He entered the season hoping for a monster season, one that would show off the blood, sweat and tears he put into fine-tuning his skills and reshaping his body in the offseason.
Yet, so far, through two games, KU senior Keon Stowers has just seven tackles and a half tackle for a loss.
Not the numbers the former Georgia Military standout was hoping for, but the lack of production has hardly been all Stowers' fault.
See, when you start to make a name for yourself as a disruptive force, particularly on the defensive line, then other teams start to gameplan around you and try to do whatever they can to take you out of the action. In some cases, teams run away from a big-time tackler. Think Green Bay's Clay Matthews or Denver's Von Miller. Other times, teams run right at those same guys in hopes of neutralizing their momentum and making them react to something coming right at them instead of having time to rev up their engines to make a play.
In the case of Stowers, KU's 6-foot-3, 297-pound nose tackle, it's double-teams that have been the weapon of choice for KU's opponents.
Take the Duke game alone. In that one, the Kansas defense was on the field for 77 snaps. Stowers played 47 of those. And of those 47 snaps, he was double-teamed by two Duke offensive linemen 27 times, that's more than half of the plays.
Stowers has handled the extra attention well, even if he has been a little frustrated that it has prevented him from bringing down ball carriers. But even though he knows his occupying blockers is a good thing for the KU defense, he's still grown a little tired of the constant pounding.
“I am. I am,” he said. “But I really just feel like I could be in a tackle position where I'd be matched up with a tackle and get more production there. But I do a lot of things that go unnoticed like holding the double team so (linebacker Ben) Heeney and other guys can get in there. I do get tired of it, but that's my job.”
Because KU's defensive line is full of unproven players, it makes sense that Stowers would become the focal point of opposing offenses, and he, the KU coaching staff and the rest of the guys next to him in the trenches expected it when the season began.
“We're a little thin at the D-Line,” Stowers said. “We accept that. We know that. We're not gonna be naive to it.”
Stowers said he was hopeful that things would change a little bit this weekend, when the Jayhawks face Central Michigan at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Without divulging any details, the big man from Rock Hill, South Carolina, said the coaches had experimented with moving him around to different spots this week in hopes of freeing him up to make more plays.
“I've been lickin' my chops,” he said. “I really like my chances with this game and I've been studying the guards and the center and the tackle and I'm ready to play end, nose, tackle, wherever they put me at. Anything. I'm ready.”
As unselfish as any player on the roster, Stowers wanted to be sure to emphasize that all of this talk about him being double-teamed (something that I asked him to talk about, he didn't just bring it up on his own) was not even close to the most important thing on his mind right now.
That, he said, was helping Kansas find a way to bounce back from last week's debacle at Duke and getting back on the winning track.
“This is perfect timing,” he said of the expected physical match-up with CMU. “It's gonna give us the chance to not only be physical and not only show what we can do, but also to bounce back from a disappointing loss and not only put (Duke) away but to bury it.”
Clearly, that's the goal, but, because of the way things have gone in the past, there's at least part of these guys that can't help but wonder what things might be like if the outcome does not go that way. Stowers had no problem admitting that.
“If we go out there and lose, then it could be a situation where we start thinking, 'Uh oh, shoot. It's about to start.'”
That's not what anyone in crimson and blue, including Stowers, is expecting to see unfold this weekend, though.
“(This week) was one of our best Tuesday practices,” Stowers said. “We were flying around. Coach (Charlie) Weis was up moving more than usual and he was more involved. Mentally, we're past (Duke) and we're ready to beat Central Michigan.”
Kansas University sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart on Wednesday met with the media for the first time since his disappointing outing at Duke last weekend in which he completed 11 of 27 passes for 89 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 41-3 loss.
True to what we've learned Cozart to be, the young QB walked into the chancellor's lounge at the Anderson Family Football Complex just after 1:45 p.m. with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face.
If he's letting last week's outing get to him, he sure isn't showing it.
I asked Cozart the first question of the day, a simple one: "Montell, what have the past few days been like for you?"
But like a seasoned veteran who had been through the ups and downs of playing quarterback dozens of times before, Cozart respectfully put the answer to my question on hold and issued a statement to kick things off.
“Last week, we were disappointed in our performance and I was disappointed in my performance, as well," Cozart said. "Sunday, I came in and talked to Coach Weis and Coach Reagan and Coach Powlus and we addressed the issues. We have no excuses for them, so we're just trying to move past it, look forward to Central Michigan and get ready for this game plan.”
There was nothing phony about it. And I'm sure it helped Cozart to publicly say what he said and take some of the blame for the offense's dismal performance.
I asked the KU media reps if the statement was planned or staged and they said it was not, that it was all Cozart wanting to own up to his part in the meltdown in Durham, North Carolina.
It might not help him complete passes or find open receivers, but the gesture showed that (a) he's a quality young man and (b) he cares. A lesser person would've moved on, let the Duke game die in the past and answered any questions about it with a snarky "I'm not gonna talk about that game any more, it's over." Not Montell. Good for him.
As for my question, he did answer it as soon as he finished his statement.
“They've been pretty good," he said of the past few days. "It's what comes with being the quarterback. Any quarterback goes through it. Started off a little slow, but got off to a great start as practice started to progress and we feel great about things going forward.”
Just for good measure, and to truly emphasize that he's not planning on letting the Duke performance be the one he's remembered for, Cozart threw in one last comment before talking about this week's match-up with Central Michigan.
“I feel good. I feel like that doesn't define me as the quarterback or who I am. I'm just moving forward and not trying to dwell on last week.”
After spending 10 to 20 seconds laughing the way an older brother would about something his younger brother did that he was proud of, senior defensive lineman Keon Stowers said there was nothing about Cozart's decision to get his flop off his chest that surprised him.
“I've been telling people, man," Stowers said. "He is a mature guy. He accepts his responsibility. He comes to work. That doesn't surprise me at all with him. I liked his attitude yesterday and that was encouraging.”
• Kansas Jayhawks (1-1) vs. Central Michigan (2-1)
— 2:30 p.m. (central) Saturday, Sept. 20, Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, Kansas —
Three and out, with the Central Michigan Chippewas...
There are a couple of KU-CMU connections heading into this week's game but most of them are pretty distant. For starters, KU kicker Matthew Wyman hails from the state of Michigan (Bloomfield Hills) and Central Michigan offensive coordinator Morris Watts, a coaching legend, according to KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, held the same job at KU in 1982.
One interesting connection is that CMU head coach Dan Enos and KU running backs coach Reggie Mitchell both have worked at two of the same schools in the past (Western Michigan and Michigan State) but not at the same time. Beyond that, KU defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt and CMU assistant Kyle Nystrom were on the same staff at TCU and KU safeties coach Scott Vestal and Chippewas DC Joe Tumpkin worked on the same staff at SMU.
Finally, CMU wide receiver Anthony Rice hails from the same high school as KU long snapper Reilly Jeffers and grew up with Jeffers, Charlie Weis Jr., and Tre' Parmalee. KU coach Charlie Weis said Rice was over at the Weis house quite a bit growing up.
KU senior receiver Nick Harwell twice played against the Chippewas during his three seasons at Miami (Ohio) and had some pretty memorable days against them. In the 2010 game, Harwell racked up 97 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions. Two years later, in 2012, he racked up a whopping 215 yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions.
Different schools, different systems, different defenses, different quarterback, of course. But you gotta think that Harwell will be more than a little happy to see the CMU colors out there on the field on Saturday.
Dubbed by Charlie Weis as “an old school” football team, Central Michigan's offense enters this weekend averaging 20.3 points per game and with a pretty balanced attack. Of the Chippewas 52 first downs on the season, 24 have come via the pass and 23 have come via the run. (The other five have come via penalties).
CMU has a high success rate in the red zone (7-of-10) and also is averaging more than 30 minutes per game in time of possession. One of the more amazing stats for this offense is that it is averaging a first down every time it completes a pass, at 12.0 yards per completion.
Defensively, CMU has surrendered just 24 points per game (to teams including Purdue and Syracuse) and has been solid against the pass, giving up just 517 passing yards in three games and swiping six interceptions.
Don't expect the old school CMU defense to be overwhelmed by the idea of facing a quarterback who will be asked to throw and run. CMU coach Dan Enos said this week that KU QB Montell Cozart reminded him a lot of the QB the Chippewas just saw last week in Syracuse's Terrel Hunt.
"He's very similar," Enos said in comparing Cozart to Hunt. "He's big, got a strong arm, and he can move. And I thought the young man from Syracuse played very well and we didn't do enough things to disrupt him. We need to do a better job this week of that."
Enos also noted that several teams in the MAC feature dual-threat type quarterbacks so it's nothing the Chippewas won't have seen many times before.
"A lot of teams in our league are going to have quarterbacks who can move around and run and it's just something we're going to have to deal with every week," Enos said. "We've just got to get better, have a better game plan, and we've got to execute better."
Don't take this as me being a Montell Cozart or Kansas University football apologist looking for a silver lining during a few dark days.
It's not. Overall, the Jayhawks — and specifically Cozart — have been pretty awful for seven of the eight quarters they've played during this barely begun 2014 season. And there's no apologizing for that.
The Duke debacle was as bad as it's been since head coach Charlie Weis arrived and the more and more you look back at the opener, the more and more you start to realize that the Jayhawks may very well have been lucky to get out of that one alive. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the sluggish finish to the SEMO victory probably should have been viewed as a sign of things to come.
Many people saw that heading into the season. I didn't. In fact, I saw pretty much the exact opposite. I saw a fast start. I saw Cozart sprinting out of the gates with the kind of play that would energize and invigorate the fan base and I expected that on Sept. 16, Jayhawks everywhere would be talking more about the excitement of what's happening instead of dwelling on the uncertainty of what may come and what to do now.
Before we worry too much about the future, be that Central Michigan this weekend, Texas the weekend after that or what the program will look like on Dec. 1, I think it's important to gain a little perspective.
Cozart has been getting killed in the days since the Duke game and, when you're the quarterback, pretty much at any level, that's how it goes. You get the glory in the good days and you're the goat in the bad. That's nothing new and even casual sports fan know that's the way it goes.
So don't hold back on tossing blame at Cozart for the way the KU offense played against Duke. They were bad. He was awful. And Kansas, as we now know, stood no chance.
But do pull back on letting the Duke outing define Cozart as a college quarterback. He's 19 years old. He has started exactly five college football games in his life and barely played in enough to make up half a season. He deserves the chance to redeem himself. He deserves time to grow. He deserves to prove he is both willing to and can get better. Maybe he has it, maybe he doesn't, but a handful of games hardly seems like enough time to make a decision, for better or worse. If nothing else, the hard work and sacrifice he put in during the past 12 months should earn him a fair shake for a few more weeks.
All of this to a point, of course. If his Saturdays continue to look like last week, then the coaches owe it to the rest of the Jayhawks and the program in general to find a better option, perhaps even during the games. But we're not there yet.
If I know Montell at all, I know this is killing him. Weis said Monday morning that Cozart needed a little TLC on Sunday to help get past his poor performance and I've talked to enough people who saw him after the Duke game to know that he took it pretty hard. He's a confident kid. He's had success his entire life. And most of that success has come pretty easy and in pretty exciting fashion. Days like Saturday were not in Cozart's vocabulary.
Maybe that's part of the problem here. During the handful of interviews we did with Cozart throughout the spring and summer, we encountered a confident guy who believed in himself a great deal and believed he was going to hit the ground running and enjoy a solid season. He still might. But too many times his reasoning behind his confidence was that the whole thing reminded him of his path to QB prominence at Bishop Miege High. There's nothing wrong with drawing on past experiences to create confidence, calm the nerves or even fire you up to rise to a challenge. But maybe we should've seen such comments as a little bit of a warning sign that the young man might not quite be ready.
Cozart has all the physical tools you could want. He's fast, long, strong and blessed with incredible quickness and good vision. And he's a likable guy, too, which is important not only for the fan base but also for his teammates. Guys want to follow guys they like.
But simply having the right mind, body and soul for the job does not mean it'll be all aces when you get out there and face a team that's trying to knock your head off. Cozart still has to get used to that. And the only way to do it is by playing more games and succeeding or failing.
This is not high school. The path to him becoming KU's starting quarterback might mirror the path he took to taking the snaps at Miege, but that's where the similarities end. Now's the time for Cozart to pound out a new path, one fraught with potential pitfalls and mirages, good moments and bad.
Senior wide receiver Nick Harwell said after Saturday's game that outings like the one Cozart endured against Duke are part of the deal. “This was one of those games he's gonna have to get under his belt,” was how Harwell put it.
Everybody has 'em. Harwell did at Miami (Ohio). Ben Heeney did during his freshman year. Heck, even KU legend Todd Reesing was sent back to the bench after saving the Jayhawks against Colorado in his first ever appearance in 2006.
The question is, will Cozart learn from his early experiences the way those guys learned from theirs? The only way to find out is to give him time and to remember along the way that the young man is doing all of this for the first time.
We've already covered The Day After so now here's a quick look back at a few grades from Saturday's 41-3 loss at Duke....
What can you say about an accomplished, all-Big 12 guy who ties his career-high for tackles, with 15, and, once again, seemed to be in on every single play? Heeney was shaken up in the first half but only missed a snap or two and got right back out there to do his job. One of the guys on this team who really shows how much it means to him by how hard he plays.
Picked on by Duke QB Anthony Boone early, McDonald had a very rough first quarter and that helped Duke set the tone and establish control. Gave up all four completions to Duke receiver Issac Blakeney in the game's first eight minutes and then settled in and started to play the kind of football we've come to expect from him. McDonald said the adjustment to matching up with Blakeney was difficult early because of the receiver's 6-foot-6 frame and physical style and because he expected to be on the smaller, quicker, 5-9 Jamison Crowder. Once he adjusted, he looked like the McDonald we all know. But that was a rough start and it set the tone and forced KU's safeties to think about cheating his way, which allowed slot receiver Max McCaffrey (7 catches, 79 yards, 2 TDs) more room to operate over the middle.
Avery, a true freshman remember, ran hard for 87 yards on 16 carries and proved, yet again, that he's ready for whatever role the coaching staff wants to give him. Still has some things to learn/improve upon — most notably his route running and pass blocking — but he's young and he's way ahead of where most freshmen would be in thrown into his position. Hard to believe that even with the departure of James Sims and the loss of Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox to injury, the KU rushing attack just keeps humming along. If anything, KU should have run it way more than the 47 times they did on Saturday.
Credit the freshman for going out there and proving he belongs and is able to hang with the big boys. Now he just needs to get more comfortable and polished. Beat deep a handful of times by just a step or two, but he didn't pay for it because the balls were overthrown. If the throws were on the money, he would've had a rough day, as he showed that he's still a few games away from combining his athleticism with his ever-improving understanding of what it takes to cover quality receivers at this level.
Never looked comfortable all afternoon and, worse, looked indecisive and unable to make quick reads. Left plenty of opportunities for completions on the field by not picking up open receivers early, which allowed Duke's defense to get close to him and forced him to scramble or throw it away. One interception was tipped at the line but the ball was late coming out and, on the other, he missed a wide open Tony Pierson sitting in the soft spot of the Duke defense by firing it 7 yards over Pierson's head. Cozart did deliver a couple of nice runs but even those were frustrating because they showed what he should be doing and emphasized what he wasn't.
Caught three balls for 17 yards one week after being held without a catch, but still did not do enough to impact the game. Dropped one of the few catchable balls Cozart threw all day and did very little to help spark KU's struggling offense. The issues of the offense in this one certainly went well beyond what Mundine did or did not do, but as a veteran and a leader, you have to think there's something he could have done.
• UNIT GRADES --- In 10 words or less
Pass Offense: F Receivers got open, Cozart struggled to find or hit them.
Run Offense: C+ Avery, Mann solid; would've been better if Cozart ran more.
Pass Defense: C+ Rough opening drive but shut down top two Duke options.
Run Defense: D- Wilson gained 182 of his 245 yards on three carries.
Special Teams: B- Pardula good again, rest not noteworthy, good or bad.
Most Impressive Unit: Running Backs. For just their second games at the Div. I level, freshman Corey Avery and junior De'Andre Mann sure looked like seasoned veterans. The two combined for 196 of KU's 297 yards of offense and when you throw freshman Joe Dineen's late-but-meaningless 28 yards on top of it, it's clear that you're looking at one of the few position groups that showed up.
Least Impressive Unit: Defensive Line. No sacks. Huge holes for Duke freshman Shaun Wilson to run through en route to breaking a 20-year-old school record for single-game rushing yards. And minimal pressure on Duke quarterback Anthony Boone.
MVP: CB JaCorey Shepherd. After a so-so game in the opener, Shepherd bounced back in a big way in this one. He did not give up a single significant completion, and every time the Blue Devils challenged him deep, he was right on the hip of the man he was covering. All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder caught just two balls for 14 yards.
Hidden Hero: DL T.J. Semke. The former walk-on turned scholarship and starting defensive lineman was one of the few guys consistently around the ball during this one. He finished with a career-best six tackles and proved, once again, that he's not afraid to tangle with anyone.
Better Luck Next Time: QB Montell Cozart. After starting the season with so much promise, Cozart struggled mightily in this one. He missed guys when they were open, had trouble deciding when to take off and run and looked overwhelmed and lost throughout much of the game. He's still young. So these kinds of growing pains are bound to happen.
The road losing streak hit 28, the final score left Kansas 38 points shy and an unknown number of KU fans were up in arms about it.
It was that kind of day for the KU football team in Durham, North Carolina on Saturday, a time and place that many believed would be a heck of a lot different than the same old, bad blowouts we've seen in the past.
Instead, it was a lot of the same frustrating football that has plagued Kansas for the past five seasons — big plays and easy scores for the opponent, an offense that struggled to get anything going and a room full of players and coaches who had trouble finding answers when it was all over.
The Jayhawks' 41-3 loss to Duke may have merely dropped them to 1-1 on the season, but if ever a 1-1 team felt like 0-10, this is it.
It should be very interesting to see where things go from here with all aspects of the program.
For the first time in the Charlie Weis era, it seems like people have had enough. The KU fan base, as a whole, has not been entirely supportive of Weis and this team throughout his time, but there always had been enough people who backed the program to cancel out those who didn't. Saturday night, though, even the optimists kept quiet and some turned to the dark side. The Jayhawks were not out-talented by Duke, but they were out-played, out-coached and out-manned. This one, to me, seems like the first undeniable step in the wrong direction since Weis took over, and the future of the program, from top to bottom, all of a sudden, has landed in a very dicey position.
1 – Let's be honest; after a game like that, there just aren't many. I thought senior linebacker Ben Heeney was Heeney (but was anyone surprised by that?); I thought senior cornerback JaCorey Shepherd showed he's every bit on the same level as Dexter McDonald and I thought Michael Reynolds played his butt off, particularly in the first half, when he just kept getting close off the right edge but never quite got to Duke QB Anthony Boone. Other than that, there were serious concerns pretty much everywhere else on the field and the Jayhawks left Durham in need of some serious soul-searching just two weeks into the 2014 season.
1 – Other than the obvious drawbacks of the lopsided final score and the aftermath that followed, there were a few specific aspects of this latest loss that were concerning. The biggest, obviously, was the play of Montell Cozart, who looked incredibly sharp and in control during the opening quarter of the season but has looked anything but that during the seven quarters since. Cozart has the physical tools, but he's young and he's still learning and for every 3-touchdown-no-interception game (like he had vs. SEMO in the opener) there are going to be days like Saturday. The question now just becomes, “How quickly can he pick things up and improve?”
2 – KU's option game was atrocious in this one. I like the option for this offense because it puts Cozart in a position to attack and put pressure on the defense with his best asset. When it's blocked the way it was on Saturday, though, it looks like something you'd see at a Pop Warner game. Because of Duke's penetration on the edge — read: KU's blocking breakdowns up front — Cozart and the KU running backs just had to keep stringing it out and stringing it out all the way down the line until they reached the sideline. At that point, Cozart usually pitched it, but with the sideline so close and so many Blue Devils in pursuit, it looked like Duke had two players there for every one Jayhawk in the area. The option game is as much an attitude as it is about being assignment sound and the Jayhawks failed in both categories against Duke.
3 – The Jayhawks ran more plays (76-71) and won the time of possession battle (32:34-27:26) but had just three points to show for it? That begs the question, “What the heck were they doing when they had the ball?” The answer? Not much. Just five of KU's 14 possessions ended as a three-and-out but only one went over the 4-minute mark and that was the second-to-last drive of the game, when KU drove 72 yards in nine plays and 4:12 but turned it over on downs after doing most of that work against Duke's reserves. Five of KU's drives included seven plays or more — including the 10-play, 58-yard drive that produced the team's only points — but KU found itself facing third-and-long a lot of the time and often failed to take or see the shorter gains that would have set up more manageable third-down scenarios.
KU's latest lopsided loss...
• Moved the Jayhawks to 577-591-58 all-time.
• Tied the all-time series between the two basketball-blueblood schools at 1 win apiece.
• Was the 28th consecutive loss away from home. KU's next chance to snap its road losing skid comes Oct. 4 at West Virginia, the team the Jayhawks beat last season to snap a 27-game Big 12 Conference losing streak.
• Featured points in the first quarter for the second game in a row. Kansas scored in the first quarter just four times in 12 tries last season.
KU returns home to face Central Michigan, which, two weeks ago popped Purdue, but, last week, was rocked by Syracuse, 40-3. The Chippewas were a bowl team a year ago and certainly will not be an easy out for this struggling KU squad. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to tonight's main event.
In the red corner, standing at 5 feet, 11 inches and weighing in at 195 pounds.... He hails from Mesquite, Texas, and is a senior in his final season at Kansas.... The receiver of the secondary, the king of kindness, the DB with the sweet J, JaCorey "The Protector" Shepherd.
In the blue corner, standing 6 feet, 6 inches and weighing in at 225 pounds.... He hails from Monroe, North Carolina, and is a senior in his fifth season at Duke... The overlooked man, the two-sport standout, Sir Issac Blakeney.
OK, so maybe that won't be exactly the way it's billed on Saturday when we get down to Durham for KU's Week 2 match-up with Duke. But it sure has felt that way in the days leading up to the game.
Shepherd, a Kansas cornerback, and Blakeney, a Duke wide receiver who also ran with the Duke track team last spring, could play huge roles in determining whether their teams win or lose when the Jayhawks and Blue Devils lock horns on Saturday, and Shepherd, a defensive-back who started his career as a wide receiver, could not be more pumped for the showdown.
At 6-6, Blakeney stands seven full inches taller than Shepherd, which not only gives him a huge advantage in terms of reach but also gives him an advantage in terms of his stride while running to the ball.
Shepherd said he's never covered a player as tall as Blakeney and he's worked overtime this week to make sure he's ready with a few tricks, some of which date back to his days as a high school basketball player.
“That's one of the first things my dad said,” Shepherd joked. “'Back to basketball when you had to play (power forward).' That's gonna be a challenge for me, and I'm looking forward to it. I've never had to go up against somebody that big.”
So what's the secret?
“I just feel like I have to be more aware of body control,” Shepherd said. “He definitely can get me in a situation where he can shield me from the ball. And obviously the jump balls. If they throw it up there, I've gotta know where I'm at on the field and know where he's at and feel him out.”
With a receiver who stands 6-6, jump balls are inevitable. If nothing else, they're a great last resort for a quarterback who finds himself in trouble and sees no one else open. That's especially true in the red zone.
Shepherd has a strategy for the high lobs when they come his way and it focuses more on what not to do than what he should do.
“I can't jump too early,” he said. “If anything, I'd rather jump later so he's coming down while I'm going up.”
Shepherd figures to draw a lot of action in this one because of last weekend's standout performance from his partner-in-crime, Dexter McDonald, who swiped two interceptions and broke up two more passes in KU's victory over Southeast Missouri State.
The theory goes that teams may shy away from McDonald after seeing a performance like that — it happened to some degree last season — and be more willing to try their luck with Shepherd. The mere thought brings a smile to Shepherd's face and a sparkle to his eyes.
“I actually like that,” he said. “That's me. Dex did me a favor.”
Of course, Shepherd is also smart enough to know that McDonald's presence on the field will not be enough to keep Duke from using its top weapon in the passing game, senior wideout Jamison Crowder, who stands 5-9, 175.
“He's still gonna get tested,” Shepherd said of McDonald. “They have good receivers. The guy Dex is matched up with, he's a legit receiver. They're not gonna shy away from him. He's one of their best receivers.”
Regardless of who checks who or even how often KU sprinkles in different zone coverage looks to try to match up, both Shepherd and McDonald figure to find themselves in several make-or-break, one-on-one situations on Saturday and it could become a situation where the last man standing brings home a victory for his team.
As famed ring announcer Michael Buffer might say.... Let's get ready to ruuuuummmmmmmmbbbbblllllllllllllle...
• Kansas Jayhawks (1-0) at Duke (2-0)
2:30 p.m. (central) Saturday, Sept. 13, Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, North Carolina
Three and out, with the Duke Blue Devils...
Duke enters this week’s game vs. Kansas with an 18-11 non-conference record under current coach David Cutcliffe. One of those 11 losses came to Kansas in 2009, when the Jayhawks drubbed Cutcliffe's club, 44-16, in Lawrence.
KU coaches Clint Bowen and John Reagan, both on the Jayhawks' staff in 2009, said they would not be able to take much from that game that will help them this week, other than the knowledge and memory of how disciplined, detailed and prepared Cutcliffe's club was that day. Bowen remembered specifically the first couple of plays from scrimmage catching the Kansas defense off-guard.
In the last 12 regular season non-league games, Cutcliffe has guided the Blue Devils to an 11-1 mark, including eight straight regular season non-conference victories.
Did you know that KU coach Charlie Weis once hired Duke coach David Cutcliffe to be his quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame? Weis has long been a fan of Cutcliffe's mastery of offense and play-calling and Weis said earlier this week that he picked Cutcliffe to join him at Notre Dame back in 2005 with the idea of eventually handing over the offense to him.
It never happened and neither did Weis and Cutcliffe working together. Cutcliffe resigned from the post before really getting started after suffering a heart attack and having triple-bypass surgery.
Cutcliffe was out of football for all of 2005 and he rejoined the Tennessee coaching staff in 2006 and 2007 (he previously worked at Tennessee from 1982-98 and helped develop Peyton Manning into one of college and professional football's greats). In 2008, the former Ole Miss head coach took the head job at Duke, where he has racked up a 33-44 record and is now in his seventh season.
“I was looking for somebody I could turn the offense over to and I thought David was one of the best minds out there,” Weis said this week. “Not only was he well-schooled with the quarterback position, which is his reputation, but I thought he'd be a perfect person to hand over the offense to because of his mind and his ability as a play caller. What he's done there is what I would expect him to do anywhere. Just about anywhere he's gone, in an ample amount of time, he's been able to get things going in the right way, especially offensively. He's a very, very good coach.”
Although they wound up losing 34-17 to the Blue Devils last week, Troy proved one thing early on: Duke is vulnerable to a strong running attack.
On its first two drives of the game, Troy gained 100 yards on 16 carries — and 166 yards in all — and jumped out to a 14-3 lead. Duke's D tightened up after that giving up just 58 more rushing yards and limiting Troy to a 3.7 yards-per-rush total.
But the two successful drives that opened the game each were 83-yard drives, with one taking 11 plays and another a whopping 13.
The Blue Devils lost All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown to a season-ending knee injury in August and that left senior David Helton (6-4, 240) as one of the few experienced linebackers on the roster. In the first two weeks alone, Duke has relied upon a red-shirt freshman and a true freshman to play a significant number of snaps in the middle of the defense.
Duke's first two opponents of 2014 recorded 152 and 158 yards on the ground in losses to the Blue Devils.
While last year's 10-win team was one of the best in Duke history, the 2014 version is hardly the same club. In addition to losing two of the team's top returners in Brown and fellow-all-ACC tight end Braxton Deaver to preseason injuries, the Blue Devils saw 21 players make their collegiate debuts in the season opener, with five true freshmen and 13 red-shirt freshmen playing in a college game for the first time.
However, despite that fresh blood, Duke still features an experienced roster. In all, the Blue Devils field 21 seniors on their roster, 17 of whom are listed on the two-deep depth chart.
Saturday's match-up between 1-0 Kansas and 2-0 Duke no doubt would grab much more attention if it were played in Allen Fieldhouse or Cameroon Indoor Stadium instead of outside on the turf at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.
Let's face it: Duke and Kansas are both basketball schools and there's not a person on the planet who doesn't think that.
That includes KU football coach Charlie Weis, who, on Tuesday, talked about the challenges — and advantages — of coaching the football team, which, in many opinions and at most schools is the king of college athletics, at a school where basketball rules.
"I don't know what (Duke coach) David (Cutcliffe) thinks," Weis said. "He's got Coach K and I've got Bill Self. Does it get any better than that? I mean, you're talking about arguably the two best, two of the best coaches in America. So from my standpoint, I hope basketball wins every game every year regardless of how we do. I appreciate the support I get from Coach Self and our basketball team, but most importantly, I can utilize their success to help use that as something to shoot for and definitely use as a recruiting tool.
"You can do one of two things: You can feel like a second‑class citizen or you can play into it, and I totally play into it. Totally. I don't look at it like that at all. I'm more than content with our basketball team competing for a national championship every year. I just want to get our team to where we're winning more than we're losing on an annual basis. That's what I want to do. I want to be winning more than we're losing on an annual basis. When we get to that point, you can ship me out of here. I don't want to do it once. I want to make sure we've got that set. Once we get that set, you can pack me up and send me out if that's what you want to do."
That last part was said with no bitterness or poor-me mentality. It merely was Weis re-emphasizing what he came to Kansas to accomplish, which was to get the KU football program to the point where it's considered a perennial winner.
The general rule of thumb used to be that new coaches would — or at least should — get five years to make that happen. Weis' contract with Kansas was for five years. And although he just started Year 3, he pointed to Cutcliffe's path at Duke as proof positive that, if given time, such a transformation is possible — even at a basketball school like Duke or Kansas.
"I know that Years 3 and 4 they won three games," Weis said of Cutcliffe at Duke. "So was he lighting the world on fire at that time? I mean, what he did was he put in a plan, he recruited, recruited, recruited, got guys he can get into Duke, which is not the easiest thing to do, OK, stuck to the plan, had support from the administration, OK, didn't waver. When people were saying, well, where is this heading, and all of a sudden Year 6 they go and win 10. That's the way it happens a lot of times when you walk into a program that just hasn't done too well recently. I have a lot of respect for the job they've done, and hopefully we cannot only emulate that, but hopefully we can speed up that timetable just a tad."
KU and Duke will square off, in football, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Duke's home stadium.
With the usual Monday Rewind blog being overtaken by our our Day After blog, which went up Sunday afternoon, I figured something else needed to fill its place.
With that, the Monday Report Card was born.
Unlike most report cards, which typically provide a detailed look at everything a student does during a given quarter or semester, this report card will be a little more random and will highlight a few of the good and bad individual performances while trying to mix in a few young guys and a few veterans along with quick-hit grades for each unit.
It may differ from week to week and just because one guy's name appears in the report card one week does not necessarily mean he'll be on the next one the following Monday. As I said, it's more of a snapshot of the good and the bad rather than a complete analysis.
Let's start with the offense.
• QB MONTELL COZART — B+
Cozart himself even admitted to misreading a couple of things and going the wrong way on one play, but, all things considered, I thought he played well. He threw a bunch of good balls, did not turn the ball over and kept several plays alive with his feet while also looking good throwing on the run. Cozart is clearly confident in his abilities and it does not look like the rest of the offense has any problem letting a young guy lead them. A solid B is good for a guy making his fourth career start in a season opener, but if the Jayhawks want to win more than a couple of games this year, Cozart's going to have to elevate his play to the A-range.
• WR NICK HARWELL — B
The senior transfer who sat out all of last season got open a lot and snagged a couple of touchdowns on 4 receptions for 46 yards. All good numbers. And his ability to repeatedly get open and sure hands were a welcome sight for a Kansas wide receiver. But I'd like to see Harwell be even more involved. And I bet he will be from here on out. There's no way that OC John Reagan wanted to show too much of what Harwell can do on film. Three of his four receptions came in the Jayhawks' first four possessions. In the final 11, he caught just one ball and received one carry (a reverse) while being targeted four more times. That's four catches and one carry in eight targets and one rushing attempt. Not bad. But the guy is so smooth, so dynamic and so reliable that it's obvious he can do a lot more. If some of those incompletions were dropped in an inch or two softer, he turns in a monster stat line. Cozart may have missed the throws but Harwell took the blame, so I'll take his word for it. All in all, a pretty solid KU debut.
• RB DE'ANDRE MANN — A-
Mann put the ball on the ground one time, but other than that had a pretty flawless night. He ran hard, inside and outside, racked up 121 yards on just 15 carries and brought a power-running dynamic that this team is going to need as it tries to control clock and keep opposing offenses at bay. The only negatives were the fumble and Mann's inability to pick up a yard on a fourth-and-one with KU leading 31-7. But his coming up short there had as much to do with the O-Line as anything. Overall, the juco transfer ran hard, showed a nice mix of running styles and served as a solid complement to freshman Corey Avery, who got a lot of work early and then gave way to the veteran. Mann said after the game that the only thing missing from his KU debut was a touchdown. Avery got that and the two seem to have a healthy competition between each other for yards, carries and scores. That can only help.
• CB DEXTER MCDONALD — A
Other than giving up a completion that delivered SEMO's first first down of the game (it was bound to happen sometime), McDonald was sensational. His two interceptions and subsequent returns showed why teams prefer not to throw his way. And his two pass break-ups might have been even more impressive than the INTs.
• S ISAIAH JOHNSON — C
I thought Johnson looked a little off throughout the game. Could've been him shaking off some rust, but he finished with just two tackles (both assists) and didn't record another defensive stat. In addition, he was a part of a KU secondary that inexplicably gave up three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, one of them a 26-yard score on fourth-and-seven, no less, and another, late in the game, in which Johnson seemed to read and react well but simply ran with the receiver to the back of the end zone instead of trying to play the ball or deliver a hit. Johnson was a pleasant surprise last season and took home Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year honors. Because of that, the bar has been raised for him a little bit and the expectations go up. Look for Johnson to have a strong bounce-back game against Duke.
• BUCK MICHAEL REYNOLDS — B-
Reynolds was active (4 tackes, 1.5 for loss) and played with great effort but never found it all that easy to get much pressure on SEMO QB Kyle Snyder. He was in the ballpark for a couple of hurries but Snyder seemed a little too comfortable throughout the game and was able to kind of play backyard football and chuck it around out there knowing he had nothing to lose. That had as much as anything to do with SEMO's three-touchdown fourth quarter. Not every team KU faces will feel as free and loose to chuck the ball around the yard and Reynolds will have to be a big reason for that.
• UNIT GRADES... in 10 words or less
Pass Offense: B- WRs are legit; Cozart was efficient early but misfired late.
Run Offense: A- Thanks to Avery and Mann, run game still a strength.
Pass Defense: C+ Performed better than you think. Oh, that fourth quarter.
Run Defense: C+ QB run-game effective at times; 3.4 ypc against pretty good.
Special Teams: B- Pardula solid, blocked FG a breakdown, return game gave little.
Most Impressive Unit: Had to be the WRs. Harwell, Pierson, McCay and King all looked sharp.
Least Impressive Unit: O-Line, which held up well in pass protection, committed half of KU's penalties (including three false starts) and struggled to get a push in short yardage situations.
MVP: I'll go with senior receiver Tony Pierson. Pierson racked up 139 yards of total offense — 44 rushing, 95 receiving — and added a highlight touchdown catch and run that was as pretty as any he's had. Pierson is a game changer and he was sensational in his long-awaited return from a head injury that cost him most of the second half of last season.
Hidden Hero: Safety Fish Smithson. Tied for second on the team with five tackles and played fast, physical and aggressive every time he was out there.
Better Luck Next Time: Tight end Jimmay Mundine. Not utlizing the tight end may have been by design, but Mundine went without a catch in this one and was targeted just once while also being whistled for a holding penalty. He was involved in other elements of the passing game and helped get receivers open, but he's widely regarded as a bona fide weapon who, with his size, speed and athleticism, can create mismatches in KU's favor. Perhaps they'll show up more against Duke.