BIGGEST STRENGTH — Running Backs
Kansas (yes, that Kansas) may have the best group of running backs in the Big 12. The Jayhawks return their key parts from a team that rushed for 211.7 yards per game, and 4.6 yards per carry, despite every team in the league knowing that the Jayhawks were going to run the ball. That's not an exaggeration — not only did Kansas rank last in the Big 12 in passing yards per game, but the Jayhawks were nearly 60 yards per contest below the second-to-last team, Kansas State. James Sims is back for his senior year after leading the Big 12 in yards per game with 112.6 yards per contest, while speedster Tony Pierson (760 yards rushing, 6.5 yards per carry) is one of the league's better-kept secrets. In fact, when looking at the league's top returning rushers by yards per game, Sims and Pierson come in first and fifth, respectively. Add in power back Taylor Cox, who rushed for another 464 yards at 5.1 yards per carry and even fourth-stringer Brandon Bourbon, who rushed for 101 yards against Texas Tech in 2011, and this is a deep and productive group.
BIGGEST QUESTION — Wide Receiver
Are there questions at quarterback? Sure, though the Jayhawks should be better there with former five-star quarterback Jake Heaps stepping in. Kansas also returns Michael Cummings, who played in eight games a year ago, starting five. But here's the wow stat: Kansas didn't have a single touchdown pass to a wide receiver a year ago. That's not a typo. The Jayhawks threw just seven touchdown passes overall, with four going to the running backs and three going to the tight ends. Pierson was actually Kansas's second-leading receiver in both catches and yards. Justin McCay, a former big-time recruit and a transfer from Oklahoma, figures to help. And young wideouts Andrew Turzilli (17-287) and Tre' Parmalee (7-79, and 260 kickoff return yards) each had their moments a year ago. But the Jayhawks would be best served if they could get big-time play out of JUCO wideouts Mark Thomas and Rodriguez Coleman, or some punch out of underrated New Jersey product Ishmael Hyman.
BREAKOUT STAR — Heaps
Texas fans will remember Heaps as the piping-hot BYU quarterback who led the Cougars to a first-half lead that the Longhorns eventually recovered from in 2011. Now, Heaps is two years older, and he has a strong running game to take the pressure off. If last year's passing game was any indication, Kansas coach Charlie Weis wants accuracy and consistency over anything else, and that makes Heaps a good fit. Reports out of Lawrence have raved about Heaps's demeanor, and even last spring when Dayne Crist was taking most of the reps, many felt that Heaps, who was sitting out after transferring, was the best quarterback on the team. He doesn't have to be Superman, but if Heaps can simply supply some passing threat to keep people from loading up against James Sims, the Jayhawks will be quite a bit better offensively.
KEY EARLY ENROLLEE — Chris Martin
In Weis's first offseason, the Jayhawks landed three transfers from other FBS schools who were rated as five-star prospects coming out of high school. And in this recruiting class, Weis added a fourth former five-star player, albeit one from a more traditional junior college transfer. Martin was Scout.com's No. 1 outside linebacker in the Class of 2010 and the No. 10 overall player in that class, only to grow to 6-5 260 while at City College of San Francisco. Martin is a tremendous athlete for his size and could provide the Jayhawks with the first elite pass-rusher they've had since Charlton Keith in 2005.
In Weis's second season, some wonder whether the Jayhawks could fight their way into a bowl game. That certainly sounds like a huge jump for a team that went 1-11 just a season ago, with Kansas's only victory coming over FCS opponent South Dakota State. But remember that the Jayhawks had five games decided by a single score a year ago, and lost all five, including four games where the Jayhawks led in the fourth quarter or in overtime. So in a season where Kansas essentially went 1-6 with five toss-ups, every toss-up went the other way.
Some of that's rotten luck. And some of it comes from just not quite being talented or deep enough. To that end, Weis raided the JUCOs with unusual fervor, and if high-profile transfers like Heaps and McCay can pan out, the Jayhawks could be significantly better in 2013. Weis especially went hard after linemen on both sides of the ball and defensive backs, hoping to upgrade the team's overall toughness and speed level.
Could Kansas make a bowl? It's hard to say, but that's an awfully big step forward. The Jayhawks were competitive for a 1-11 team a year ago, and maybe the next step, the more realistic step, is to start to win a few of those toss-up games at the end, or to keep some of the other contests a little more competitive.