Because last Saturday was my first chance to get a quick glance at KU's new-look football program, my "What caught my eye" feature ran a little long.
So here's the second part of a list of things that stood out to me as I took in about an hour of KU's third practice of the spring — and first with pads.
If you missed my video from last Saturday's Hannah & Friends clinic, be sure to check that out. The Jayhawks and participants really seemed to have a great time. Many of them are still talking about it today. Also, if you missed Part I of what caught my eye, go take a look at that, too.
If you're all caught up, here's Part II:
• Got my first look at the newly formed offensive line and I liked a lot of what I saw. One thing that really struck me was the fact that while the current starting five was working its way through drills — Pat Lewandowski, Mike Smithburg, Dylan Admire, Ngalu Fusimalohi and Aslam Sterling — four guys with starting experience (Randall Dent, Gavin Howard, Damon Martin and Riley Spencer) were standing by watching them. There's a lot to be determined still with this group, but I like its potential and depth.
• Speaking of Lewandowski, I think he could be a real surprise this season. It looks like he's got great feet — perhaps even better than last year's left tackle, Tanner Hawkinson — and he's a fierce competitor. The only thing holding him back from being truly ready in the past was his size. But now that he's up to 290 pounds, he appears to be coming along nicely.
• Freshman running back Colin Spencer was involved in the offensive sets the Jayhawks ran during Saturday's practice and I think that's a sign of things to come. I wouldn't make too much of it, but I also wouldn't dismiss it. It's a crowded backfield and there's a ton of talent in front of him, but Spencer's a solid athlete with big-time speed. If he can pick up what they're throwing at him, I think he'll have a role in the offense.
• Long snapper John Wirtel, who announced on signing day that he was walking-on at KU next season, was in attendance watching practice with his family. Seemed like nice people and I was impressed more than once by the way Wirtel's eyes were wide open while taking in what was unfolding in front of him. Recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello came over to the family during a break to welcome them. That was cool to see, too.
• There was no “Coach Weis Song of the Day” on Saturday, but there was a different familiar sign from last season — the exercise bike. Saturday, defensive back Tyree Williams and linebacker Schyler Miles were logging miles on the bike. Miles we knew about, Williams was new.
• JaCorey Shepherd, the junior wide receiver turned defensive back who wore No. 25 last season, has switched over to No. 24 this year.
• It was nice to see former Jayhawks, Maxwell Onyegbule (player) and Louie Matsakis (coach) back in crimson and blue, too.
Before I get into the specifics of what I saw at Saturday's KU football practice, let me explain one thing.
We were told before the spring began that the media would get one day to go out and watch practice but we don't know yet when that day will be. Saturday, those of us who attended KU's Hannah & Friends football clinic at Anschutz Sports Pavilion were lucky enough to observe an hour of KU's third practice of the spring, the team's first in pads.
The clinic itself was great. It was really cool to see so many of these players get into working with the people with special needs. Lots of smiles, lots of laughs, lots of fun. That made the hour of practice a bonus, but it definitely was great to get a look at some of the new guys, which was where I spent most of my time during the practice session.
I just wanted to get that explanation out of the way so you would know that the “What Caught My Eye” feature would not be as regular of a thing this spring. But I hope for it to return full bore in August.
For now, here's what caught my eye from Saturday's action:
• Junior college transfer Tedarian Johnson is a freaking truck. Most recruiting services had him listed at 260 pounds throughout his recruitment, but the guy is a legit 290. And he moves well. I don't know how he'll fit into KU's plans on its suddenly-deep defensive line, but his size definitely caught me by surprise.
• All of that talk about junior defensive tackle Keon Stowers as a leader seems legit. You could see it even during the clinic with the Special Olympians but it really showed up during drills in practice. I think part of the reason Stowers has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, is that (a) he battled injuries last year and could not play to his potential, (b) he didn't want to overstep his bounds and wanted to be respectful of last year's seniors and c) KU really needs leaders on defense. Stowers is one of the real good dudes on this team and it's cool to see him stepping up.
• KU coach Charlie Weis was not afraid to get after these guys — none of the coaches were. I heard a lot of yelling and sensed a lot of urgency from the staff during individual drills. I think they're trying to set the tone for the season early and, by doing that, are reminding these guys that losing is not acceptable. I didn't hear names or see numbers, but at one point I even heard Weis yell, “He's gonna take your job.” Nothing like some good, ol' competition.
• Although limited, Saturday's practice gave me my first extended look since last year's spring game at how QB Jake Heaps works. And even that was not that great of a representation of who he is and how he operates since we all knew then that he could not play in 2012. I really like his demeanor. He's a natural leader, carries himself with confidence and crispness and seems to be a really easy guy to want to follow. We didn't see a ton of throws so that'll have to wait for another day, but there's no question that this is his team and his offense.
On Wednesday, we jumped into the pre-spring position-by-position breakdown with a quick look at the Kansas University football program's three strongest position groups.
Today, it's time to look at the top three positions of concern.
When coming up with this list, I couldn't help but think back to my thoughts at this time last year, when it looked like the offense would be a well-oiled machine and the defense would be the biggest concern.
It didn't turn out that way, of course. The offense struggled — largely because of the passing game — and the defense, though not statistically lights out, performed well above the level I expected and kept KU in a lot of games throughout the season.
We'll see if something similar plays out this year or if both units improve and stick a little closer to one another. According to this list, if you're picking one or the other to worry about this time around, it looks like the offense may be the bigger concern.
1. Offensive Line
This is the one position tied to KU's hopes for success more than any other this season and all the Jayhawks are asked to do is replace three multi-year starters, two of which have a legitimate shot to play professional football.
Putting the O-Line on the concerns list does not mean that the Jayhawks don't have pieces in place to cobble together a solid line, but doing so is far from a certainty and that's why the position is No. 1 on this list. Not only is quality play on the offensive line crucial for KU to keep its potent running game going, but it also is a must if the Jayhawks hope to get improved play out of the quarterback position.
There is a nice mixture of returners and newcomers on the line heading into the spring, so the potential for a solid unit is certainly there. But it won't show up overnight and at a position that requires five individuals functioning as one entity, that's a major concern. At least for now.
KU coach Charlie Weis appears to be satisfied with the things he has done to upgrade KU's woeful kicking game in the offseason. He handed out a scholarship to juco transfer Trevor Pardula and enticed Hutchinson C.C. standout Michael Mesh to walk on. Both should compete with returning dual-threat guy Ron Doherty for starting jobs right away.
But neither of the newcomers has done it at this level yet and until they do — and until they do it with some consistency and regularity — KU fans likely will continue to cringe when it's fourth-and-four at the opponent's 25-yard line.
3. Wide Receiver
The fact that this group is a concern says more about last year than this year because KU got very little from its receivers in 2012 and most of the top pass-catching threats graduated. The cupboard is not bare, though, and there are plenty of new (and a few old) faces who could step up and instantly erase the painful memories of not being able to throw the ball in 2012.
As you all surely know by now, KU went the entire season without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. That's a freaky stat. Flat-out unreal. I don't think that will happen again this season — for starters because I think Heaps will be solid and, beyond that because I think there's some talent in this unit — but until we get into spring ball a little bit and, really, until we see these guys do it in September and beyond, you have to wonder exactly what you have here.
Returning threats Andrew Turzilli and Tre' Parmalee appear to be two of the more solid options here, and the arrival of newcomers Rod Coleman, Mark Thomas and Ishmael Hyman (along with Justin McCay finally being eligible) make me think this group could be decent. But again, until they actually get out there and deliver you have to wonder what will become of a position that seems to be a strength at nearly every other Big 12 university.
For those of you who may have missed this week's daily pre-spring blogging, here's a look back at the previous entries:
Monday: Talking red-shirts: A look back at the guys who sat out in 2012 and what's in store for their futures.
Tuesday: Top KU football story lines as we head into spring football: No, seriously, spring.
Yesterday, we looked at some of the story lines surrounding the Kansas University football program that figure to make spring practice — which begins Tuesday — interesting and exciting for a number of reasons.
Today, let's dive in a little deeper and begin our look at KU's strengths and weaknesses by position.
We'll start with the three positions in which KU appears to be in the best shape and follow it up on Thursday with the three positions that carry the biggest concern.
If a position doesn't make either list, figure it's in decent shape — not great but not a major problem either.
All right, let's get to it.
1. Running Back
I'm sure this comes as absolutely no surprise. Not only did the Jayhawks have one of the best running attacks in the Big 12 last season, but they also are bringing back their top three ball carriers and still have some pretty incredible depth.
Senior James Sims headlines the list and will look to lead the team in rushing for the fourth straight season. The two guys who carried the load while Sims served his suspension last season — junior Tony Pierson and senior Taylor Cox — bring talent and versatility, along with even more experience, to the position. And then you still have junior Brandon Bourbon and freshman Colin Spencer. It remains to be seen if Bourbon can break his way into the rotation and there's already talk of Spencer having some kind of role due to his dynamic speed and athleticism.
A lot of this unit's success will depend on what KU gets from its revamped offensive line (spoiler alert for Thursday's blog!!!) but between this group of talent and KU coach Charlie Weis' ability to disguise and tweak the run game, the Jayhawks appear to be ready for another big year on the ground.
KU's best defensive player from 2012, Ben Heeney, returns to lead a group of linebackers that all of a sudden looks pretty stout.
Juco transfers Marcus Jenkins-Moore and Samson Faifili have the look of instant starters and if that trio makes up KU's first string, the second unit that backs them up will have a good mix of talent, toughness and experience. Schyler Miles, Jake Love and Huldon Tharp are the most notable names on that list, with veterans Darius Willis (yeah, he's back to linebacker), Prinz Kande and Victor Simmons, along with speedy rookies Courtney Arnick and Kellen Ash, backing them up.
I know it can be dangerous to count too much on transfers, but Jenkins-Moore and Faifili appear to be bad dudes and their addition significantly upgrades the position. What's more, this group seems to have some of the best depth of any on the team.
3. Defensive Line
It seems crazy to be writing this when the defensive line was without question the biggest weakness on the team just two seasons ago, but Weis and company have made it a point to upgrade the D-Line during the past couple of offseasons and, although we won't be able to fully evaluate the group until September, it appears they have done just that.
Tackles Marquel Combs and Ty McKinney appear to be big-time, disruptive forces in the middle and ends Chris Martin and Andrew Bolton may very well bring a dimension of nasty pass-rushing off the edge that has been missing around here for quite some time.
It's not just the new faces that make this position one of strength. Returners Jordan Tavai and Keon Stowers have another offseason with strength coach Scott Holsopple under their belts and there still exist a couple of up-and-comers in Ben Goodman and Michael Reynolds, who could explode onto the scene at any minute.
This group also gets depth, experience and leadership from veterans Kevin Young and Keba Agostinho and also still has a couple of potential diamonds in the rough in red-shirt freshman Tyler Holmes and newcomer Tedarian Johnson. For my money, it's the depth here and number of quality options that pushes this position into the top three.
Competition for starting spots and playing time may be more intense on the D-Line than anywhere else. Should be fun to watch.
All right. Now that we got past the Kansas University football players who didn't get into the action last year, let's take a quick look at what we should watch for from them and the guys who did.
Here's a glance at the top five story lines heading into spring drills, which begin one week from today, snow or no snow.
1. What's up with the quarterback position?
Here we are, three full seasons removed from Todd Reesing's final game as a Jayhawk and we're still searching for a suitable replacement. Jordan Webb, Quinn Mecham and Kale Pick all got their turns during 2010 and 2011, and Dayne Crist and Michael Cummings each had a crack in 2012. While those guys collectively had a couple of decent moments, none of them proved to be the answer or even anything close to it. So now the focus turns to Jake Heaps, the BYU transfer who sat out last season and appears to be the favorite to be the guy this year. Making a complete read on Heaps — good or bad — based on what he does this spring would be foolish, but it will at least be the first meaningful evaluation we get to make.
2. What role will familiarity play for the Jayhawks?
I asked KU coach Charlie Weis in December if Year 2 would more closely resemble Year 1.5 because of the crazy amount of turnover and long list of potential new starters on both sides of the ball, some of whom already are here and others who will arrive in June. His answer was a clear no, which led me to believe that he felt pretty good about what his players learned and retained from his first season in town. Coaching transitions are never easy and the second year is almost always better and smoother than the first. The players know what to expect both in terms of coaching style and schemes and the coaches benefit from a having a full year of relationships with their new guys under their belts.
3. Which player becomes “the next big thing?”
Each spring, somebody steps to the forefront and becomes the hot name on offense, defense or both. Last spring, it was Michael Reynolds, who was a monster in the spring game but parlayed that into only minimal success during the season. The year before it was Christian Matthews, who, despite stacking back-to-back solid spring games on top of each other, made next to no impact as a receiver (though he did play a key role as a Wildcat QB). So who will be the guy (or guys) that step up this spring? Always fun to watch, awfully tough to predict.
4. Roster/position changes?
It happens just about every year and we've already heard about one move — incoming freshman Colin Spencer will start at RB instead of DB — but Weis promised that more moves are on the way. In fact, the word he used to describe how many tweaks had taken place was “several.” My best guess is that means all kinds of things — a few guys have left the program, others have changed positions and others may even be looking into new roles while playing the same position. The only clue he gave us was that nobody had jumped from offense to defense or defense to offense. I'm sure this topic will be among the first things he addresses at his pre-spring news conference next Monday, but even after that it will be interesting to see how the changes impact the program and develop throughout the spring.
A quick look at the most updated roster revealed the following changes:
• Dexter Linton has moved from safety to cornerback
• Keba Agostinho is listed at defensive end
• Place kicker Nick Prolago is no longer on the roster
• Punter Sean Huddleston is no longer on the roster
• Long snapper Justin Carnes is no longer on the roster
• Despite rumors about his departure, Huldon Tharp remains on the roster
5. Will the coaching shuffle have any impact?
Linebackers coach DeMontie Cross left for TCU this offseason and stepping in to replace him is longtime Jayhawk Clint Bowen. Bowen knows his stuff and, more importantly, he knows the players. So it seems safe to conclude that the loss of Cross will not hurt the defense much at all. Beyond that, though, there are a handful of other new faces in new places throughout the coaching staff and it'll be interesting to see how quickly those guys can settle in and earn the respect of the players. Many of them are familiar faces simply shuffled into new roles, so that will help. But spring is where it will start.