Charlie Weis' decision to name sophomore Montell Cozart Kansas University's starting quarterback for the 2014 season has everything to do with Cozart, his ability, his development and his potential and nothing to do with anything else.
The move, which Weis announced Thursday morning in a press release, was not about guys not getting the job done. It was not about senior Jake Heaps not being good enough. It was not about UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard not being what the coaches thought he was, junior Michael Cummings not being the right option or red-shirt freshman Jordan Darling not being ready.
It was all about Montell Cozart and the idea that plugging him into the starting spot — provided things go well from here — brings KU closer to competing with the rest of the Big 12, which ultimately, will determine whether Kansas can get things turned around any time soon at Memorial Stadium.
And it's a fantastic decision.
Cozart not only gives the Jayhawks a dynamic weapon who could become a nightmare for opposing defenses to plan for and play against, but naming him now also gives the Jayhawks a chance to pick up some serious momentum this summer.
After last Saturday's spring game, of which Cozart was named the offensive MVP, both Weis and Cozart spoke about the Jayhawks' QB competition still being wide open. Cozart, showing his true character, said he thought all — yes ALL — of the QBs on KU's roster were about equal and Weis said the coaching staff was in no hurry to name a starter because of the advantage it might give them to have future opponents attempt to prepare for multiple guys.
That stance, at least from Weis, changed quickly. As he noted in the press release that named Cozart the starter, Weis and KU's offensive coaching staff went through extensive post-spring evaluations and individual player meetings before reaching this conclusion.
It's tough to ask a coach or a player to make a definitive call about such an important issue right after a game, especially after a game that many believe is little more than a glorified practice.
But it's a great sign for the future of KU football that Weis wasted no more time after evaluating the spring.
I'm a Heaps guy. He has talent, is a great teammate and an even better person. And I like all of the rest of the quarterbacks on KU's roster, as well. But after seeing Cozart's development with my own eyes last weekend, it was obvious to me — and probably to hundreds of the rest of you, too — that Cozart was the clear pick.
He's not the next Robert Griffin III (at least we don't think he is) but he's by far the closest thing the Jayhawks have had to that, maybe ever. There will be growing pains ahead and Cozart will have his ups and downs. But making this call today instead of three or four months from now gives the Jayhawks, the coaching staff and, most importantly, Cozart a chance to work out some of those kinks during the summer before we even get to the fall.
Cozart is now this team's unquestioned leader at the game's most important position. And judging by the Twitter response from a bunch of his teammates — on both offense and defense — the rest of the Jayhawks are just as ready for the Cozart era to begin as Cozart and the coaching staff.
Here we go.
Just like that, another session of spring practice is in the books and, despite what the weather looks like in Lawrence today, we're moving on to the offseason, the upcoming summer and the final stretch of preparation for fall camp.
As always, the spring ended with last Saturday's spring game, an interesting battle that featured the first-string blue squad rallying from a 7-0 halftime deficit to top the white team 20-10.
For the most part, the game lacked the kind of highlights and excitement that many fans were hoping to see but it still had a ton of substance. We got our first look several newcomers, got a taste of the new offense (even if it was the kind of taste you get when testing how hot a soup is) and were able to see some of that depth the KU players and coaches have talked about throughout the spring.
Based off of Twitter, message boards and several reader comments, it seems as if there's some disappointment out there about the way the spring game went down. That's understandable, given the fact that most hope and expect to see fireworks and offensive explosions during these types of games and we saw an entire half played with just seven points scored. But it's important to remember that, with this KU team, the defense is way ahead of the offense, which has been using its current playbook for just five weeks. Remember, to the coaches and players the spring game is just another practice. Yes, it comes with a little more pizazz but they really do treat it as another opportunity to evaluate, execute and get better. As with any practice, there were good moments and bad, so putting too much stock into this game — particularly its outcome — is missing the point. There's still a load of time remaining before this team really needs to be clicking. Having said that, I do think this team is in better shape at this point in the season than any of the KU teams we've seen around here during the past four years.
1 – Sophomore QB Montell Cozart showed how much he's grown. Forget the fact that Cozart was by far the best quarterback in the game and that his stats were among the best on the entire roster. Let's look quickly at his development. He looked calmer, more poised, more in control and really showed how much he has matured in a relatively short time. Instead of just running around and trying to make plays as an athlete, he's now looking to make plays as a quarterback – eyes up, vision downfield, ready to run when it's there. That's a great sign for both him and the Jayhawks and it was on full display in this one. Beyond that, he may not be the most rah-rah guy, but it's clear that he's respected as a leader, as well.
2 – The defense looked pretty solid overall. It would be easy to look at the 20-10 final score and say the offenses fell flat, but the KU defense — both the first teamers and the second-string guys — had a little something to do with that. The blue team, which was punked a little by the second-string offense in the first half, stepped up after halftime and really slammed the door the way they should have. The secondary played tough throughout the game and showed its ability to lock up in coverage with Dexter McDonald and Kevin Short leading the way. There were also plenty of moments where the DBs showed they're more than willing to step up and support the run. As for the white team, there were a bunch of guys who stood out there, too, which not only seems to suggest that some of that depth is legitimate but also that, with these guys pushing the first unit, that group will keep getting better, too.
3 – KU's running game looked good yet again (even without James Sims) but I thought senior Taylor Cox was as impressive as anybody. Running behind a second-string offensive line, Cox rumbled for 63 yards on 15 carries and made the most out of every carry. He reminded me a lot of Sims the year he had been suspended and played with the white team during the spring game. And he also reminded me to not count him out of this running race. Brandon Bourbon (96, 12) and Darrian Miller (50, 7) handled blue team carries and I'm pretty high on juco transfer De'Andre Mann, who will be on campus this summer. But Cox's style and demeanor have always impressed me and that certainly held true last Saturday, especially when you consider that the guy has been dealing with an injury for most of the spring.
1 – The optimists out there would point to the white team's domination of the first half and say that's a good sign about the team's overall depth. And even though that may be true, it's not what you want to see from the first unit. I'm willing to give the blue squad a pass for a couple of reasons — they rallied and played much better in the second half and, as we mentioned above, it was just a practice — but the better outcome for the program as a whole would have been for the blue squad to come out and roll. It didn't happen and now a bunch of those questions about this team that probably would have been there anyway will linger throughout the summer and into the 2014 season.
2 – Senior quarterback Jake Heaps (3-for-9 for 41 yards) looked pretty average throughout the game. I've heard that Heaps looked good this spring overall — especially at the beginning — but he didn't look much different on Saturday than the guy we saw play in 2013. He had trouble avoiding pressure, had to throw the ball away too often and looked a little stuck in the mud. He had a few good moments and did lead one touchdown drive, but he did not use his arm strength to stand out and that's his biggest advantage over fellow blue team QB Montell Cozart. There's still a long way to go before the Jayhawks name a starter and KU coach Charlie Weis said the coaching staff wouldn't make a decision based on one day. But it's hard to look at what went down on Saturday and not think that Heaps has fallen behind.
3 – It's just one miss and it probably will soon be forgotten, but it's the last thing the Jayhawks needed. When place kicker Matthew Wyman missed an extra point midway through the third quarter after a blue team touchdown by Montell Cozart, it sent thoughts of KU's recent struggling in the kicking soaring back into the minds of many KU fans. Wyman, one of the heroes of last year's Louisiana Tech victory, made the rest of his PATs and also hit a short field goal, but, at this point, place kicking still has to be considered a question mark, which could make the summer arrival of expected walk-on John Duvic a welcomed sight.
• Junior cornerback Kevin Short looks like a big-time player. He's big, athletic, can cover and has some serious swagger.
• Greg Allen looks like a completely different guy. The biggest reason the nickel back appears to be playing so well? Confidence.
• Several running backs and wide receivers made an impact in this one as blockers, most notably Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon, who both had key blocks to help spring Cozart for key runs.
• The wide receivers looked pretty good and like a much improved group. Senior Nick Harwell is a difference maker. He gets open and makes catching passes look ridiculously easy. Justin McCay and Andrew Turzilli were pleasant surprises and the passing game looked pretty decent without Tony Pierson or Rodriguez Coleman factoring in much at all.
• Center Joe Gibson was pretty impressive for the white squad. And even though the blue team's O-Line didn't stand out, that's not always bad news.
• I actually thought junior Michael Cummings looked pretty good at QB for the white squad. He still throws the ball way too hard at times but he was decisive on the move and attacked the first-string defense with confidence. He's not going to become the starter, but it's clear that this guy is still competing to be relevant out there.
• Senior tight end Jimmay Mundine did exactly what I think we'll see him do a lot this season. He sat down in open spots, made sure-handed grabs and got as much as he could after the catch.
• The defense as a whole — white and blue — really looked to be flying to the ball more. You didn't see many cases where just one guy made a tackle. It was often three or four guys right there to bring a ball carrier down.
• Ben Heeney's numbers were modest (4 tackles) but he had a couple of moments that made you think he's still the best player on this defense.
• I was impressed by the active nature of both Tyler Holmes and Colton Goeas. Heard their names called a lot. Both are athletic, big dudes who could be a key part of KU's depth.
KU's fall camp opens in roughly three and a half months and the 2014 season kicks off 146 days from today.
After going through much of the spring without getting a look at the 2014 version of the Kansas University football, we got a peek and then some on Saturday morning.
Not only as the media able to attend the annual Hannah & Friends football clinic where the Jayhawks and dozens of local people with different abilities ran through football drills and had a rocking good time, but we also were treated to more than an hour of an actual practice, complete with individual drills, one-on-one competitions and seven-on-seven scrimmage.
There was too much out there to waste any more time leading into what I saw, so let's just get right to it. Short and sweet, but it should give you answers to a bunch of questions about this team.
Make sure you scroll down to the bottom for my best guess at what the current spring depth chart looks like, based mostly off of what I saw today.
• It looks as if senior Jake Heaps and sophomore Montell Cozart have established themselves as the top two quarterbacks. Both took reps with the first team on Saturday and Heaps was the first to go out there. After that, Michael Cummings took the next most reps followed closely by UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard.
• Offensive line coach John Reagan looks like a difference maker. He coaches with a style that is 100 percent hands-on all the time and he really emphasizes little details and gives great one-on-one attention to every player in his group. Check next week for another blog entry about Reagan. I was so impressed by what he did and how he did it that I think it warrants its own blog.
• The new KU passing game, which was featured during seven-on-seven drills, includes a variety of short, intermediate and deep routes and uses the entire field, sideline to sideline. The tempo is good, the routes appear to be simple but effective and the quarterbacks (all of them) really seemed to have a good feel for how the offense is run and how the routes develop.
• The first-string defense that KU used on Saturday featured five defensive backs and included seven seniors and four juniors.
• It may just be spring practice, but it's obvious that these guys have been working hard. Many guys look bigger and leaner and almost the entire roster gave maximum effort on every drill.
• You might have read the coaches' comments about sophomore defensive back Greg Allen having a great spring. Now I see why they were so impressed. Allen is playing with a ton of confidence and even a little swagger right now. He's big, physical and appears to be playing on instinct rather than having to think.
• It's a minor detail, but I overheard defensive backs coach Dave Campo getting after newcomer Ronnie Davis a little bit during the seven-on-seven portion of practice. It wasn't Campo's ribbing that caught my ear, rather what he said. He pointed out that Davis' feet are too good to allow a receiver to beat him to the inside and such a comment along with when he took his turn during drills leads me to believe Davis already is a second-string cornerback in KU's secondary.
• Before seven-on-seven got under way, the wideouts and DBs did a few rounds of one-on-one battles. The best battles by far were: Tony Pierson vs. Dexter McDonald; Nick Harwell vs. JaCorey Shepherd; and Rodriguez Coleman vs. Kevin Short. Each guy won a battle or two during the time these guys locked up but it was the all-out competitiveness that existed between them that most impressed me.
• I already talked about Reagan and how he coaches the offensive line, but it's worth pointing out a couple of things about the players he coaches. Walk-on center Joe Gibson has good size and appears to be in an intense battle with juco transfer Keyon Haughton at center. Haughton appears to be a little more polished and comfortable at the moment, but this one could go on for a while. Pat Lewandowski worked with the first team at left tackle and he looks a little more cut than what he played at last season. Senior Zach Fondal seems to be right there with him, competing for the job, though, so that one is far from settled. Mike Smithburg and Ngalu Fusimalohi appear to be locked in at the guard spots (both have added five pounds) and Damon Martin looks very good at right tackle. If today is any indication of how the rest of the spring has gone, it's safe to say the offensive line is coming together much more quickly and much nicer than the group did last year.
• Another new coach who I got my first look at on Saturday was wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau and I was nearly just as impressed by him as I was Reagan. Kiesau is active during drills and he goes out there and physically demonstrates how he wants things to be done and what he wants his guys to do. It was just an hour of one practice, but the receiving corps looks a lot better already.
• Nothing major here either, but the guys who went back to field punts during the final session we saw were: Tre' Parmalee, Isaiah Johnson, Nick Harwell and Kevin Short. All except Parmalee are projected starters elsewhere on the field and all should be in the mix for the job come fall.
• Here's a quick look at some seven-on-seven stats (which might very well be meaningless but give you an idea of how the passing game looked): Passing — Jake Heaps 4-for-7; Montell Cozart 1-for-5; Michael Cummings 3-for-4; T.J. Millweard 3-for-4. Receiving — Rodriguez Coleman 4 receptions on 6 targets; Nick Harwell 2 receptions on 3 targets; Tre' Parmalee 2 receptions on 2 targets; Andrew Turzili 2 receptions on 2 targets; Justin McCay 1 reception on 1 target; Jordan Shelley-Smith 0 receptions on 1 target; Tony Pierson 0 receptions on 4 targets; Trent Smiley 0 receptions on 1 target. Defensive Pass Break-Ups — Dexter McDonald 3 (1 interception), Jake Love 1, Kevin Short 1.
All right, now onto my best guess at the current depth chart, which has probably changed a lot over the spring and, no doubt, will change some more when the rest of the 2014 recruiting class arrives this summer.
WR Nick Harwell 6-1, 193, Sr.
Tre' Parmalee 5-10, 175, Jr.
LT Pat Lewandowski 6-5, 290, Sr.
Zach Fondal 6-5, 295, Sr.
LG Ngalu Fusimalohi 6-2, 315, Sr.
Bryan Peters 6-3, 295, Jr.
C Keyon Haughton 6-2, 300, Jr.
Joe Gibson 6-3, 295, RS-Fr.
RG Mike Smithburg 6-3, 305, Sr.
Joey Bloomfield 6-6, 295, RS-Fr.
RT Damon Martin 6-3, 305, Jr.
Brian Beckmann 6-6, 300, Soph.
TE Jimmay Mundine 6-2, 240, Sr.
Ben Johnson 6-5, 235, RS-Fr.
RB Brandon Bourbon 6-1, 225, Sr.
Darrian Miller 5-10, 195, Jr.
QB Jake Heaps 6-1, 210, Sr.
Montell Cozart 6-2, 195, Soph.
WR Tony Pierson 5-10, 175, Sr.
Andrew Turzilli 6-3, 194, Sr.
WR Rodriguez Coleman 6-3, 190, Jr.
Justin McCay 6-2, 210, Sr.
LC Kevin Short 6-2, 190, Jr.
Ronnie Davis 6-0, 185, Jr.
NB JaCorey Shepherd 5-11, 190, Sr.
Greg Allen 5-11, 210, Soph.
LE/T Andrew Bolton 6-3, 285, Jr.
Tyler Holmes 6-3, 280, Soph.
N Keon Stowers 6-3, 297, Sr.
Tedarian Johnson 6-2, 290, Sr.
RE/T Ben Goodman 6-3, 250, Jr.
T.J. Semke 6-2, 265, Jr.
BUCK Michael Reynolds 6-1, 240, Sr.
Victor Simmons 6-1, 225, Sr.
RC Dexter McDonald 6-1, 205, Sr.
Brandon Hollomon 5-10, 175, Jr.
SS Isaiah Johnson 6-1, 210, Jr.
Tevin Shaw 5-11, 192, Soph.
MLB Ben Heeney 6-0, 230, Sr.
Colton Goeas 6-2, 245, RS-Fr.
WLB Jake Love 6-0, 220, Jr.
Schyler Miles 6-2, 235, Jr.
FS Cassius Sendish 6-0, 195, Sr.
Fish Smithson 5-11, 190, Soph.
By now, you've surely heard KU football coach Charlie Weis and offensive line coach John Reagan say — on separate occasions — that they have eight offensive linemen that they feel pretty good about at this point in the spring.
With five spots making up an O-line that means the Jayhawks are potentially set with a starter and a back-up at three spots and looking for help at two others.
One of the most important things to remember about KU's new-look offensive line under John Reagan is prototypes need not apply. Sure, Reagan would love to have a 6-foot-6, 340-pound left tackle who moves like a middle linebacker and wreaks havoc like the Incredible Hulk, but that guy is not on the roster. So there's no point in worrying about him.
Reagan's focus is on finding the five best linemen and then finding a way to make them work together up front to protect the quarterback and open holes for the guys in the backfield. If that means they're undersized at one spot or another, Reagan likely won't lose too much sleep over it because his goal is to put the best five guys out there and I can't see him letting anything change that.
With that in mind, let's dive into the math and use a little logic to predict what things might look like as the KU offensive line heads into the final third of spring practice.
Here's a quick guess, in alphabetical order, at the identity of the eight guys Weis and Reagan were talking about followed by how they might fit into the plans:
Brian Beckmann — 6-6, 300-pound Sophomore, Overland Park
Zach Fondal — 6-5, 295-pound Senior, Navarro College
Ngalu Fusimalohi — 6-2, 315-pound Senior, CCSF
Joe Gibson — 6-3, 295-pound RS-Freshman, Rockhurst
Keyon Haughton — 6-2, 300-pound Junior, Georgia Military College
Pat Lewandowski — 6-5, 290-pound Senior, Overland Park
Damon Martin — 6-3, 305-pound Junior, Arlington, Texas
Mike Smithburg — 6-3, 305-pound Senior, Iowa Western
This still seems to be a question mark (perhaps the biggest question mark on the team) but it's not necessarily because of a lack of bodies. Fondal and Lewandowski both spent time at left tackle in 2013, but that might not necessarily be a good thing given the struggles KU's O-Line endured last season. It makes sense to suggest and expect that both guys have improved a great deal in the offseason, both in terms of getting stronger and into better physical shape and in terms of their comfort and familiarity with the position. Both were going through things as front-line guys for the first time and although both have good size and athleticism, they definitely need to be more consistent to make a difference at one of the team's most important positions.
Weis said early this spring that Fusimalohi had emerged as a leader on the line, most likely as one of those lead-by-example-and-raw-energy kind of guys. So it's safe to assume he'll be pencilled into the same spot where he started 12 games a season ago. It seems they may still be searching for Fusimalohi's back-up, but junior Bryan Peters is a name to keep an eye on there. He doesn't have any game experience but he has been in the program for a few years and could be ready to play a role.
In addition to being one of the O-line's most important positions, center is also one of the most intriguing. With two guys with next to no experience battling for playing time, it could come down to whichever guy shows more consistency, even if one of them is a better physical or mental option. The candidates appear to be Gibson, the former walk-on whom former line coach Tim Grunhard and several teammates have talked up quite a bit during the past six months, and juco transfer Haughton, who arrived in January and so impressed Weis early on that the KU coach openly said the young man would play a lot and we'd be writing about him. There might not be two guys on this team who spring ball is more important to.
Smithburg, who started eight games at right guard in 2013, returns a year old, wiser and stronger and seems to be a likely choice to settle back into this spot for his senior season. Earlier this week I talked to Smithburg about this spring compared to last and although he said it was “just another spring,” he also said it felt weird being considered one of the leaders because of age alone. That's not to say he's not ready for the role. Smithburg's a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn't mind mixing it up and should be much more comfortable in his role now that he has a full year — on the field and in the weight room — under his belt.
Martin is one of the more intriguing prospects at this position and he could be a diamond in the rough waiting to be unleashed. Weis said a couple of weeks ago that if Martin was not the team's starting right guard he'd be the team's starting right tackle. Provided the junior from Arlington, Texas, hasn't done anything to back Weis off of that stance, I like him at tackle because of the strength of KU's other guards and Martin's physical strength. Beckmann's young, but he's physical and athletic and might be ready to slide into a back-up role.
Although they're not here for spring ball, the Jayhawks have a handful of offensive linemen coming this summer who could provide instant depth and seem to have bright futures. They are: Devon Williams — 6-4, 340-pound Junior, Georgia Military College; Apa Visinia — 6-4, 380-pound Freshman, Grandview, Mo.; and Jacob Bragg — 6-4, 305-pound Freshman, Naogdoches, Texas.
Tuesday afternoon marked our second chance this spring to chat with a handful of Kansas University football players and all five offensive position groups were represented.
As the Jayhawks prepared for their ninth practice of the spring, several offensive players discussed the team's progress thus far and the evolution of offensive coordinator John Reagan's new offense.
Here are a few things that caught my ear, while remembering that Saturday morning will be our first chance to actually see some of these players and things in action, so be sure to check the site (or at least this blog) at some point over the weekend for some coverage from that.
• Nothing has been announced and we're probably still a little ways away from a decision, but the confidence that Jake Heaps is carrying himself with these days is impressive. I've been saying that Heaps would win the QB job since December and I still feel that's the case, but hearing him talk about the offense, his confidence, his excitement and the way things have gone this spring make me believe he's the guy. That's not a knock on Montell Cozart, T.J. Millweard or any of the other QBs. More just a read that Heaps has done well this spring and has put himself in a position to enter his senior year as KU's starting quarterback. Time will tell.
• Speaking of Cozart, I got a chance to catch up with him today, too, and the more I talk with the young man, the more I like him. Aside from learning that he's currently going for the Mohawk look at the urging of his mother, Cozart also has become a much more confident quarterback than the guy who stepped onto the field as a wide-eyed freshman in 2013 and had plenty of good moments and a handful of bad ones, as well. Cozart said he's more patient now than ever before and that patience has allowed him to be a better passer. He has more command in the pocket, trusts receivers more and sees the field better.
• If I had to guess today, I'd say Heaps is currently atop the depth chart and Cozart is pencilled in at No. 2. Again, though, that's a guess and that's today. Still lots of time left for the competition to rage on.
• During recent years, the quarterback position at KU has been full of guys who like to have a good time and who have great chemistry and it seems like that's still true. Cozart said he and Heaps have a great relationship and he stressed that all five quarterbacks on KU's roster (Michael Cummings and Jordan Darling included) go out of their way to try to help each other out and push each other, everywhere from the weight room to the practice field. Cozart said the group, including QB coach Ron Powlus, is extremely competitive and during a recent practice they went after each other in a competition that involved throwing 40-yard fade routes into trash cans. It sounds like Powlus had won the competition before that one (an accuracy drill) so the young guys tried to make sure to take care of business in the fade competition. It's that kind of atmosphere that makes guys better and it sounds like these guys are having a lot of fun while pushing each other at the same time.
• It was good to see junior running back Darrian Miller again on Tuesday. He looks good and seems to be in good shape. During the session, Miller was asked if he expected to be able to make it through a full season in 2014 without some sort of off-the-field issue creating problems. His answer was great to hear both from a football standpoint and from the standpoint of hoping the young man is in a good place.
“I know for sure I’ll be here for the whole year," Miller said. "I’m glad I got to leave and go home and take care of that and that was one of the best things. I definitely think I’ll have a good year. I didn’t want to leave the team high and dry, but everyone was understanding and Bourbon did a great job of coming in and taking over and James did a great job of doing what he was doing. So everything worked out”
Asked if it felt like he had been playing catch-up since returning, Miller's response was again rock solid.
“No it didn’t," he said. "Because when we came in coach Reagan came in at the same time and we all just started fresh and hopped on the new offense and we’ve been going from there.”
• Senior offensive lineman Mike Smithburg said it was an odd feeling falling into a leadership role because of his age despite just having been here for one full year now. Smithburg, who likely is one of the eight guys up front that Reagan and KU coach Charlie Weis have said they feel good about, said that role has fallen on the older guys almost by default. That includes him and Ngalu Fusimalohi, whom Weis said had emerged as a leader earlier spring, as well as junior Damon Martin. Smithburg did not divulge which guys were playing where as of this time but said he's been playing inside, which was his expected landing spot. Smithburg said the group has made it a point to make chemistry a priority this spring and they've been doing all kinds of extra things away from the football complex to reach that goal. Not surprisingly, one of their favorite bonding rituals is going out to eat together, most often at 23rd Street Brewery.
• Wide receivers Nick Harwell and Rodriguez Coleman were two of the more popular players available at Tuesday's media session and both said they felt good about the progress KU's receivers have made under first-year WR coach Eric Kiesau. Harwell talked a lot about his path and his progression while at Kansas and had some interesting comments about his role as a leader, both at the position and of the team.
“I guess it came out because of my past performances,” the Miami (Ohio) transfer said. “I didn't go out there with the intent on being a leader. I just wanted to compete with those other guys, try to bring them up with me and basically be a leader off of skill.” Because his career statistics outshine those of all of KU's other receivers combined, Harwell has become a natural front-line guy and does not appear to be shying away from that role.
A few quick thoughts from today's news conference with KU football coach Charlie Weis and a handful of offensive assistant coaches.
The Jayhawks returned to practice for Day No. 5 on Sunday night and are out there for Day No. 6 this afternoon.
We did learn today that we'll get an opportunity to watch practice on April 5, so between that and the spring game on April 12, we'll soon get a lot of live, visual action to go along with what we're hearing.
For now, though, another installment of “What Caught My Ear.”
• Although there remains a long way to go, it seems like the quarterback battle is becoming clear. Weis did not go into detail about who was doing what, but he did say the separation at the position has been easy to spot. The guess here, as it has been all along, is that Jake Heaps, T.J. Millweard and Montell Cozart, in that order, have established themselves as the main contenders in the race.
• Speaking of the offense, I thought it was interesting that Weis pointed out that he is doing his best to stay out of the way during practice and is letting the offense be put in by the offensive coaches. That's not to say he doesn't have input. But his input comes before or after practice, not during. What's more, he said he has spent the better part of his time during practices watching the areas of greatest concern, specifically the offensive line, the wide receivers and the defensive line.
• As is the case with the QB battle, there's a long way to go and a lot of competition still to be had at the RB spot, but Weis said senior Brandon Bourbon has done a nice job of transitioning back into a full-time running back role. Bourbon spent much of last season playing the F position, which primarily was used in the passing game, but he entered the spring as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart and appears to be doing well there.
• Speaking of depth charts, we haven't receive one yet, but Weis said the players are well aware of where they stand.
• Quickly, a few notes about specific players:
--- Weis said sophomore defensive back Greg Allen has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the spring. He's done well behind Kevin Short at nickel back, so well, in fact, that Weis said he would feel comfortable moving Short to cornerback if the need came up.
--- Senior wide receiver Justin McCay is working at the No. 2 spot behind junior Rodriguez Coleman, whom Weis said has been one of the best performers on the offense all spring. A big thing for McCay is learning that he and Coleman are different players and will be asked to do slightly different things. Weis credits wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau for doing a solid job of helping McCay understand that.
--- Senior wide receiver Tony Pierson has taken his first couple of hits this spring in live action and, evidently, responded well. Weis reiterated that he was not going to be careless with Pierson in the spring and that he would have him go through a lot of days with the no-contact rule. But he also said that Pierson getting that first big hit out of the way was good for his mindset and should help him reach a full recovery from his concussion issues much sooner.
There's a heck of a reunion taking place in the Mile High City and, believe it or not, at the center of it are a couple of former Kansas University football players.
When news broke Tuesday night that the Denver Broncos had reached an agreement with free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib on a six-year, $57-million deal, my mind immediately shifted to the 2008 Orange Bowl, where Talib lined up at one corner position and true freshman Chris Harris lined up at the other.
Together, Harris and Talib helped lead the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl championship that capped off a magical 12-1 season. Harris recorded an interception and four tackles in that game and Talib, never one to be outdone, made the most memorable play of the game, a pick-six interception in the first quarter that, after the game, led to these four famous words: “I felt like Deion!”
With Talib joining Harris in the Broncos secondary, the move qualifies as an instant upgrade at one of the biggest areas of weakness for the team that represented the AFC in last year's Super Bowl.
According to a report from the Denver Post's Mike Klis, in the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib, the Broncos have secured the kind of big, physical cornerback that Broncos general manager John Elway has coveted since he took control of the team's football operations three years ago.
Talib, 28, snagged four interceptions and 14 pass break-ups during the 2013 season with the New England Patriots, who often lined him up on the opponent's best wide receiver.
While all of that — the age, the talent, the size, the swagger — is great news for the Broncos' defense, I can't help but think about how pumped Harris must be about reuniting with his old KU teammate. Because of the timing of Harris' one season with Talib in Lawrence — Talib was a junior and Harris just a freshman — the relationship between the two always felt like one of big brother, little brother. Harris had great admiration for Talib's skills and always appreciated how he helped him along as a true freshman playing big-time college football for the first time.
Now that both are starters in the NFL, it doesn't to figure to be that way in Denver, but, in Harris, Talib will have a friendly face who can help him break into the Broncos' culture and show him the ropes of how to play for head coach John Fox, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and, perhaps most importantly, a team led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
The early days of Talib's career were marred by off-the-field incidents and immaturity but his talent and ability were never questioned. After leaving Tampa Bay midway through the 2012 season, Talib latched on in New England, where Patriots coach Bill Belichick helped him clean up his image and focus on making plays and helping the team win. Although Belichick and Manning will never be mistaken for one another, being under Manning's eye figures to help keep Talib on the straight and narrow the way playing for Belichick did during the past season and a half.
Of course, being around an old running mate like Harris, who is wildly respected in the Denver community and arguably was the Broncos' most important player on defense last season, won't hurt either.
And, of course, having a pair of starters in the secondary of one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites, is nothing but good news for Kansas football.
The Kansas University football team went through its third day of spring practices on Tuesday — the first of the spring in full pads — and, although we weren't able to watch any of the action, we did get our first chance to talk with a few of the players about how the spring has gone before they hit the practice field.
Here's the latest installment of the slightly modified “What caught my ear,” blog, with a focus on the rumblings from the first few days of spring drills.
• Ben Heeney has been an animal this spring. As you might expect, the senior linebacker has been flying all over the field and making plays like we have become accustomed to seeing, but he's also upped his game in pass coverage and actually had two interceptions during one early-spring practice. That kind of thing can be contagious and it sounds like the entire defense is following Heeney's lead.
• Wide receivers Rodriguez Coleman and Nick Harwell already have made a significant impact in KU's passing game, both in terms of getting open and making catches and becoming big-play threats.
• Based on talks with the players and coaches, if I had to pick one word to describe KU's new offense it would be "simple." Now that's not simple in that it will be easy for defenses to scheme against or figure out. That's simple in that the players grasp it, understand it and can execute it. What's more, it sounds like they like it a lot.
• Speaking of the new offense, senior quarterback Jake Heaps said it's basically a no-huddle system and that, even though the Jayhawks did some no-huddle at times last year, it was usually something they put in that week or for a specific opponent. Making the no-huddle approach the foundation of their offensive system makes it easier to learn and grasp and Heaps said the goal, particularly of the upperclassmen, is to get to the point where they know what the calls are going to be on the field before they even look over to the sideline to confirm it.
• In that same vein, Keon Stowers said the biggest difference between spring this season and spring the past couple of seasons was maturity and leadership. Now that so many key players are veterans, the question of right and wrong or responsibility is not as big of an issue. That's on the field and off the field. As Stowers put it, “It's almost like we're the coaches,” and because of that the veterans have taken some of the burden of having to watch every sprint or every on-time arrival at every meeting off of KU's coaches.
• I talked with Brandon Bourbon about his opportunity at running back and the senior who opened the spring No. 1 on the depth chart said the entire stable of running backs believes that their opportunity is a little more legitimate and real now that James Sims is gone. Sims led the Jayhawks in rushing during each of his four seasons and was the workhorse rock in the Kansas backfield. Bourbon, who is coming off of his most healthy and productive season in 2013, said the group Sims left behind has a list of lofty goals but added that the only way for the Jayhawks to enjoy continued success from their running backs was for each player to remain selfish internally while striving for the best results for the team externally. Sounded like a much more eloquent way of putting the cliché about competition bringing out the best in everyone.
• I asked several offensive players in the room about new offensive coordinator John Reagan and what they saw as his primary strengths. Here were a few of the words I heard in response: 1. Coach Reagan is very engaging. He's so into everything he does that if you're not into it right there with him, he's going to pull you into it and make you a part of it. 2. Coach Reagan has a way of communicating the ins and outs of the new offense that's easy to understand. He's fun to work with and he knows what he's doing. 3. Coach Reagan is very meticulous in the way he goes about coaching. He takes his time during installation days to make sure that we're getting it and is willing to sit down with us and go over every aspect of every play in meetings if that's what it takes for us to get on the same page.
• The Jayhawks will go through their fourth of 15 spring practices on Thursday before taking 9 days off for spring break. KU's next practice after Thursday is slated for March 23.
No open practices this spring for the Kansas football program, so the "What caught my eye" blogs of the past are going to have to be replaced by these "What caught my ear" blogs until we can see these guys play for ourselves.
I should be able to bring plenty of information to the table, I just won't be able to get much of a feel for the physical abilities and make-up of the players and the team dynamic. No sweat, though. It's still just spring.
With that said, four members of KU coach Charlie Weis' staff were made available to the media today and each made it incredibly clear that they're ready to go.
Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, Offensive coordinator John Reagan, Defensive backs coach Dave Campo and Wide Receivers coach Eric Kiesau spent about 30 minutes chatting with various media members about the outlook for this spring.
I spent most of my time with Kiesau, who impressed me a great deal. I like his attitude, I like his philosophies and I like that he seems fired up to be here. I'll have a story on him in tomorrow's paper (and online) so be sure to check that out.
With that in mind, here are a few other tidbits from the day that caught my ear...
• Campo said it's great to go into a spring knowing your personnel and having seen what they can do…. Said they feel good about KU's secondary because so many guys who played well last year are returning this year.
• Bowen said he and the staff have a much better grasp on who the leaders of the D will be this spring vs. last spring. Mentioned specifically Ben Heeney, Ben Goodman, Cassisus Sendish and Isaiah Johnson. And there's no doubt that Keon Stowers is a part of that group, as well.
• Bowen also said having a year of the defensive system that KU runs under their belts & in place gives players & coaches a lot of confidence and allows them to start the spring way ahead of where they started last season with installation and things basic philosophies.
• Kiesau said the process of getting hired by KU was a whirlwind and came, pretty much, in one day. He visited campus right before a family vacation to Hawaii and liked what he saw. Also admired Weis and Reagan and wanted to work with them.
• Kiesau said has 3 key things he likes in WRs: 1. Natural hands. 2. Precise route runner. 3. Able to release at the line. There's a lot more that goes into coaching the position than that, of course, but those are the things he looks for first.
• Even though everyone and everything here is new to him, Kiesau said he was going to set the bar very high & push and inspire the KU WRs to catch up to that standard. Sounds like a sound approach and won't allow for much wasted time.
Here's a quick video that Benton Smith of Smithology and Hawks in the NBA fame threw together from today's availability...
Believe it or not, the early stages of another Kansas University football season are right around the corner as spring practices start next week.
We'll have plenty of time to dive deeper into each position group when spring ball arrives and throughout the spring and summer, but, for now, let's look briefly at a few of the most intriguing positions heading into Year 3 of the Charlie Weis era.
We'll start with running back, where the Jayhawks, despite losing stud James Sims, remain stacked with depth, talent and options.
It's far too early to tell how the carries will be divvied up this fall, but know this: the two newest KU running backs — juco transfer De'Andre Mann and incoming freshman Traevohn Wrench — are both legitimate candidates for playing time.
Here's a quick player-by-player breakdown of the guys who make up what has been KU's most productive and consistent position in the post-Mark Mangino era.
Skinny: Avery comes to Kansas as one of the most highly touted prospects in the Dallas area and one of the top “athletes” in Texas, a bona fide weapon who can be used all over the field and on both sides of the ball. He played running back, receiver and safety in high school, where he ran for 1,600 yards in limited time last season, and seems to be from the Tony Pierson mold.
Top Asset: Natural playmaking ability. The speedy, athletic offensive weapon makes everything he does look easy and has all the tools you'd want in a home run hitter — speed, quickness, vision and toughness.
Early Prediction: I think Avery will play as a true freshman, but, with KU's backfield loaded, I think we'll see the man high school teammates called “Superman” spend most of his time as a slot receiver and possibly even as the Jayhawks' Wildcat QB.
Skinny: Weis said briefly on signing day that Bourbon would enter the spring as the top running back on the depth chart. Staying there will be his challenge. Gifted with good size, power and speed, Bourbon is coming off of his most productive (and healthy) season and is looking to close his career with a bang. He's always had the right attitude and work ethic to be a featured back, but staying healthy has been a problem.
Top asset: Bourbon became one of KU's better pass catchers last season, so seeing him carve out a role in the passing game this season is not out of the question.
Early Prediction: Enjoys a season similar to last year, when he received 61 touches (41 carries and 20 receptions) and tallied 300-plus yards while scored three touchdowns as a relevant but not vital part of KU's offense.
Skinny: Cox had the opportunity to red-shirt heading into the 2013 season but chose to compete for playing time instead. As it turned out, the red-shirt was meant to be because just a couple of games into the season he tweaked a hamstring and could never recover to the point where it was worth burning his final season of eligibility. Rehabbed and hungry, Cox is a definite candidate for
Top asset: Cox runs with good vision and keeps his legs churning at all times. His extra burst makes him more dangerous in the open field than you might expect for a guy his size.
Early Prediction: As he was during the one year he played with Sims and company, Cox figures to be sound insurance and a reliable option KU's offense can turn to when in need of a spark or as part of a rotation to keep fresh legs in the backfield.
Skinny: The powerful back who earned first-team juco All-American honors after rushing for 1,706 yards and 30 touchdowns for Hartnell College during 2013, said the opportunity to be tutored by coaches with NFL ties and test himself in a power conference played big roles in his decision to come to Kansas.
Top asset: Mann considers himself to be a complete running back and his ability to run inside and out, catch the ball out of the backfield and both gain tough yards and run away from people makes him an every down type of back.
Early Prediction: Mann will be a big-time surprise for casual fans and will quickly show why Weis and company could not pass on signing him even though they had no intention of adding a juco running back in the class.
Skinny: Miller is one of the biggest wildcards in this year's bunch. Blessed with all the talent in the world and a good chunk of experience, it's not his skills that are a question mark but his ability to stay on the field. He missed most of the second half of 2013 because of personal issues and, although Weis said earlier this month that he expected Miller to be part of the equation, the Blue Springs, Mo., back has been hot and cold since his promising freshman season.
Top asset: Ability to make defenders miss with exceptional balance and good vision. Miller flashed those skills often during his freshman season, when he finished just behind Sims with 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on 136 carries.
Early Prediction: Miller is back in town and still on the roster but what kind of role he'll have is unknown. His recent personal issues make him a hard player to rely on and he'll likely have to prove a lot to the coaching staff before he is handed any kind of featured role in KU's backfield. Still, with Weis, the best players play, so if Miller is healthy and happy and can find that freshman magic again, he could make a huge contribution.
Skinny: One of the top-rated players in KU's incoming recruiting class, Wrench, a four-star back out of Gardner-Edgerton High is the kind of player that any program would have gladly added to its roster. Already blessed with good size and the ability to add weight and muscle, the guy was a work horse in high school and showed consistently that he could handle a heavy work load. He has the power to run through guys and the speed to run away from them. Whether he plays right away or not, he'll be a cornerstone of the KU offense for years to come.
Top asset: Excellent vision, which allows him to hit holes quickly and get to top-end speed in a hurry. Because of his quick-cut running style, Wrench rarely had carries go for negative yardage, which is all the more impressive when you take into account what a high-volume running back he was.
Early Prediction: The best thing for both the program and the player here would be for Wrench to red-shirt and spend the 2014 season getting bigger, stronger, faster and absorbing the playbook. If it plays out that way, he's got the potential to be KU's next four-year starter, a la Sims.
Note of interest: It should be pointed out that both Tony Pierson and Colin Spencer have been moved to WR on KU's official roster. Pierson was a RB at KU during his first two seasons and a hybrid WR/RB last season. Although he still could get a few carries out of the backfield in 2014, it appears that his primary role will be as a receiver, which will allow the KU offense to better utilize him in space.