Saturday, November 6, 2004

Can Jason Swanson avoid the … Curse of the Kansas QB?


Somewhere along the line, Mark Mangino did something to aggravate the quarterback gods.

How else can this curse be explained?

Mangino, Kansas University's football coach, will lead his troops in his 34th career game as a Jayhawk today when KU faces Colorado at 12:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.

In his 33 games to date, Mangino has used eight quarterbacks, has seen five of them go down with a significant injury and hasn't survived a season at Mount Oread without his starting signal-caller being lost for an extended period of time.

It's certainly not normal -- more like bizarre.

To draw a comparison, Missouri quarterback Brad Smith -- a two-dimensional talent who takes hits every week -- has played for the Tigers as long as Mangino has been at KU.

Smith has yet to miss a game.

The Jayhawks long for such luck.

KU starting quarterback Adam Barmann saw his season more than likely come to an end last week, when his shoulder was smashed into the cold turf at Iowa State after a four-yard scramble. A magnetic resonance imaging test over the weekend revealed something bad. Mangino won't disclose what it is, but it's enough to call for a "miraculous recovery" if Barmann wants to play again this season.

Barmann's case is all too familiar to KU fans. Last year, Bill Whittemore missed three games with a shoulder injury. The year before that, Whittemore missed three games with a knee injury. The rest of the 2002 season was filled with more pain and subsequent poor play by whomever was left to take the snaps.

Where did everything go so wrong for the Jayhawks? Why does a simple quarterback scramble cause KU fans to hold their breath -- with good reason? Is there such thing as a quarterback curse?


Kansas University's Jason Swanson, left, pitches under pressure from Iowa State's LaMarcus Hicks in the third quarter of Saturday's game. Swanson will start today against Colorado -- and hope to avoid the bad luck that seems to have hounded KU's quarterbacks lately.

"If you have an analysis, I'd like to hear it," Mangino quipped this week. "I'm open."

Well, let's try.

The beginning

The first quarterback recruited by the new staff at KU committed to the Jayhawks soon after Mangino's hiring in late 2001. The QB arrived in Lawrence in January of 2002, excited, anxious -- and injured.

Whittemore was the most valuable player of the Jayhawk Conference in 2001 at Fort Scott Community College, throwing for 2,082 yards and 16 touchdowns his sophomore year. The problem? He put up the big numbers in just eight games. A dislocated throwing shoulder cut his season short, and the effects of the injury lingered on into the beginning of his days at KU.

Turns out, it was quite a compelling case of foreshadowing. Whittemore healed in time for spring ball, won the starting job from Zach Dyer after the season-opening loss to Iowa State, then had a respectable season leading KU -- until an open-field tackle against Missouri on Oct. 26 wrecked his knee and his season.

Jonas Weatherbie took over for Whittemore in Columbia that October day and was given the starting nod the next week against Kansas State. He lasted one quarter, then was replaced by Brian Luke in a humiliating 64-0 loss to the Wildcats.

But, hey, at least there were no injuries. Not in that game, anyway.


Adam Barmann, far left, is only the latest casualty among Kansas quarterbacks. Others who have been hurt are, Bill Whittemore, Zach Dyer and Jonas Weatherbie.

Nope, the next week was when it really started getting spooky. Against Nebraska, Weatherbie blew out a knee after a promising first quarter, and his absence led to split time between Greg Heaggans and Luke. Heaggans, a kickoff-return specialist, took eight snaps and rushed for 11 yards, not even attempting a pass.

Scrambling for a solution, Mangino went back to his first quarterback, Zach Dyer. By Nov. 16 of that year, Dyer long had forgotten his quarterback past and found new life as a safety in KU's depleted secondary. After Whittemore locked up the starting job, it was Dyer's best shot at contributing.

For KU's final game against Oklahoma State that year, Dyer went back to offense.

After passing for 161 yards against the Cowboys, Dyer's season came to an eerie, predictable end, like all the signal-callers who came before him: He was injured.

Luke, a one-time fourth-string quarterback, suddenly was the starter, and only the end of the season prevented him from being KU's only hope in a tragic quarterback quandary.

Ever since

The 2002 season would have been just a painful memory to store away, an injury-plagued season that would have been written off as bad luck and accompanied with one of those what-can-you-do? shrugs.

But it's not. It was simply the start of the quarterback curse.


Bill Whittemore

Whittemore returned, better than ever, for what turned out to be a record-setting senior season in 2003. But after leading the resurgent Jayhawks to a 5-2 start, Whittemore's season nearly came to an end against Kansas State, when he was tackled at the end of a quarterback draw and was helped off the field with a collarbone injury.

Luke -- his name pops up often, doesn't it? -- replaced him briefly, before John Nielsen (quarterback number six) finished the game, a 42-6 K-State victory. At the time, Whittemore wasn't likely to return the rest of the season.

In an attempt to cling to some continuity at quarterback, Mangino lifted the red shirt off freshman Barmann, quarterback number seven. Barmann was marvelous in his debut against Texas A&M;, but was mediocre in losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma State.

Of course, his first season couldn't have been complete without getting hurt, which he was able to pull off with an ankle injury against Oklahoma State. Luke replaced him and had his best game as a Jayhawk, throwing for 193 yards and two touchdowns.

Whittemore healed in time for the regular-season finale against Iowa State and the Tangerine Bowl against North Carolina State.

He wasn't hurt in either game. Apparently, the quarterback gods were taking a vacation.

What now?

The Jayhawks entered 2004 confident they had enough depth and enough talent to swallow anything that might come their way at the QB spot.


Zach Dyer

Barmann was back. Luke, one of the most experienced reserves out there, had one more season. And KU landed a jewel of a recruit in Jason Swanson, the starting quarterback for the City College of San Francisco's national championship team in 2003.

Swanson was quarterback number eight, and though he originally was behind Luke on the depth chart, he shot up to Barmann's backup after Luke was -- get this -- injured early in the season.

Now, it's all up to Swanson, who will start today's game against the Buffalos while Barmann is on the sideline trying to heal.

If Mangino should get credit for anything, he should for his lack of panic attacks from seeing QB after QB go down in pain. Few coaches in the college game have had such a frustrating problem at the most important position on the field.

"Injuries," he says, "are a part of college football."

True, but when it's to this degree, it's worthy of a deeper look. Mangino insists that Swanson won't be held back today, and his skills are such that he's going to scramble and get tackled more than Barmann ever would.


Jonas Weatherbie

With KU's offense struggling to move the football, Swanson enters a situation where his team badly needs him to step up. As if it weren't pressure enough, Mangino had one other instruction for the junior, one that no other quarterback under Mangino paid much attention to.

"I told Jason," he said, "that he's got to stay healthy no matter what."

That, it seems, is out of the hands of every mortal surrounding the Kansas football team. That request should be filed to a higher power.

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