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KU football: What we've learned from the first four weeks of 2012

Kansas safety Bradley McDougald (24) wraps up TCU receiver Brandon Carter (3) during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas safety Bradley McDougald (24) wraps up TCU receiver Brandon Carter (3) during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by John Young

This summer, as Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis sat in his office with a small group of local reporters, he pointed to the first four weeks of the season as a key measuring stick for his Jayhawks.

After the first four weeks, Weis said, he would know a lot more about his first Kansas team.

Well, here we are, four weeks into the season, and piecing together what Weis knows about this team has become an interesting exercise.

There are characteristics, both good and bad, that have emerged clearly during the Jayhawks’ 1-3 start. But the guess here is that Weis expected he might know a little more than he does today, particularly in a couple of key areas.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the three most positive things and the three most concerning things to come from the first four weeks of the 2012 season.

Positives

1. Defense/Turnovers: There’s no question that KU’s ability to take the ball away from opposing offenses has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the young season. With 13 total turnovers caused, the Jayhawks are averaging more than three takeaways per game, and twice have topped four takeaways in a single game, by snagging five in the season-opening victory over South Dakota State and forcing four fumbles in the 20-6 loss to TCU.

2. Productive Running Game: Tony Pierson has looked fast, Taylor Cox has looked tough and, most recently, James Sims has looked better than ever. That’s not a bad three-headed monster in the backfield for the Jayhawks. Toss in the fact that the offensive line has done a solid job of opening holes for all three guys and you’re looking at the strength of this year’s squad — by far. The big question now? Will their early success transfer over when Big 12 play arrives?

3. Improved Defensive Line: One of the glaring weak spots during the past couple of seasons, the Jayhawks appear to be much improved up front on defense. With Josh Williams and Toben Opurum functioning as consistent and disruptive pass-rushing forces and D-Tackles Jordan Tavai, Kevin Young, John Williams, Keon Stowers and Keba Agostinho playing at high speeds week in and week out, the Jayhawks’ defensive line actually has been one of the most improved units on this team.

Negatives
1. Quarterback Play: It’s a well known fact that Dayne Crist has underperformed so far, and while that certainly is understandable given his long layoff and injury history, his erratic play has been tough for the Jayhawks to handle because his miscues have so closely been tied to the outcome of KU’s games. A couple of better throws or decisions here and there, and it’s easy to see that the Jayhawks could be 3-1 instead of 1-3. They’re not, though, and positive production from this position remains a question mark.

2. Fourth-Quarter Collapses: You have to wonder about the mindset of these guys when you look at the fact that they had double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in two of their three losses. They said all offseason and all preseason that this was a different team with a different mentality. And while that may be true in many ways, this still seems to be a team — at least right now — that struggles to slam the door. It’s understandable, given the way the past two seasons have gone, that the Jayhawks might have forgotten how to win, but the fourth-quarter collapses against Rice and Northern Illinois seem to indicate that they still have a ways to go to get past that.

3. Right Side of Offensive Line: Junior Gavin Howard has had plenty of positive moments, especially when you consider that he’s a first-year starter and the same goes for juniors Randall Dent and Aslam Sterling. But all three also have had their share of bad moments, and, when your quarterback is struggling to get comfortable those bad moments are magnified severely. It seems that stamina and experience are areas of concern here, so it’ll be interesting to see if either improve as the season moves along.

In addition, here’s a quick look at the five guys I think have been the best for KU so far and the five guys who I think have underachieved. If they’re not on either list, they’ve played about the way I expected them to thus far.

Kansas cornerback Greg Brown breaks up a pass to TCU receiver Josh Boyce during the second quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas cornerback Greg Brown breaks up a pass to TCU receiver Josh Boyce during the second quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Top performers
1. Bradley McDougald — The catalyst for the KU defense’s turnaround in the takeaway department, McDougald has recorded a few turnovers, forced a few more and generally looked like the toughest dude on this defense.

2. Tony Pierson/Taylor Cox — Both players have done everything one could hope for in making KU’s running game a legitimate strength. Tough inside, dangerous in the open field and not afraid to fight for tough yards, Pierson and Cox have become a solid one-two punch in the backfield.

3. Tanner Hawkinson/Duane Zlatnik — The offensive line has had issues, but very few of them have come from the left side, where Hawkinson and Zlatnik have manhandled defenders on a regular basis in both opening holes for Cox and Pierson and giving QB Dayne Crist good protection. Throw senior center Trevor Marrongelli into this list, too. He's off to a solid start.

4. Toben Opurum — Continues to get better each week and really has become a force to be reckoned with for opposing quarterbacks.

5. Greg Brown — Living up to his “Lockdown” nickname, Brown’s coverage has been air tight, his tackling better than ever and his aggressive nature the norm. This guy’s a stud.

Kansas reciever D.J. Beshears (20) is unable to come up with the ball end the end zone as TCU cornerback Kevin White (25) applies pressure during their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas reciever D.J. Beshears (20) is unable to come up with the ball end the end zone as TCU cornerback Kevin White (25) applies pressure during their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by John Young

Underachievers
1. Dayne Crist — Crist’s struggles have been beaten to death on message boards and blogs everywhere. He’s had plenty of good moments but needs to show he can deliver in the clutch.

2. D.J. Beshears — Has looked nothing like the player we’ve known him to be during the first four weeks of the season. Not sure if it’s in his head or if it’s a physical thing, but the KU offense definitely misses Beshears’ angry style.

3. Ron Doherty — Some of the struggles haven’t been Doherty’s fault, but still, the kicker’s No. 1 job is to bang the ball through the uprights and that hasn’t happened enough so far.

4. Michael Reynolds — He’s made a few plays in the pass game, but obviously needs to become more of a complete player to convince the coaches that he should be out there on first and second downs, too. This defense needs his speed on the field.

5. Aslam Sterling — It’s a lot to ask of a late-arriving junior-college transfer to jump right in and make a difference. But it’s not so much that Sterling hasn’t made a difference as it is that he’s looked a little lazy and disinterested at times that’s concerning.

Comments

Matt Tait 2 years, 2 months ago

I'd be there early if they'd let us come, but it's off limits. Sorry.

Matt Tait 2 years, 2 months ago

Thanks. It's one of those things, though, that's tough to explain. I'm sure fatigue has something to do with it and that could be because of a lack of depth, or at least developing depth.

But think of it this way, too. If you've lost 29 or your last 35 games, losing obviously becomes a habit. Therefore, even in games when you're up in the fourth quarter, as soon as the other team makes a move to get back into it or puts some pressure on you, those thoughts about losing and losses and past collapses enter your mind - at least your subconscious. Obviously, the goal is to keep those away and avoid thinking like that, but if you haven't experienced the other side of that coin — winning, coming through, delivering in the clutch — then what else do you have to draw on?

These guys have said that their minds are different and that they don't think like that anymore. And while I believe them to some degree, I think they're fighting human nature a little bit and it takes a lot more than four games or a win or two to change that mentality.

741hawk 2 years, 2 months ago

There IS a mental aspect to closing out a game. As a team, they are either thinking, "Uh oh. Here's another one we might blow" OR "We're gonna win this one just like all the rest." The team has to begin winning to be able to adapt the latter.

KGphoto 2 years, 2 months ago

Preparation. Focus. Energy.

Those three things are tested when you have a two score lead in the fourth. I think learning how to win is simply being better in those three areas than the other team.

Doug Cramer 2 years, 2 months ago

I must be watching a different KU football team than most others: 3 Reasons for the 4th quarter meltdowns:

1: Twice now (Rice and UNI) - the D-line just absolutely imploded and got pushed around in the 4th quarter. Those guys couldn't stop anyone in the 4th quarter of those two games...and the opposition moved the ball at will. You really think this is a positive for our team? This D-line line will be exposed badly in the Big 12 schedule.

2: The opposition figures out in the 2nd half...that we have one method of attack...and thats the run. We depend on running the ball to move the ball down field. Once the opposition figures this out...they adjust their defense for the run...and then the run becomes ineffective.

3: Once the run becomes non-effective...we're forced to rely on Crist to pass the ball to balance the offense. Mentally - Crist just doesn't have what it takes to drive the
ball in the 4th quarter and compete for a win. Crist needs to go...he's a senior, he won't be here next season, and we're not going to a bowl game this year. And by the way...no way Baty and Cummings are that far behind Crist. No way do I buy that for one sec.

Matt Tait 2 years, 2 months ago

You make good points... But the D-Line, based on where it was, is absolutely better than before.

Better does not mean good, so don't confuse any comments about improvement or progress to mean we're saying they've arrived. There's still a lot of work to do, but I think it's very easy to see the improvement there and several other places.

Doug Cramer 2 years, 2 months ago

Thats true Matt - the D-line has improved from last year. Just my opinion though that it's got a long ways to go...to be considered a strength.

Chris Bailey 2 years, 2 months ago

I agree with most all of what you said. Although I'm with Matt our D-line has improved a bunch. They aren't anywhere near where they need to be though to compete in the Big 12. I do think another year and they will improve that much more especially with the JUCO kids getting a year with Hosopple. I agree with you about Crist but I don't see him being benched although that may actually help him to light a fire under his ass and relize the job isn't just his! Put Matthews or Cummings in and see what happens. I perfer to keep the redshirt on Baty as I think that Heeps will be our guy the next two years. I think we showed some toughness on D in the TCU game. Maybe they are a bit over-rated but we played well enough on D to win that game. And actually honestly we have in all 3 losses. I mean if we only have to score 25-30 per game that's not asking a lot. Especially considering we have all these Big12 teams putting up 50 points/game. Of course it remains to be seen how we'll handle the meat of that schedule. I am hoping we play like we are pissed off the rest of the way and keep the games close/competitive.

Sparko 2 years, 2 months ago

The D-Line has been on the field much more than it should be based on Crist's horrid completion rate. 10 for 27?? Then there were the early and often interceptions this year, And the deer in the headlights sacks. Then there is his lack of speed. Crist may be the slowest QB in all of football. Kicking has been bad; but Crist has been a one-man wrecking crew.

johnnyhrdwd 2 years, 2 months ago

How can you say the run is not effective in the 2nd half when we lined up and passed 23 out of 25 plays against TCU in the 2nd half? 3 yds is an effective run it keeps the clock and keeps their offense off the field.

pepper_bar 2 years, 2 months ago

Nothing new here. This is just another KUsports column kicking Crist when he's down to generate some pageviews.

Meanwhile, Weis's decision-making is ignored, despite the fact that his insistence on making Crist pass in non-passing fourth quarter situations has doomed KU twice this season.

Rivethead 2 years, 2 months ago

I disagree. Coach Weis could definitely get better. For example, he chose to run a 170lb RB named Tony Pierson between the tackles six times against NIU. All went for 1-3 yards. Tony is a burner that should be used to test the edges (toss sweeps, screens) NOT pound the rock up the middle. That's just silly.

pepper_bar 2 years, 2 months ago

Army ran all day against NIU, very effectively. Do you think they stopped running when NIU stopped a few of their runs? Was NIU ever fearful of Army's non-existent passing game?

Sparko 2 years, 2 months ago

Crist has been awful; this isn't merely negativity on message boards. He has been legendarily bad and is the main reason the season now looks pretty dismal. Crist is 177th out of major college quarterbacks. If he had not thrown a pass this year, it possible the team would be 3-1. It is rare to see one player so negatively impact the game. His misses and/or interceptions have figured prominently in all four games. And not in a good way. He has been so dismal, a non-throwing QB like Matthews is actually out-performing him easily. Weis's stubborn dismissal of QB performance does him no credit.

BayPark 2 years, 2 months ago

The defensive line seems to hold their ground better than a year ago, but I haven't seen much pressure on the quarterback. One sack in four games and too few hurries between Opurum and Williams isn't good production. I think if we don't take some chances with McDougald on the blitz, we'll get picked apart in the Big-12. Am I wrong?

741hawk 2 years, 2 months ago

Yours has been great coverage, Matt. Any way we can help you get a raise?

kuilander 2 years, 2 months ago

as a negative .. the right side of the OL line pales in comparison to the kicking game. i cannot believe the kicking game hasnt been listed as a negative. between poor field position on every kickoff, and the missed field goals .. THAT would have us a 3-1 in spite of crist and the right side of the line.

eastcoasthawk 2 years, 2 months ago

+1 The kicking game really has hurt us in a couple of games.

Savion Havon 2 years, 2 months ago

I think the defense is out there moving around the ball. The fellas seem to have bought in to Coach Campos system and are thriving in it. Improving every game is a sign of a well coached group that has committed learning the schemes and studying the film. I cant wait to see how good they are once they get comfortable and have all the extras mastered. Im optimistic that somewhere walking the campus right now there is a big legged ex soccer playing itching for the rush that comes with being a college kicker. (we all have a dream) If Doherty has someone pushing him pressure will either bust pipes or make diamonds. Matt I was listening to the spodcast and there was mention of moving a Dlineman or 2 to the offensive side of the ball do you think we will see that wrinkle on thursday. I like seeing a aggressive O line play this may be whats needed on the right side

KGphoto 2 years, 2 months ago

Yikes! Who mentioned that? We've already moved two DL to OL and are rotating three guys in two spots continuously on the right side. I don't even know who that DL would be. Our DL is finally starting to improve and somebody mentioned pilfering players off it? I'd rather see the other former DL get a shot on the right first. Lewandowski is just sitting there behind Hawkins on the left. Give him a couple series on the right, if anything.

KGphoto 2 years, 2 months ago

True, and Williams was recruited as an OL. Forgot about that, but I agree it seems a little late and the DL isn't really in a position to lose depth.

Ron Prichard 2 years, 2 months ago

I agree with the premise that this team doesn't know how to win. It can be stated several different ways, but you see it all the time in football, basketball, and even baseball. Teams can be winning the entire game and then when they get to the fourth quarter, late second half, or final innings, their focus changes to just holding on to the lead.

It's like that old saying, "play to win, don't play not to lose." For three quarters it seems like this team plays to win. Then when it seems like we get near the end and have a lead, we tense up and we shift to playing "not to lose." Players get to thinking about winning the game. "We can do this, we just have to hold on to the lead." They get tense and nervous and stop making the plays they were making earlier in the game. I was never a great athlete, but I did play on my high school basketball and football teams. This happened several times to us and against us. You see it all the time watching games on TV. It's why normally automatic kickers miss late in games. Sure handed receivers drop a sure TD. Running backs fumble when they know the only thing they need to do is hold onto the ball. Players miss tackles that could lead to a pivotal stop.

I would also note this can be extended to coaches some times. An agressive attack turns conservative and becomes ineffective. Another coach may call "desperate" plays that are a shift from what they have been doing all game. A balanced offense suddenly becomes one dimensional.

Players that rise to the occasion know how to win. Our players seem to believe they can win, but when they get late into games, they start playing not to lose. Hopefully that changes over the next several weeks and we are able to figure out a way to get a couple wins. I do see improvement in this team. Just not as much as I had hoped for so far. I still have faith they will get it headed in the right direction.

Rivethead 2 years, 2 months ago

Matt I like your article, but strongly disagree with Tanner Hawkinson being listed as a top performer. Against SDSU (an FCS opponent), he look marginal at best. Remember this is a Big 12 left tackle who has NFL aspirations. He had little impact against SDSU. Against Rice he was better, until the 2nd half. He was fantastic against TCU. And against NIU? Well let's just say that their DE Progar OWNED Hawkinson all game long.

Remember this is a Senior with a LOT of starts under his belt. He's not done anything so far to be listed as a top performer. He really needs to step up in ALL games (I find it interesting he's played his best against a Big 12 team.....maybe he's pacing himself for Big 12 play, lol).

All in my humble opinion, of course.

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