If you just watched the first quarter of KU's season-opening football victory over Southeast Missouri State, you probably came away pretty impressed.
And with good reason. That quarter, in which KU built a 24-0 lead by scoring on four straight possessions and not giving up a single first down, was without question one of the best quarters we've seen from a Kansas team in the past five years.
After that, however, things weren't as pretty and, if you're judging this team by how it finished the game instead of how it started, you probably came away a little worried. That, too, is understandable.
Regardless of which camp you're in, both sides have solid points and, after a game like that, in which the home team wins by six and is outscored 28-10 after such a blazing start, any and all questions are valid.
However you look at it, KU, which mixed a lot of young guys and newcomers in with a healthy dose of veterans, held on for the victory, improved to 1-0 and has another week of work and preparation in front of it before having to prove what it learned from the opener.
Put another way: Now's when the fun starts.
It wasn't all pretty, but a win's a win and that's the approach the Kansas University football team is taking into next week as it begins preparations for a huge game at Duke. Sophomore QB Montell Cozart turned in a solid debut as the team's starter. The wide receivers he threw to were equally as impressive. And newcomers De'Andre Mann and Corey Avery showed the running game is still in good hands. Surprisingly — especially after a stellar start — it was the KU pass defense that left me scratching my head. No way did I expect to emerge from the opener with a bunch of answers on offense and questions on defense, especially not from the secondary, which turned in a better-than-solid season in 2013 and returned all four starters. It wasn't the ideal opener the way it looked like it might be after the first quarter. Far from it, in fact. But now the Jayhawks know where the issues are and now the rest of us get to see how they go about addressing them.
1 – The Jayhawks are 1-0. As KU coach Charlie Weis said in his postgame comments, it's not like KU's had a hundred victories in the past few years. It's OK to enjoy them when they come. And that goes for the fans too. You can't get to 2-0 without being 1-0 first and that's where this team stands. Perhaps the best part about that is the reminder it provides that they are still just one week into the season. Plenty of time for improvement, plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles. A bunch of coaches believe teams make their biggest jump from Week 1 to Week 2. If that's the case with this team, that bodes well for KU's chances at Duke next weekend.
2 – Montell Cozart is a real, live college quarterback. KU coach Charlie Weis said it best after the game when he said that Montell bailed out the KU offense with his legs and ability to move out of the pocket and throw on the run. What's more, he looked good doing it. Cozart wasn't perfect, but it was a pretty solid start. He looked confident, spread the ball around well and made some really nice throws. Like everybody except maybe for Dexter McDonald and Trevor Pardula, he'll need to improve on that performance in the coming weeks if KU wants to be competitive with tougher opponents, but, all things considered, you have to feel pretty good about what Cozart showed in Week 1.
3 – These Jayhawks have legit wide receivers. Nick Harwell is as good as advertised. Tony Pierson still has it. And Nigel King and Justin McCay are a couple of big targets who bring a lot in the passing game and running game. It's been a while since KU has had such a good looking crop of receivers and it was wildly entertaining to watch them deliver in the opener. If Cozart and company can tighten things up by an inch or two on those deep balls, this passing attack stands to be pretty explosive all season.
1 – What happened in the second half? Things looked so positive in the first quarter. The offense scored on all four possessions. The defense gave up just 42 yards and no first downs. And Kansas led 24-0. For a while, both at the game and on the Internet, the KU fan base actually was impressed by the product on the field. But then KU hit the brakes and managed just 10 points the rest of the way while somehow giving up 28. The crowd thinned out as it always does and several players said that disappointed them. It should. But they should also realize that the only guaranteed way they're going to bring the energy they need to compete is to find it within themselves and then make that the norm regardless if they're under the lights in front of 50,000 or in a driving rain on a dark day in front of 500. There were elements of the late stumble that could be chalked up to Week 1 rust. But there were others that qualify as major concerns if they don't take care of them quickly.
2 – Why does KU let QBs like Snyder get, look and feel comfortable? I've seen it the past couple of seasons and I've never understood it. I realize that these other teams have good athletes, tough kids and competitors, but there's no way that an opposing quarterback at an FCS school should ever get to the point where he's comfortable and controlling the game. SEMO's Kyle Snyder had that look in the fourth quarter and it wasn't good for Kansas. Snyder threw for 269 yards and 3 TDs and was sacked just once. Bottom line: KU has to find a way to get more pressure on these guys so the DBs don't have to cover for as long. Weis said SEMO's unbalanced sets made it tough to bring pressure. And I'm sure that's true. But at some point, pressure can still come from a guy in blue deciding he's going to beat the man standing in front of him on his way to making a play. There were a few of those moments. But not nearly enough.
3 – After going 3-of-4 on third down in the first quarter, KU picked up first downs in just two more such situations in 11 tries. Cozart and the offense looked much improved. But there were still too many times when the offense stalled and forced the defense to go back onto the field. Time of possession was about dead even (29:59-29:58 in favor of KU) but, in a game like this against an opponent like that, KU should have won the TOP battle by a much larger margin and, if they had, SEMO would never have come close to scoring 28 points.
KU's six-point survival against SEMO on Saturday:
• improved the program to 577-589-58 all-time.
• bumped KU's record to 71-47-7 in season openers.
• was the Jayhawks' fourth-straight season-opening win, giving head coach Charlie Weis a 3-0 record in the first week of a season while at Kansas.
• made KU 9-1 in its last 10 home openers.
• gave Kansas win No. 27 in 30 tries against non-conference foes at home dating back to the start of the 2003 season.
Kansas (1-0) will travel to Durham, North Carolina, to take on the Duke Blue Devils (2-0), in the return game of a home-and-home series that started with KU knocking off Duke 44-16 in September of 2009. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m., Central time.
I like this Kansas football team. And I'm not afraid to say it.
I like that it's made up of tough, talented, hungry football players who have a good blend of experience and disappointment driving them, and that, after two seasons of disappointment and misery, it's a team that truly believes the 2014 season will be different than anything we've seen in the past five seasons.
I happen to agree. And throughout the next few scrolls through cyberspace I'll explain why.
Despite its upgrades at several key positions and all that fire to find a way to win, KU is facing another ultra-tough schedule. That makes it hard to see hope on the horizon, but also lends itself to an automatic dose of confidence should things go well early for the Jayhawks.
That's what I'm banking on, and that's why I'm picking the Jayhawks to become bowl eligible and finish the regular season with a 6-6 record.
I could have said four wins to avoid embarrassment. Or I could have gone with the, well-they've-been-so-bad-these-past-few-years approach and picked two or three victories. But doing so would have caused me to go against what I think and I'm not in the habit of doing that. For better or worse, I always jump on here and try to tell you what I think. Sometimes it's flat wrong and my take or optimism is misguided. Other times, it's right and, instead of celebrating that, I simply look at it as a job well done.
In the end, though, it doesn't really matter whether I'm wrong or right. All that matters is that I stay on top of the beat and bring you guys the best information I can about the teams you pull for. The prediction stuff — both yours and mine — is just for fun.
All summer, I was asked, almost daily, how many games KU would win. All summer, I said they'd be better. Any time I did, the automatic question that followed was this: Where are the wins going to come from? Well, here's one scenario and I'm fully aware that it could be woefully wrong. Again, I'm OK with that.
But, crazy or not, I think if you squint hard enough you can see how six wins could be possible.
Here's a look:
• Sept. 6 vs. Southeast Missouri State — Win — I think KU rolls in its opener and sets the stage for a season of good things to come. Montell Cozart gets the offense going and they continue to take steps forward both in terms of confidence and production each week. Be sure to check out our Pick-6 blog for my exact score as well as the predictions of the rest of our staff. (1-0)
• Sept. 13 at Duke — Win — Duke's a good team that had a great season a year ago and offers a stiff challenge for the Jayhawks or any team it faces this year. But this is not 2013 and the Blue Devils will not sneak up on anybody this time around, least of all Kansas. This, to me, is the make-or-break game of the schedule for KU. If they can go win this one — and I can't see any reason why they can't; not won't but can't — then confidence soars and they return home with a chance to improve to 3-0 and really get some momentum going. (2-0)
• Sept. 20 vs. Central Michigan — Win — This is another quality team and the Jayhawks will have to do much more than just show up. But buoyed by the sudden-and-surprising support of the home crowd and their 2-0 start, I've got KU handling CMU to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2009 and just the sixth time since 1993. (3-0)
• Sept. 27 vs. Texas — Win — It might sound crazy, but if you remember the last time the Jayhawks got the Longhorns at home, they took them down to the wire and should have won. This KU team is better than that version and I'm not sure any of us knows what Texas is yet. The time to play UT is early, while first-year coach Charlie Strong is still settling in. KU gets Strong at home for his first ever Big 12 game and, if the Jayhawks really are 3-0 at that point, this town will be buzzing and I think the Jayhawks will make the Big 12 debut miserable for someone else for a change. (4-0)
• Oct. 4 at West Virginia — Loss — The Mountaineers sure held their own against Alabama during the opening week of the college football season and they certainly won't be surprised by Kansas or Cozart this year. In fact, it's a safe bet that WVU will be gunning for payback for last year's 31-19 loss to the Jayhawks in Lawrence. With the game in Morgantown this year, I think they'll get it. (4-1)
• Oct. 11 vs. Oklahoma State — Loss — Oklahoma State is young and there's not a lot of known commodities on the roster as things stand today. That could change in time and, with quarterback J.W. Walsh running the show, I think the Cowboys will rise up around him and be a tough out for anybody this season. It certainly looked that way in their opener as they hung right there with Florida State and nearly knocked off the nation's No. 1 team. (4-2)
• Oct. 18 at Texas Tech — Loss — After a 4-0 start, you have to figure that KU will come back down to Earth and things will start to even out a little bit. That's what this game is and I give the nod to the Red Raiders simply because they'll be playing at home. If you don't like the UT pick earlier, this could be a decent game to sub in as a victory because I can't see the Jayhawks being intimidated to go play in Lubbock. (4-3)
• Oct. 25 — BYE —
• Nov. 1 at Baylor — Loss — The week off helps but not enough, as the Jayhawks go down to Baylor's new home stadium and experience first-hand why BU coach Art Briles thinks it's as good an environment as any in the nation. The Bears are crazy talented, still, and they'll be in the Big 12 race to the end. KU never has fared that well in Waco and it doesn't look like this is the year that's going to change (4-4)
• Nov. 8 vs. Iowa State — Win — Every year, people say the Jayhawks could or even should beat the Cyclones yet every season for the past four years, the Cyclones have walked away from this match-up with a victory. That streak ends at four, as the Jayhawks and all of those seniors who are still eyeing their first bowl berth, find a way to put a complete game together against ISU and ride their defense to victory. (5-4)
• Nov. 15 vs. TCU — Win — With three cracks at becoming bowl eligible remaining, the Jayhawks don't leave anything to chance or drama and pick up win No. 6 at home on senior day in convincing fashion. Worse KU teams have been right there with TCU since the Horned Frogs joined the Big 12 and this is the season they finally kick the door in and come away with the sweetest football victory Lawrence has seen since the 2008 Orange Bowl. (6-4)
• Nov. 22 at Oklahoma — Loss — The Sooners are damn good and they're even tougher at home. If KU does in fact go into Norman on the heels of gaining a sixth win and bowl eligibility, expect a letdown against a team that outmans Kansas and is still right there in the thick of the national title hunt. (6-5)
• Nov. 29 at Kansas State — Loss — The talent gap has started to close and the rivalry has started to heat up oh so slightly, but the Wildcats still have Bill Snyder and Bill Snyder still refuses to lose to Kansas. I think this could be the best Sunflower Showdown game we've seen in a while, but K-State prevails in a wild one. (6-6).
So there it is. Call me crazy. I'm fine with that. But I also believe that this team and this season really can be different. It's also worth noting that I won't be shocked for a second if it's not.
I made these picks by counting on a few things happening for the Jayhawks this fall: I think quarterback Montell Cozart will be good; I think the players around him will be better than that; I think the defense again will be solid and, more importantly, on the field less; and I think first-year offensive coordinator John Reagan is both sharp enough to call games that put KU in position to succeed and skilled enough to run an offense that masks KU's biggest question mark and that's the offensive line.
If any one of those things breaks down, the Jayhawks and these picks are in trouble. But if all of those factors hold up and KU stays healthy, I don't think it's crazy to say that six wins is within reach.
After all, stranger things have happened.
“If you would have asked me before the 2007 season if I thought we were going to be 12-1 and going to the Orange Bowl, that would have been a tough prediction,” Reagan said earlier this week. “I do think this – I think the first time I talked to Coach Weis about the job and the first time I talked to (DC) Clint (Bowen) about it when the opportunity came up, I think the foundation was set and I think that is what is important. I think our players are willing to work hard and put in the time, they believe in the direction we are headed. When you have that you at least have what you need to get started and hopefully we are going to be a better football team because of that.”
Time will tell. I'm just glad it's here so we can find out.
Enjoy the season. Win, lose or draw, I do think this will be one of the more fun KU football seasons we've seen in a while.
Oh, and in case you haven't seen it yet, check out our debut episode of "KU Sports Extra," our new weekly video show with Tom Keegan and me talking all things KU with a few other wrinkles thrown in.
• KANSAS JAYHAWKS (0-0) vs. SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE REDHAWKS (1-0) •
— 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6, Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, KS —
Three and out, with SEMO...
Before moving on to the match-up with Kansas, let's look back at a couple of the more notable accomplishments from SEMO's 77-0 season-opening victory over Missouri Baptist last week.
• With 77 points, the Redhawks posted their highest total in franchise history since joining Division I in 1991.
• Southeast notched its first shutout over a non-conference opponent in the program’s Division I era. The last shutout overall was at Austin Peay on Nov. 1, 1997 and tonight’s effort marked the third shutout Southeast has registered since joining the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).
• The Redhawks racked up 516 yards of total offense, the most since totaling 537 yards at Murray State in 2012. Southeast rushed for 304 yards and posted eight rushing TDs. They averaged 7.6 yards per rush.
• Southeast set a team record by holding Missouri Baptist to 81 total yards of offense, shattering the previous low of 137 yards allowed vs. Sam Houston State (9/11/93).
The Jayhawks aren't the only ones interested in wild and new uniform combinations. First-year SEMO coach Tom Matukewicz, the former defensive coordinator at Toledo, recently unveiled a brand new helmet that it plans to wear for Saturday's game against the Jayhawks.
Off white with the heavy red outline of the school's mascot and red facemask, the helmet is basically the inverse of what the Redhawks wore in the season opener, black helmet with red and black Redhawk mascot.
There's no doubt that these things tend to fire up the players. That's certainly been the case at Kansas, dating all the way back to the red jerseys worn during the Orange Bowl seasons, the all-black look they wore against Iowa State a couple of years ago and the newly unveiled Crimson Chrome uniform that will be worn at some point this season.
Here's a look at SEMO's new helmet.
Southeast Missouri State is 1-18 all-time vs. FBS opponents, with the lone victory coming via a 24-14 triumph over Middle Tennessee in 2002. Of those 19 games, just one came against a Big 12 foe, with Missouri rocking the Redhawks, 52-3, in 2008. Other notable names on SEMO's FBS list include: Hawaii, Marshall, Ohio, Central Michigan, Arkansas, Cincinnati twice, Purdue and Ole Miss last season.
You can look at this two ways: 1. SEMO struggles with upper-level talent. 2. Because they've played FBS foes every year since 2000, they're used to it and won't be intimidated by this week's Big 12 opponent.
While SEMO quarterback Kyle Snyder returns to give the Redhawks a steady, veteran presence, it's the players around him that make the SEMO offense dangerous.
Surrounded by weapons, Snyder has plenty of options in the offense, many of whom can turn innocent plays into big gains in a hurry. Snyder in the opener, showed he could make some plays, as well, running for two touchdowns and throwing for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
• Running back DeMichael Jackson (No. 20) had a huge game last week, accounting for 148 total yards, including a 66-yard touchdown on a screen pass and a 25-yard TD run.
• Paul McRoberts and Spencer Davis are the two biggest weapons at wide receiver, with KU coach Charlie Weis calling the 5-foot-7, 182-pound Davis “their big play guy.” Davis ripped off a career-best 61-yard punt return early in the victory.
• The Redhawks have a two-headed monster at tight end, with Logan Larson being your more typical tight end and Ron Coleman being a wildcard. Coleman is a converted running back and he lines up all over the field, at fullback, tight end, H-Back and others.
Sunday was KU night at the K, where the Kansas City Royals hosted the Cleveland Indians as part of ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball national broadcast.
Before the Royals and Indians took the field, the Jayhawks held court at Kauffman Stadium, entertaining hundreds of KU fans with autographs, high fives and handshakes prior to game time.
However, the no-brainer highlight of KU's appearance at the K came during the ceremonial first pitch when senior linebacker Ben Heeney threw high and tight on Big Jay and beaned him in the head. KU receiver Nick Harwell was out there to be Heeney's catcher and was the intended target, but Heeney's fastball got away from him and Big Jay went down.
KU put together a nice video of the team's time at Kauffman. Included in the autograph line at the K were: Heeney, Harwell and fellow captain Cassius Sendish along with quarterback Montell Cozart, defensive lineman Keon Stowers and offensive lineman Pat Lewandowski as well as head coach Charlie Weis, defensive coordinator Clint Bowen and offensive coordinator John Reagan.
Here's a look at the video...
And here's a quick look at some of the reaction from the players following KU night at the K...
Felt good to see all the KU fans at the game today! A lot of people excited for #kufball I love it— Keon Stowers (@KeonStowers98) September 1, 2014
Kansas University's run of having undrafted players land on 53-man NFL rosters continued rolling along last weekend, as four former Jayhawks who were passed up during their respective NFL Drafts survived their teams' final cuts and enter the season ready for work in the NFL.
Not a bad first day at a new job.
Two of the four were pretty much no surprise. Denver cornerback Chris Harris has become one of the top and most respected defensive backs in the league and Broncos' linebacker Steven Johnson, though still in that position of not being able to let up for a second, also has made himself a valuable piece of what the Broncos hope will be another Super Bowl bound puzzle.
Both guys were never in jeopardy of getting cut and both guys continue to improve and impress the powers that be in Denver.
While those two sticking was hardly a surprise, the other two fell-good moments for KU football might qualify as just that.
After a fantastic preseason, cornerback Tyler Patmon made the final roster with the Dallas Cowboys and safety Bradley McDougald made good on his shot with his second team by being one of the final 53 kept by the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Patmon's story is a little more remarkable than McDougald's because there were plenty of people, both at the NFL and college level, who always believed McDougald would get plenty of chances to stick. That he's done it so quickly and with such certainty is a credit to him, both mentally and physically, and the work he has put in to make his dream a reality.
McDougald was one of just four safeties and 10 defensive backs kept by Tampa Bay.
Patmon's success story was born from opportunity. After leaving KU following his forgettable junior season, Patmon landed at Oklahoma State and became a key part of the OSU secondary that helped lead Cowboys to a Cotton Bowl berth last season.
Patmon looked like a different player during his final season in college, like a guy who needed a change and who was energized by the fresh start and new surroundings.
His strong senior season — not to mention OSU's team success — earned him an opportunity to prove his worth with the Cowboys this season; not bad for a Texas kid. Although he needed a tryout just to be included in the crop of 90 NFL hopefuls who opened Cowboys' training camp, Patmon survived cut after cut and made play after play. No moment was bigger than his two-interception preseason game in which he looked more like a seasoned NFL veteran than a desperate rookie just trying to survive.
“He just kind of has that way about him,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett told the team's official web site. “Some guys do. If you watch his Pop Warner tape, he was probably making those kinds of plays. That’s just a part of him being able to play, and that’s a good thing.”
Added Cowboys' cornerback Morris Claiborne: “As soon as he came in, he’s one of those guys that’s got that type of mentality, swagger about himself where when he walks in, he kind of (commands) that attention. He goes out and he plays lights out. It goes from the practice field, from seeing him work and taking it on to practice and from practice to the games, it’s amazing.”
So is the fact that Patmon is starting his pro career on an active NFL roster, but like Harris and Johnson before him, his story is proof that hard work and being ready to take advantage of the limited opportunities that come your way at this level of football can pay off big time.
There's no hiding the fact that Patmon benefited from a couple of injuries to key guys ahead of him on the Dallas depth chart. But the guys who get these chances tend to be the guys who stay ready and don't worry about the overwhelming odds stacked against them.
Harris, Johnson, McDougald and Patmon all stared up at that mountain at one point in their post-college lives. And today all four are sitting on top of it with a Jayhawk flag planted at the peak and a huge smile on their faces.
In other former KU NFL news from last weekend:
• Former KU running back/defensive lineman Toben Opurum made it to the final cut of the Houston Texans but was not a part of the team's final 53-man roster when it was announced. The Texans, however, quickly signed Opurum to their practice squad and I think it's a safe bet that you'll see him active at some point — perhaps multiple points — this season.
• Former KU wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe was cut by the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he landed temporarily after being released by the Washington Redskins, his fourth team in a slow-starting five-year NFL career.
• Former Jayhawks who were drafted into the league such as Aqib Talib (Denver), Anthony Collins (Tampa Bay), Darrell Stuckey (San Diego) and Tanner Hawkinson (Cincinnati) easily made their teams' final 53, as expected.
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.
Friday was the final day of our access to KU's preseason camp, and rather than talking to players or position coaches, we were given the chance to speak with some of the support staff, people who help make KU football go.
It offered a rare opportunity to get to some of the guys who do the work behind the scenes that doesn't always get noticed and it produced some fun stories and soundbites.
Some of the names you'll know. Some of them you'll have heard but forgotten. But all of them play a key role in what KU does on a day-to-day basis. Here's a quick look at some of the most notable interviews I conducted Friday.
Weis Jr. expands work to NFL
Kansas University football student manager Charlie Weis Jr., son of KU head coach Charlie Weis, attended a family reunion this summer, but none of the people there were his relatives.
Instead, Weis Jr., returned to Massachusetts and spent some time this summer working an internship with the New England Patriots, where Weis won three Super Bowls and spent five years as an offensive coordinator.
“A lot of them knew me from when I was there before,” Weis Jr., said with a big smile. “But they were all good to me and I didn't have to deal with any (hazing or harassment). It was awesome.” Most awesome, as you might guess, was the reconnection with New England quarterback Tom Brady.
“When I was a kid, I looked up to those guys,” Weis Jr., said. “They were idols to me. And to go from wearing a Tom Brady jersey to being able to kind of work with him a little bit was really cool.”
Weis Jr., who is used to being around more than 100 football players at any given KU practice, said he marveled at the behind-the-scenes work that went into cutting the Patriots' final roster to the 53-man limit.
“When my dad was there I was obviously pretty young so this was my first time working in the NFL style,” he said. “It was a really good experience and it kind of got me some exposure.”
Willis thrilled to be coaching at alma mater
Less than a year after running onto the field with a KU helmet, jersey with his name on the back and full set of pads, Darius Willis finds himself preparing to run onto the same field in a very different manner.
Willis, who graduated from KU last May, is in his first year with the KU coaching staff, serving as one of four graduate assistants on the staff. Despite the quick change from player to professor, Willis said he's enjoyed every second.
“I don't feel weird,” the former linebacker and defensive lineman said. “It's just something that comes naturally to me. I've always said in the back of my head that I wanted to be a coach when I was done playing and this is a great opportunity.”
Willis got the opportunity at the last minute when another former Jayhawk, Max Onyegbule, left the program for a job elsewhere. Willis got the call and jumped at the chance to stick around Lawrence.
“I'm just taking it one day at a time and trying to keep motivate myself and make the dudes around me better,” Willis said. “You always want to see where you played succeed. Being here and actually being a part of it is great.”
Another Mitchell on board
After playing for his father for one season at Illinois and working under him last season at Kansas, graduate assistant Kaeman Mitchell, son of KU running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, is finally feeling comfortable.
“This year, I know what to expect more,” Mitchell said. “And I'm doing a better job of staying ahead instead of catching up.”
Mitchell, who played defensive back and special teams at Illinois from 2009-12, spent one spring working with the Illini staff before coming to Kansas.
His role at KU focuses on the Jayhawks' special teams and he wouldn't have it any other way.
“I love special teams,” he said. “But if I was gonna coach on offense it would be running backs because I've been sitting in their meetings (with my dad) for 18 years.”
Parmalee duo having fun
The 2014 season will mark the first season together for former NFL coach and player Bernie Parmalee and his son Tre' Parmalee, a junior wide receiver with the Jayhawks.
As close as any father-and-son duo, the older Parmalee said he has not seen either party act any differently than they would otherwise.
“It's been fun,” Bernie said. “It's really been fun. With playing in the NFL and coaching in the NFL and coaching in college, that's a lot of time away. So to be in the same building with him and a part of the same team, that doesn't happen very often.”
As for what kind of role he's played specifically with his son, Bernie he treats Tre' just like any other Jayhawk.
“As a dad, you ask yourself the question, can I work with a team where I have to work with my son,'” he said. “Since he was young, I've been on him, I've pushed him, hard love, tough love. But at the same time, I embrace it, he embraces it and, when we look back years from now, this time is gonna bring big smiles.”
My heart breaks for Brandon Bourbon.
There's no other way to put it. Few players on this Kansas University football team have been through as much adversity during their KU careers, fought through it all with determination and a smile, and still found tough break after tough break at seemingly every turn.
The most recent of those surfaced Tuesday, when it was learned that Bourbon would miss the entire 2014 season after suffering a knee injury in Sunday's team scrimmage at Memorial Stadium.
News of a season-ending injury for fellow-senior running back Taylor Cox also emerged Tuesday. Cox tore his Achilles' tendon during Monday's practice. It's not that I don't feel bad for Cox. I do. He's a great guy and an incredible teammate. It's just this deal with Bourbon is a little different because he's been with the program for so much longer.
It wasn't supposed to go this way. This was supposed to be Bourbon's year. Finally.
He fought through injuries for four seasons, kept a fantastic attitude through it all and was rewarded by spending the spring and the summer atop the team's depth chart at tailback. That's how it was supposed to go. And it was supposed to be followed by his best season as a Jayhawk and a strong finish to a tough career.
Sunday's injury had no place in the script. But it came anyway. And now Bourbon must not only rehab himself back to health again, but he also must decide if pursuing a sixth year of eligibility via a medical hardship is worth it.
I can't blame him, whatever he decides. It sounds like he's planning to persevere one more time and come back for another year if the NCAA will allow it. Let's hope they get that one right. Either way, I wish him a ton of luck with his rehab and future. He's a great dude and deserves for things to start falling his way sooner rather than later.
This is not the time to spend your days feeling sorry for the Jayhawks. Injuries are a big part of the game and a possibility for every player who steps out there. Because of that, coaches do their best to build depth and stack talent at every position. Running back is the best example of this at KU and has been for the past several seasons.
That makes the loss of Bourbon and Cox a little easier for the Jayhawks to take from a purely football perspective. All of a sudden, though, that depth that once looked excessive has been reduced to three promising newcomers (two of them freshmen) and a running-back-turned-receiver who might still be able to tote the rock a few times a game if needed.
Isn't it strange how a couple of players who, on signing day last February, looked like little more than luxuries now might be counted on big-time right away.
Juco transfer De'Andre Mann was called crazy for coming to KU with its already loaded backfield. Now he almost certainly will receive a significant workload.
Dallas freshman Corey Avery was one of the last in the Class of 2014 to pick Kansas and, when he did, Kansas looked to be so loaded at the position that many wondered if Avery would spend some time as a slot receiver. That wasn't the plan anyway, but it definitely won't be now.
The KU press release said that freshman Joe Dineen would move to running back to add depth to the position and Dineen certainly has the skills to play there. Like Avery and Mann, though, he just has no experience at this level.
For better or worse, though, those three are your KU running backs for 2014, with senior wide receiver Tony Pierson sprinkled in there if need be and, forgotten senior Ed Fink all of a sudden potentially staring at a possible goal line/short yardage role, as well. Other role players or situational-type backs also could emerge.
Those mentioned above are more than capable. And any one or two of them could be in for big seasons. But with Bourbon and Cox out now, their ability to deliver just became even more critical.
Hard to believe that KU now has lost more running backs (Bourbon, Cox, Darrian Miller and Traevohn Wrench) than it has.
Here's a quick glance at what happened to all that depth:
OFF THE DEEP END
A look at KU’s projected running back depth entering the summer and what happened to each back
Sr. Brandon Bourbon — Torn ACL, out for season
Sr. Taylor Cox — Torn Achilles’ tendon, out for season
Jr. De’Andre Mann — Competing for No. 1 spot on depth chart
Jr. Darrian Miller — Left team for personal reasons, later transferred to Northern Iowa
Fr. Corey Avery — Competing for No. 1 spot on depth chart
Fr. Traevohn Wrench — Failed to qualify academically, enrolled at Butler Community College
Couple of quick notes now before jumping back in to an expanded version a little later from Monday's KU football practice.
Check back in a while for more, but here are a couple that needed to get up quickly.
First, KU coach Charlie Weis called the team together during the stretching and warm-up portion of today's practice and called them out for not having any juice. It makes sense. It's hard to go through camp with great energy every day and probably even harder after a big Sunday scrimmage.
That said, Weis wasn't having it. In an attempt to inject some life into practice, he called a few more members of his staff over to the practice field so they could take their turn at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Included in this group were assistant AD for sports medicine Murphy Grant, equipment manager Jeff Himes, media relations guru Katy Lonergan and assistant strength coach Justin Springer.
A handful of players were chosen to stand behind each person and dump the bucket of ice on their heads. It was hot out there on the turf, though, and I didn't hear any complaining.
Quickly, one newsy note from practice: Tight end Jordan Shelley-Smith, a red-shirt freshman from Waco, Texas, has moved to offensive line. He spent most of the drill I saw working at right tackle, which makes sense given the fact that, as a tight end, he's pretty athletic, moves well and may be a prime candidate to follow in Tanner Hawkinson's foot steps.
Shelley-Smith was listed at 245 pounds in the media guide. I've been told he's up to 260 now and there's no doubt that, with his frame, he could get up to the 290 range without much issue.
I thought he looked pretty strong in the drills and, from what little I do know of him, I think he may have the demeanor to play O-Line. We'll see.
More to come. Gotta take care of a couple things real quick. Quick tease: I spent a good chunk of my time today really looking at KU's three-man competition at Center between Keyon Haughton, Joe Gibson and Jacob Bragg.
Got back to this a little later than I had hoped so I'll save the center update for Tuesday.
Here were a few more quick things that caught my on Monday, though, since I promised you something.
• Still no Josh Ehambe or Damani Mosby out there, the only two players from the latest recruiting class who have yet to make it to campus. Mosby's closing in on an arrival (still just waiting for the paperwork to be graded) and Ehambe, who is still waiting for word from the NCAA on the eligibility of all Prime Prep Academy athletes Tweeted something about it being time to pack, which sent KU fans on Twitter into a frenzy about him getting good news but we've heard nothing official. Coach Weis is scheduled for a brief press conference Wednesday before introducing this year's captains so maybe we'll learn more then.
• I noticed that both the DBs and the linebackers were working a lot on the strip fumble drill during the early portion of today's practice. Nothing new there and certainly nothing they don't work on regularly anyway, but I thought it was interesting that both were doing it. Maybe the offense got the better of the defense in the Sunday scrimmage and the drill was put in to provide extra emphasis on takeaways. Purely speculation there, though. Haven't heard too much about how the scrimmage went yet.
• Weis said last week that he was hoping to be done shuffling the O-Line around after Saturday. It was just the first drill of a Monday practice but it's worth noting that the first group up in the drill for the O-Line looked like this: RT - Damon Martin, RG - Mike Smithburg, C - Keyon Haughton, LG - Ngalu Fusimalohi, LT - Pat Lewandowski.
• Finally, got a quick glance at one of those "It's Time" T-Shirts that the Jayhawks made to remind themselves that this year is supposed to be different. Nothing incredible, but they look pretty sharp.
Check Tuesday for more on the O-Line, particularly the center position.
Saturday's Fan Appreciation Day and open practice gave us our first extended look at the 2014 Kansas University football team.
And there was plenty to watch.
It's always nice to get at least one practice where we get more than the 20 minutes at the beginning. Not because we learn a ton of information that we might not otherwise see (Coach Weis is smart enough not to show too much when the eyes of the media and fans are on the field), but because it gives us a chance to look a little more closely at players and positions.
That's what I focused most of my time on during the more than 2 hours inside the gates on Saturday and several things stood out.
Here's a quick look at most of them:
• The running back position is loaded. It's not just talk. All four of the guys competing there could start, could handle the load and/or could lead this team in rushing. That's a good thing because of the pounding backs usually take. It's an even better thing because it'll keep the Jayhawks from being too one dimensional as each guy gives a little something different. One thing I noticed Saturday that impressed me was that all four guys — Brandon Bourbon, Taylor Cox, De'Andre Mann and Corey Avery — can both run inside and catch the ball out of the backfield. Nice luxury to have.
• Sticking with the offense, I thought QB Montell Cozart looked fine on Saturday. He was mostly accurate, moved around well in the pocket and also turned it up field when he had to and, perhaps most impressively, fit the ball into some tight spots. Michael Cummings also looked really good and I've heard he's had a terrific camp. Makes sense because this style of offense fits the type of player he is, which is probably why he appears to be leading in the race to become Cozart's back-up. That said, T.J. Millweard threw some nice balls and had particularly good touch on his deep ball. He just doesn't look quite as natural and comfortable as the other two. That's probably mostly experience and confidence.
• At wideout, the Jayhawks really appear to have some players. Rodriguez Coleman had a nice day and looked really athletic and Tony Pierson had a fantastic day. As the coaching staff has mentioned, Pierson is really starting to look like a wide receiver. He was locked up with Kevin Short in several one-on-one situations during Saturday's practice and he got the better of Short more times than not. That was probably my favorite part of the day on Saturday. Not only watching Pierson and Short go toe-to-toe, but watching all of the WRs battle with the DBs in one-on-one situations. For the most part, the receivers won the battle this time.
• Speaking of wideouts, those four freshmen might be special. Tyler Patrick, Darious Crawley, Derrick Neal and Bobby Hartzog all have a real natural feel for the game and they're fiery. They all know that the deck is stacked in front of them, but you wouldn't know it by watching them compete. They're out there to push their teammates on offense and defense every single rep. That can only help a team. Of the four, my guess is that Derrick Neal might be the farthest along. He just looks to have the best feel for the offense and, although he's tiny, he really uses that to his advantage. I could even see him fitting into the passing game in some kind of specialist role. On one play, wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau turned his back to the play and told someone on the sideline what was going to happen behind him. Sure enough, Neal ran a crossing route after lining up on the far side and caught the ball in the exact spot Kiesau said he would for a gain of 20-30 yards. That's a good sign for Neal and also for Kiesau, who looks like he's been with the program for years.
• A couple of quick notes about kickoff and punt return. Isaiah Johnson, Tre' Parmalee, Kevin Short and Nick Harwell all handled punt returns on Saturday and here was how I saw it. Most sure-handed: Parmalee. Most dangerous weapon: Harwell: Biggest gambler: Short. As for kickoff return, JaCorey Shepherd, Harwell and Short all looked equally dangerous back there. Too bad they don't figure to get many chances. Not because Weis won't use them. He's said he has no problem using front-line guys on special teams. Instead because the kickoff return has been taken out of college football more and more in recent years with the rule changes.
• Speaking of Weis and special teams, his talk about giving a good chunk of his time to that unit is no joke. He's very involved with every aspect and very attentive while special teams drills are happening.
• In the kicking department, both Trevor Pardula and Eric Kahn looked good on punts and kickoffs. No surprise there, but it was nice to see Kahn has developed into a more than capable back-up. Pardula ripped off one of his signature 70-yard punts and, unlike last year, when that brought a scream of some kind from Weis, it went without much chatter this time. It's a great sign when that kind of thing is expected instead of celebrated.
• In the field goal department, freshman John Duvic hit six of the seven kicks he attempted, missing only from 42 yards. One was an extra point and the rest were slowly and steadily farther out starting at 25 yards and going to 47. He definitely outperformed returning starter Matthew Wyman, who missed four straight during the same drill. Too bad too. We talked to Wyman before the practice began and he said he's had a great camp and felt more confident and consistent than ever. Just goes to show how doing it in front of a live crowd can change the game.
• The misses might not have been all on the kickers. Long snapper John Wirtel had a rough day as he bounced several snaps back to holder T.J. Millweard and even fired a few over Millweard's head. Props to Millweard for doing a great job of getting most of them down so the kickers had a chance. Millweard looks really strong in that role. He's confident, has good hands and is constantly encouraging the KU kickers.
A few more quick notes...
• No surprise here, but I thought the DBs looked very physical. Both in the passing game and in the run game, these guys really believe in their abilities and aren't afraid to hit.
• Junior cornerback Kevin Short is a very instinctual football player. He just seems to be where he needs to be and do what he needs to do with minimal effort. He likes to talk, too.
• The area in which the wide receivers have upgraded the most is not hands, speed, routes or anything like that. It's confidence. Credit Nick Harwell for a lot of that and Kiesau for a big chunk, as well.
• At the end, when they were running sprints — O-Line vs. D-Line, LBs vs. TEs and QBs, DBs vs. WRs — every group started its sprint from the goal line to the 50-yard line with one word... “Win!”
• After the sprints, the Jayhawks lined up for another round of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Coach Weis took the challenge on Friday night and today it was the rest of his coaching staff. 19 buckets were lined up at midfield and select players got to drench the coaches and support staff at the same time. Probably felt great out there since it was pretty hot on the turf.
• All in all it was a pretty good day. Not a lot was learned, but again, we were able to see these guys do a little more and move closer to full speed, which helps in evaluating where they're at. Only about 500-700 fans showed up but they almost all stayed start to finish and many of them hit the field for autographs afterwards. I heard several Jayhawks say sincere words like, “Thanks for the support,” to the fans who came and stuck around for a chance to meet the Jayhawks.
Here's a nice video of some of the action from Benton Smith...
And a photo gallery from Nick Krug...