Kansas Preview

When Turner Gill took the Kansas job, it seemed like an experiment of sorts. Which mattered more: the Xs and the Os or the Jimmies and the Joes?

Most people felt that Gill would be able to grab a higher-caliber athlete than former coach Mark Mangino through recruiting. At the same time, Gill didn't have Mangino's reputation for being able to coach up the talent he had.

Both of those parts have been displayed this year. On one hand, the Jayhawks (2-5, 0-4) appear to have some legitimate Big 12 weapons on both sides of the ball. And on the other, undisciplined play and mistakes have kept them from reaching their potential.

Offensive coordinator Chuck Long has the reins of the offense, and he wants to run the ball, shuttle through a lot of players and use an up-tempo approach. At times, it's worked. The Jayhawks are averaging 30.1 points and 405.3 yards per game, including 188 per contest on the ground, though they've been overshadowed by the Jayhawks' horrid defense.

The offense has some problems of its own, like struggling to make halftime adjustments. Just how bad has it been? The Jayhawks have scored seven third-quarter points in the last five weeks combined, and that touchdown came against an Oklahoma State squad already up 56-7 at the time.

Sophomore Jordan Webb (6-0 195) is one of the most improved players in the Big 12 from a year ago. Last year, he was the only Big 12 starting quarterback with a worse passer rating than Texas starter Garrett Gilbert. This year, Webb is the second-most efficient quarterback in the Big 12 and ranks 16th nationally, completing 67.1 percent of his passes for 1,407 yards and 12 touchdowns to five interceptions. The best thing about Webb this season is that he has stayed within himself. He's accurate on short- and-mid-range passes, but doesn't force anything deep if it isn't there. He does have a strong enough arm for it, though.

Arguably the deepest position on the Kansas offense, the running back spot saw a huge boost from three newcomers. Back is sophomore James Sims (6-0 206), who was one of the Big 12's top returning rushers. He has 485 yards at 4.4 yards per carry and seven touchdowns. The top three players behind him, Darrian Miller (5-10 191), Tony Pierson (5-11 175) and Brandon Bourbon (6-1 208) are all freshmen. Miller and Pierson, both true freshmen, might be the most dynamic and added a needed influx in speed. Bourbon, who redshirted a year ago, is a power back with excellent speed as well. His problem is that he lacks the vision and quick feet of Sims and Miller. Rell Lewis (5-9 205), sees time in passing situations. Nick Sizemore (6-2 246) is the fullback.

Wide receiver became the weakest position on offense when the team's top receiver, Daymond Patterson, was lost for the season. D.J. Beshears (5-9 185) is the fastest of a group that hasn't displayed much of a big-play threat. The exception to that rule is true freshman JaCorey Shepherd (5-11 170), who is averaging better than 19 yards per catch and has three touchdowns of 48 or more yards. Kale Pick (6-1 208) is a former quarterback and an excellent route runner. Christian Matthews (6-1 194) might have the best size-speed combination, but he hasn't put it all together. Tight end Tim Biere (6-4 250) is an NFL prospect and a dangerous receiver. A.J. Steward (6-3 233) is a good athlete who often plays in two-tight sets.

The offensive line is another strength, paving the way for the Kansas running game. The best player of the bunch and leader of the group is probably center Jeremiah Hatch (6-3 308), one of the most underrated linemen in the Big 12. To his right is Duane Zlatnik (6-4 326), a former defensive end and excellent athlete with raw strength. Tanner Hawkinson (6-6 293) is a former tight end converted to right tackle. Jeff Spikes (6-6 325) might have the most ability of the group, but he's hit-or-miss. Trevor Marrongelli is a solid left guard (6-2 293). This group isn't nearly as good in pass protection as they are in the running game.

The Jayhawk defense has been much-maligned, with the statistics pointing to one of the worst defenses in college football history. Kansas sustained a blow before the season even started when defensive coordinator Carl Torbush retired to fight low-grade prostate cancer. Vic Shealy was promoted to replace him, with Buddy Wyatt named co-coordinator. The new coordinators switched to a 3-4 (mostly in name), and despite the addition of several key players, and more experience for last year's young players, the defense took a major step backward, allowing 50.4 points per game and 550.9 yards per contest.

The Jayhawks play largely with three down linemen, though Toben Opurum (6-2 245) is essentially a fourth lineman at the BUCK end spot, and he'll sporadically play with his hand on the ground. A former running back who actually led Kansas in rushing as a true freshman, Opurum moved to linebacker last year before shifting down to his current spot. He leads the Jayhawks in tackles for loss with 7.5 and sacks with two. The other end is more of a power end spot, as you typically see in the 3-4. Keba Aghostino (6-3 270) plays there.

A paper-thin defensive tackle spot became almost microscopic when the Jayhawks' best tackle (and one of the few with legitimate size) John Williams was knocked out for the year with injury. That leaves Patrick Dorsey (6-0 273) and Richard Johnson Jr. (6-3 283) as the nose tackles. At the other tackle spot (technically, almost an end if you consider Opurum a linebacker) is redshirt freshman Pat Lewandowski (6-6 280), a player whom the coaches have said has big-time potential.

With the exception of Steven Johnson (6-1 237), the linebackers haven't really played up-to-snuff. Johnson is the heart-and-soul of the Kansas defense. Playing out of position at WILL (he's a natural middle), Johnson's 76 tackles are 32 more than the next closest Jayhawk. Darius Willis (6-3 243) looks the part as much as any linebacker in the Big 12. He's big and can run and hit. But he's too often out of position. Tunde Bakare (5-10 215) is essentially a safety at SAM. He has a lot of speed. Two JUCO walk-ons see time at linebacker in Malcolm Walker (6-1 220) and Isaac Wright (6-3 240), though the player with the most potential might be cat-quick true freshman Collin Garrett.

With a struggling pass rush, the defensive backs have had a tough time. The depth isn't great there, true. But the Jayhawks returned a number of players who earned experience last year and who improved as the season went on. This year, they've taken a step back. The Jayhawks will rotate through a number of cornerbacks, though Greg Brown (5-11 185), Isiah Barfield (5-11 185), Tyler Patmon (5-11 180) and Anthony Davis (5-11 205) will see most of those snaps. Former wide receiver Bradley McDougald (6-1 205) is the mainstay at strong safety, while the Jayhawks have had problems at free safety. Kheeston Terry (6-2 190) entered the season with high expectations, but he's now splitting snaps (and listed just below on the depth chart) with Lubbock Smith (6-0 200).

Beshears is a dangerous kickoff return man, though the Jayhawks have been one of the league's worst teams in the punt return game. Kansas hasn't had a touchback all year on kickoffs, and kicker Alex Mueller is just 3-for-6 on field goals. He's 1-4 from 36-yards on. Ron Doherty averages 43 yards per punt. The Jayhawks gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown last week.

This week is a huge week for Gill's Jayhawks, fresh off a blowout loss to rival Kansas State that was bad enough to have many alumni pondering his $6 million buyout. Gill's motto is B.E.L.I.E.V.E., with each letter representing a motto. But he's running out of chances to make the Kansas fanbase believe in his ability to coach the Jayhawks. Most coaches get at least three years, but if the Jayhawks continue to get rolled at historic rates, the next things that could be rolling are the coaching staff's heads.


Horns Digest Top Stories