Most of the workout phenoms, the guys who light up the stopwatch and rip up the weight room, they go to Texas and Oklahoma, USC and Florida.
For most of the rest of the coaching staffs in the nation, the challenge comes in projecting which athletes will work hard enough and learn thoroughly enough to close the gap on the physical marvels.
Kansas football coach Mark Mangino has a proven touch for finding players capable of developing steadily. They arrive, they absorb information, they are pushed and push themselves to improve. Every season you watch them, they perform noticeably better than the last season.
Receiver Johnathan Wilson, who will be a junior next fall, is a classic Mangino football player. He just keeps getting better and better and better. From fall to spring he picks up a little speed, does a little better at negotiating his way into the open, runs his routes more efficiently. During the summer, he lays the foundation for another refinement the next fall.
All signs point to Wilson developing into a go-to receiver, a rising star in the Big 12. And he’s the third-most accomplished pass-catcher in the program, ranking behind Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier.
Everything about Wilson looked big-time during Saturday’s spring football game. He looked faster. He looked so decisive, so sharp, on his way to getting open. He displayed an uncanny knack for finding the soft spot in the zone, a la Kerry Meier. Wilson, a 6-foot-3, 187-pound native of Houston, shares another trait with Meier. He catches everything.
As a freshman, he caught three passes for 52 yards. Teammates voted him most likely to surprise in 2008 and he validated their scouting abilities by catching 10 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in a loss at South Florida. For the season, he had 43 receptions for 573 yards and three touchdowns.
Playing with such confidence Saturday, with six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown in the first half, he looked like a player on the verge of making another big leap. Wilson also came across as more confident during a postgame interview. He spoke with more conviction, louder even.
“I feel like I’ve become more of a playmaker and I can be used more in the offense,” Wilson said. “... I’ve been here for two years now. The guys who were here when I came in taught me a lot about the game and it makes it easier for me to make plays. It’s like the game has slowed down for me now. It’s fun now. It’s real fun.”
Fun to be in the middle of it, per Wilson, and fun to watch, per anyone with a pair of eyes. Not many offenses boast five playmakers with the talent of Todd Reesing, Briscoe, Meier, Jake Sharp and Wilson.
The offensive line features three new starters, but based on the job quick-afoot, undersized left tackle Tanner Hawkinson did in the spring game, there is reason to believe Reesing will get enough protection to work his magic, much of which occurs on the run.
“What I liked about the offensive line play is that they did a nice job at pass protection, for the most part,” Mangino said after the spring game. “They did a nice job against twist and stunts, which is a really positive sign.”
The first-string offense generated no shortage of positive signs.