The new year is just a couple of days old, the beginning of football season is still eight months away and college basketball is dominating the thoughts of KU fans at the moment.
But that doesn't mean it's too early to look ahead to the coming year of Kansas football.
The 2014 season will be the third for head coach Charlie Weis at KU and there's no doubt that it's a big year for the program.
A defense that enjoyed drastic improvement during 2013 returns nearly everyone and also figures to get some help in the form of eligible red-shirts and reinforcements. Same goes for the offense, with senior wide receiver Nick Harwell and offensive coordinator John Reagan being the biggest additions.
While the Jayhawks will return several known commodities at key positions, uncertainty remains all over the field. Here's a quick look at the 14 most interesting questions facing KU football in 2014:
1 – Who will play quarterback? Jake Heaps is back for his senior season, Montell Cozart will be a sophomore and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard will be eligible. This has the makings of a heck of a battle, but I'd give Heaps the nod as the early favorite.
2 – What will the new offense look like? New offensive coordinator John Reagan will be bringing his offense to KU and it figures to look awfully familiar to KU fans who enjoyed the Todd Reesing era. How similar it is remains to be seen, but I think you can expect an up-tempo style that leans heavily on both the running and passing games. Also worth watching closely is how well Reagan works with the offensive line, a major area of concern for KU entering 2014.
3 – How good can Nick Harwell be? The all-time leading receiver in Miami (Ohio) University history has one year of college ball remaining before giving it a go in the NFL. Will his addition be the fix for a passing game that has struggled during the past two seasons? Everything I've heard tells me yes.
4 – Who replaces James Sims? For four seasons, Sims was a staple in the KU backfield and led the team in rushing. Now that he's gone, who will step up as the top back? There are plenty of options, old and new. From returners Brandon Bourbon, Taylor Cox and Darrian Miller to freshman Traevohn Wrench and Colin Spencer. And don't forget Tony Pierson could still take a handoff or two. Clearly, KU again is expected to enjoy great depth at an important position. I think Cox could be the most Sims-esque player in the bunch.
5 – What happens with the coaching staff? We already know that Tim Grunhard is out and Reagan is in. But will there be any other changes on Weis' staff? The smart money says yes.
6 – What can we expect from defensvie end Andrew Bolton? From the sound of it, quite a bit. Bolton red-shirted the 2013 season to get healthy and, in the process, got bigger and stronger. His presence as a pass-rushing threat would be huge for a KU defense that will not be short on confidence heading into the season.
7 – What can we expect from cornerback Kevin Short? I heard a couple of times last summer that Short was one of the two or three most talented players on KU's roster. NCAA shenanigans kept us from seeing that in 2013 but Short stuck it out, worked on his fundamentals and frame during practice and should be itching to go in 2014. Where he'll play remains to be seen, but expect him to be a fixture in the secondary and also make an impact in the return game.
8 – What can we expect from linebacker Marcus Jenkins-Moore? Jenkins-Moore's knee injury on the first day of summer workouts in 2013 was a big-time disappointment for both the player and the fan base. He's been out of action for a long time and I haven't heard much about his rehab so I think he's definitely a question mark heading into the 2014 season.
9 – What's this team's leadership look like? In a word, solid. Although Sims is gone, the three other captains from the 2013 campaign will be back. Assuming Ben Heeney, Keon Stowers and Jake Heaps keep their roles and the fourth captain spot goes to an offensive player, I'd look at senior tight end Jimmay Mundine as an early favorite to inherit a leadership role.
10 – Speaking of Mundine, will he be a big part of next season's offense? During the 2013 season, Rice's tight ends accounted for just 15 receptions and 165 yards. A year earlier, however, Vance McDonald, who became a second-round pick in the NFL Draft, caught 36 balls for 458 yards and two touchdowns. Mundine has talent and can become a productive weapon. Remember, even while struggling, he finished 2013 with 229 yards and five TDs on 20 receptions. He just has to catch the football.
11 – How does the 2014 schedule look? Tough as always is the easy answer, but I'll give you a little more than that. Non-conference home games against Southeast Missouri and Central Michigan should give KU a good shot at a nice start. But a road game at Duke, which finished the 2013 season at 10-4, seems much tougher today than it did when the game was scheduled. Duke brings back nearly everyone and proved that it could play with the big boys in 2013. After those three, it's Big 12 Conference time, opening with Texas at home and closing at Kansas State. Unlike last year, KU will have a bye week in the middle of conference play, between road games at Texas Tech and Baylor. Four of the first six games are at home, so playing tough in Memorial Stadium will be huge.
12 – Speaking of Memorial Stadium, will there be any signs of renovations to the old venue in 2014? If there are, it won't be until after the season and even that appears to be a reach right now. Conversations are ongoing and plans are being laid out but I can't see any major moves happening until the money is there. And, right now, it's not there yet.
13 – What streaks are still in tact? The biggest is the road losing streak, which sits at 27 games and dates back to the 2009 season. Thanks to KU's victory over West Virginia on Nov. 16, 2013, the Big 12 and overall losing streaks are both tiny two-gamers, so it's the road streak that will get all of the pub in 2014. KU will get six cracks to snap the skid in 2014 — at Duke, West Virginia, Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State. None will be easy, so ending the madness will be big news for the program. In addition to trying to get over the hump away from home, KU also will be looking to snap its streak of five consecutive sub-.500 seasons.
14 – Is there any hope for better days ahead? I said this throughout 2013 and I'll say it again today: If you're an optimist by nature, there are plenty of areas you can point to that make you smile and support the claim that Weis is taking Kansas football in the right direction. At the same time, if you're naturally pessimistic, there are still a few elements of the program that make you look awfully intelligent for doubting the Jayhawks. The way the 2014 season plays out will be huge for KU, both in terms of stability and upward movement. After generally showing patience and understanding during Weis' first two seasons in town, the majority of the fan base figures to be expecting more in 2014. And who can blame them?