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.