been able to run
the ball pretty effectively.
And yet, the line hasn't really been tested. The Jayhawks faced an
injured Vince Oghobaase of Duke, a player who is one of the country's
best defensive tackles when healthy. And they've faced a smattering of
other decent linemen along the way. But they haven't faced a line that
can get shut down the run while at the same time getting after the
quarterback. You know, the type of line the Jayhawks will face in games
against Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska.
And they've still been somewhat inconsistent. For all the time
quarterback Todd Reesing had against Southern Miss in the first half,
he also spent much of the second half on his back as the Eagles shut
down the Jayhawk offense in the second stanza. The line has also
struggled to open up holes at times in key situations.
There's a lot to like about this unit, but at the same time, there's a
lot that's still unknown.
The linebackers looked completely out of place against Southern Miss,
and a step behind the pace of play. But this is far from a one-game
criticism … all season, it appears the Jayhawks have struggled to find
a strong pairing of outside linebackers to go with tough, dependable
Drew Dudley in the middle.
Some of that struggle has been out of the coaching staff's hands.
Justin Springer, arguably the Jayhawks' top ‘backer has spent the
season attempting to fight off a nagging hamstring injury. And Huldon
Tharp, for his excellent play, is still a freshman, where consistency
can come and go. Vernon Brooks has pretty much disappeared almost from
the start. And Arist Wright hasn't played with the consistency and
poise you would expect from the senior member of the unit, and the only
player with starting experience heading into this year.
If Wright can play to his level of ability, which is considerable, the
Jayhawks' unit would improve immensely. If Tharp can continue to
improve, the unit would improve with him. And Springer is just a clean
bill of health away from making a major impact.
But at the same time, after four games, this is a unit that needs to
The Jayhawks have hit just 3-5 field goals this year, and have missed
an extra point. While this may seem to be nitpicking, the Jayhawks will
have to step up in this category in Big 12 play, when a missed kick
could decide the difference between a win and a loss.
The Jayhawks also haven't done a great job in covering their kicks —
Kansas's punt coverage unit ranks last in the Big 12, while the
Jayhawks' kickoff coverage unit is seventh. That's a far cry from the
Jayhawks early on in Coach Mangino's tenure, who excelled at making
plays on special teams.
last, but not least, the pass defense
As has been touched on, the Jayhawks' pass rush has been unbelievable
thus far. But the coverage hasn't been up-to-par, with the Jayhawks
sitting 10th in the league in pass efficiency defense and 11th in
passing yardage defense.
Part of that has been the competition the Jayhawks have faced. Austin Davis of Southern Miss was an outstanding quarterback, poised and
accurate. And Duke showed against Virginia Tech that the Blue Devils
were capable of flinging the ball against a top-flight defense.
Part of the problems, again, lie with the linebackers, but part of the
blame must rest with a Kansas secondary that returned five starters
from a year ago.
The good news? The Jayhawks seemed to find a unit they were comfortable
with against Southern Miss, bringing in quick-footed Ryan Murphy as the
nickel back to complement cornerbacks Daymond Patterson and Chris Harris.
This is a unit that should improve as the year goes on, but they'll
need to improve for the Jayhawks to be successful this season.
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