With the 2014 Kansas University football opener now just 11 days away, it's time for what has become one of my favorite blogs to write.
It's not a prediction blog. That one's always tough. Because I spend so much time around these guys and see how much time, effort and energy they're putting into it, I often lean toward the sunny side of things and have to make sure to remember that players and coaches at Texas, Oklahoma State, TCU and Duke are doing the same thing.
I will say this, though, because four or five times a week I get asked, 'How many games the Jayhawks will win this season?' I think they've got a real shot to be better than they have been in a long time.
Let's drop a quick percentage wheel into the blog to illustrate what that means. This percentage wheel will measure my guess for a given range of win totals...
2014 WIN-TOTAL PERCENTAGE WHEEL:
- 4 or 5 wins – 51%
- 3 wins – 23%
- 6 wins or more – 13%
- 2 wins or less – 13%
All right. Now that that's out of the way, let's get back to the original topic of the blog... Seven Jayhawks flying under the radar entering the 2014 season.
Everyone knows about Ben Heeney, Cassius Sendish and Montell Cozart. But every team has a player or two who comes out of nowhere to play an important role. Here's my best guess at seven guys who could fill that role for the Jayhawks this fall.
1. Sophomore S Tevin Shaw — Weis ever-so-quietly called the third-year sophomore one of the most improved players on the entire roster midway through camp. And it makes sense. Shaw's a natural football player with a strong physical presence and the passion to go all-out all the time. During his first couple of years in town, that effort was stonewalled by his having to learn the system and pick up the college game. More comfortable today than he has been since high school, the guy Weis said might be the team's most physical player, pound-for-pound, can use that nasty streak to make plays. He won't push starting safeties Cassius Sendish and Isaiah Johnson, but, if Shaw really is in for his breakout year, KU's depth at safety — with Fish Smithson also having a fantastic camp — looks pretty salty.
2. Freshman CB Matthew Boateng — One of the most confident newcomers in the program, Boateng has done nothing but hit the field day after day with the belief that he belongs. That can go a long way for a freshman, as learning to have confidence at this level is often one of the toughest adjustments a young player has to make. Speaking of adjustments, I've heard that Boateng's transition to college life hasn't been a problem because he already went through a version of it when he went away for high school. Fast and athletic, with good feet and the size needed to compete immediately, Boateng's could be a name you hear sooner rather than later.
3. Junior DE Kapil Fletcher — A lot was made in the offseason about the pass rushers KU brought into the mix in its latest recruiting class. But with Anthony Olobia injured for who knows how long and Damani Mosby being a late arrival, the opportunity for one of those new guys to make an impact seems to be Fletcher's all to himself. Big enough to bang inside but quick enough to use his hands and play on the edge, Fletcher's blend of skills makes him an intriguing prospect. He may not be needed right away. But if Andrew Bolton, Michael Reynolds, Victor Simmons and the rest of the KU D-Line struggle to get pressure on the quarterback, Fletcher could be a guy they turn to.
4. Junior QB Michael Cummings — We haven't seen an updated version yet, but it seems like a safe bet that Cummings will open the season No. 2 on the depth chart at quarterback. Don't be surprised if he plays. There are a number of things that could get Cummings onto the field and not all of them are bad. Sure, he'll be first in line if Cozart gets knocked around, but is it possible that there's something built into John Reagan's offense specifically for Cummings? Maybe that's a Wildcat package. Maybe he's a red zone guy. Maybe he and Cozart are on the field together. Maybe not. But by all accounts Cummings had a fantastic preseason camp and, while quarterback after quarterback has been brought in and placed ahead of him on the depth chart, all he has done is work harder and get better. Props to him for that whether he plays a down this season or not.
5. Sophomore LB Courtney Arnick — It's easy to forget about guys who play early in their careers and that might be the case with Arnick, who red-shirted as a true freshman and a played in all 12 games — with six starts — last year as a red-shirt freshman. When Arnick came to the program from Dallas' Carter High (same school as freshman RB Corey Avery), he brought with him a dose of speed that the Jayhawks didn't really have. They do now, but that doesn't mean Arnick can't still contribute. He's added muscle to his frame without putting on weight and looks like the kind of linebacker KU's looking for to play in space and run down ball carriers in the Big 12. Arnick opens the year with the second unit behind Jake Love at Will linebacker but with his experience as a nickelback and KU's limited depth at linebacker, I'm guessing he'll be used somewhat regularly.
6. Freshman WR Derrick Neal — Neal was one of the guys who really impressed me during that open practice we saw a couple of weeks ago. He functions like a jitterbug out there and it seems like he'd be hard to keep tabs on. Blessed with speed, quickness, good hands and, most importantly, confidence, Neal seems to me to be one of those guys who has special circumstances guy written all over him. He may not be in the regular rotation at wide receiver, which suddenly has a ton of depth, but I'm guessing John Reagan and Eric Kiesau will find ways to get this guy the ball this season.
7. Senior DT Tedarian Johnson — At 6-foot-2, 290 pounds, Johnnson is one of the team's bigger defensive linemen who not only brings size but also valuable experience. Johnson was very good at times during his first season in Lawrence, but consistency issues kept him from standing out. The Jayhawks have moved to a lighter, quicker look in the defensive trenches this season, so it's hard to know what's going to happen to Johnson's opportunities. He opened camp second string behind senior workhorse Keon Stowers, but if the Jayhawks ever feel the need to go big up front, I could see Johnson and Stowers playing side-by-side.