Four Surprises

After four games, it's time to take stock on what we know, about this Kansas Jayhawks' football team heading into the conference season. Below are four pleasant surprises, and four not-so-pleasant revelations we've seen so far this season.

First, with the positive:

The 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.

And 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 punch.

Under pressure
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.

Rookies 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:

The 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
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 get better.

The kicking game
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.

And 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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