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Friday, April 4, 2014

Keegan

Column: Senior urgency driving Kansas football this season

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Every magic bullet — another new coach, another new quarterback, a blockbuster junior-college recruiting class — wrapped in hope and designed to reverse the sagging fortunes of Kansas University football opens one more wound in the heart of even the most optimistic fan.

Now, suspicious eyes and ears greet everything that could be construed as hype. It’s understandable, given that in the past seven seasons the victory total has gone 12, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 3. That, math fans, is 20 victories in two seasons, followed by 14 in five seasons.

No great surprise, then, that when you begin to talk about better days on the horizon, some fans cover their ears and begin babbling loudly, like the person who hasn’t seen a movie yet and his knucklehead friends who already had seen it three times continue to talk about it.

The cause for hope this year is the most substantial, least flashy of any in recent years. It’s called experience. Veteran college coaches have been welcomed into the program to coordinate the offense (John Reagan), coach the offensive line (Reagan) and the wide receivers (Eric Kiesau).

And then there is the experience factor where it matters most, on the playing surface. If this NCAA basketball tournament has taught us anything it’s that senior urgency has a way of trumping louder, less-experienced talent.

The bad news: This coming season’s senior class has experienced just six victories in three years. The good news: It includes players who in the past had beaten out older players.

Anticipated senior starters: Dexter McDonald, JaCorey Shepherd and Cassius Sendish in the secondary; Ben Heeney at linebacker; Michael Reynolds at buck; Keon Stowers and maybe Tedarian Johnson on the D-line; quarterback Jake Heaps, possibly Brandon Bourbon or Taylor Cox at running back; Jimmay Mundine at tight end; Nick Harwell and Tony Pierson at wide receiver; guards Ngalu Fusimalohi and Mike Smithburg; possibly either Zach Fondal or Pat Lewandowski at left tackle.

That’s 12 to 15 senior starters.

McDonald, a legitimate NFL prospect, knows it’s now or never, a reality that keeps him giving maximum effort and focus to improving. Shepherd is in the late stages of his transition from receiver to cornerback. A year of maturity stands to make Heeney play more under control, enabling him to move from second-team All-Big 12 to first. A natural leader, Stowers is even stronger, in even better shape. With more playmakers in the passing game this year, Mundine won’t put as much pressure on himself, which could cure the drops. If Harwell can come close to duplicating his production during three seasons for Miami (Ohio), he’ll be KU’s best receiver since Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe. Pierson has a shot to play more like a receiver than a speedy running back masquerading as one.

Heaps? He will benefit from quicker plays that don’t require as much production, and from the addition of Harwell and the development of Pierson and sophomore Rodriguez Coleman. Will that be enough to mask what looked like weaknesses a year ago? Tough to say, but it’s not fair to write him off just yet.

Senior status has a way of making athletes grow up. It was clear from the moment Reynolds stepped on campus he had serious potential. As a junior, he started to realize it, leading the team with 6.5 sacks. He sounds more grown up today than he did a year ago.

“People look up to me now that I’m a senior and I’ve been here and have the experience,” Reynolds said. “It makes me want to be a leader and be a great role model to the younger guys who look up to me.”

Once older, less-talented athletes wished they had his ability because they knew the could take better advantage of it. Reynolds now is an example of what hard work brings.

“It just shows I’ve gotten to the point I needed to be all along,” Reynolds said. “I was inconsistent. I’m consistent now with everything, with making plays, with showing up when I’m supposed to and doing the things that coaches ask of me on and off the field, and it just shows I’ve matured a lot and I’m trying to fit into that role.”

Fellow senior Victor Simmons said he noticed so many players from his class, “getting a little bit better as juniors. Now that we’re seniors, with our experience, it’s going to be a totally different team. The guys have all bought in. Not that we didn’t last year, but I can just see the change in mentality. The guys who I’ve been around for four years just have so much heart.”

Simmons didn’t point to any magic bullets, and maybe that’s not such a bad change from the recent KU football script. Magic doesn’t win football games, but playing with heart can get the job done.

Comments

Dirk Medema 7 months, 4 weeks ago

Just notice from the "More like this story" list above that 3 of 4 captains are back this year.

Kevin Fest 7 months, 4 weeks ago

Big fan from Cali here

I hope all this talk actually translates into wins. Kansas actually does have some very talented players despite the win totalls Heeney, McDonald, Stowers and especially Pierson. With Harwell and hopefully some of the JC players coming in hopefully Kansas can win enough to be bowl eligible. But even that's a tall order comin from a team that won 1 conference game last year. I think with a new OC coordinator that the offense that was so offensive last year will be improved. I'm more hopeful this year then in years past.

David A. Smith 7 months, 4 weeks ago

Very good points. Having this much experience has always been a big advantage. Good column.

Mark Lindrud 7 months, 4 weeks ago

These guys have been in the Weis program for two years. Time to payoff. The proactive coaching changes hopefully help and we can see wins this year. I hopefully cautious, but they've got the right attitude and hope it rubs off. We may not be good, but maybe we can be lucky. Here is hoping that hardwork finally pays off.

Jim Stauffer 7 months, 4 weeks ago

It appears the talent and coaching are probably on a par with when MM had his team ready to go in '05.

The difficulty this team faces is the schedule. It is not for the faint of heart.

John Miller 7 months, 4 weeks ago

I agree the schedule is brutal two conference wins would have to be a success

Jay Beakum 7 months, 4 weeks ago

Really good article. Totally agree.

And even with all that talent returning this year, I’m still most excited to be returning to a spread offense. I expected Turner Gill to come in and run some old school Nebraska stuff. Instead we got molasses. Then I thought maybe Weis, of all people, could make a pro offense work at a basketball school. Nothing.

If you want to win in a power conference, while possessing less talent, you gotta run something that levels the field. It’s obviously not a secret. Nick Saban doesn’t like it. I don’t care. In fact I love the fact he doesn’t like it. That means it works.

No matter how many games we win this year, I guarantee you it’s going to be more exciting, and we are going to score more points.

12, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 3,... 5?

I’ll take that this year, especially with a murderous schedule. 5 and a more exciting brand of football would be gold for me. 6 would be double platinum!

Brandon Mahon 7 months, 4 weeks ago

Ty Mckinny is no longer with the Team... Well there goes a spot on the D line

Eliott Reeder 7 months, 4 weeks ago

Good response to all the naysayer pessimists that have been commenting on every football article lately, Mr. Keegan. Hope is a good thing. I find it really annoying when the negative, wait-and-see folks try to take it away. I understand the frustration with the continuous cycle of build-up followed by inevitable let-down, but sometimes that's all you've got! Cheers to hype, bring it on! Hope and hype in the off-season are (unfortunately) the best part of being a Jayhawk football fan!!!

Mark Lindrud 7 months, 4 weeks ago

I have been a wait and see guy this off season, but I can respect what you are saying. I do hope we have a good season and one that I can be proud of. Hope would be the right choice to use. I do hope the offensive line is more consistent and I hope that means the QB will have the protection to throw to hopeful receivers wanting to improve and catch the ball more consistently this season. I do hope we do not sustain any major injuries and that the special teams plays a positive part in our season. I also hope Coach Reagan knows when to be diverse in his playing call and when to not out think himself and just coach a good solid game that can give our offense the opportunities to sustain drives, keep our improving defense of the field and rested while scoring points to keep games competitive and give us some wins with one or two upsets this season. Cheers to you reminding me that I need to be more hopeful with my wait and see approach. Thank you and I really do mean that.

Dillon Davis 7 months, 4 weeks ago

I've learned my lesson far too many times about being overly optimistic about KU football. Prove it to me on the field.

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