Play of Cummings, Heeney among highlights of KU's 2014 football season

Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings turns to throw as Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman closes in during the first quarter at McLane Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 in Waco, Texas.

Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings turns to throw as Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman closes in during the first quarter at McLane Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014 in Waco, Texas.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The 2014 Kansas University football season actually wound up feeling like three or four different seasons.

The first was the promise of the offseason, in which a veteran team, a new offensive coordinator and some impact transfers brought hope back to Lawrence. The second covered the first four games, a 2-2 start and the beginning of the end of the Charlie Weis era. Next was the nine-week Clint Bowen era, in which the former Jayhawk and Lawrence native led the program on an interim basis. And the fourth was the coaching search that followed the season and led to the hire of David Beaty in early December.

Sandwiched between all of those milestones and major events were several memorable plays, players and disappointments that led to a 3-9 season and the start of another rebuilding project.

Here’s one final look back at 2014:

Offensive MVP: Michael Cummings — Overlooked in the offseason and left on the bench for the first four games of 2014, Cummings replaced an ineffective Montell Cozart and brought toughness, confidence and a whole bunch of completions to an offense that enjoyed its best passing season in years. Cummings threw for 1,715 yards and nine touchdowns while completing 56 percent of his passes in seven starts. He showed good accuracy on his deep balls, brought KU’s wide receivers back to relevance and played through a shoulder injury during the final few games of the season.

Runner-up: Jimmay Mundine — The senior tight end led KU with 45 receptions and 584 yards and added three touchdowns during a season in which he saved his best for last. The big-bodied tight end often proved to be a match-up nightmare for opponents because he was too big to handle over the middle and too athletic to bring down in space when he caught the ball and turned upfield.

Defensive MVP: Ben Heeney — Led KU in tackles for the third consecutive season and was nothing short of spectacular during his final season in crimson and blue. Heeney’s 7.3 solo tackles per game average led the country, and his 21-tackle game at Texas Tech marked the best single-game performance by a defensive player in the Big 12 all season. Captain Heeney also added 12 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, four quarterback hurries, one interception and two forced fumbles. All of this while opposing offenses did their best to scheme away from him.

Runners-up: JaCorey Shepherd and Michael Reynolds — Shepherd, a senior cornerback, finished fourth in the nation with 19 passes defended and, from start to finish, proved to be KU’s most reliable cornerback. Reynolds, meanwhile, a senior from Wichita, also saved his best for last, finishing the year with 45 tackles, 14 for loss, and a team-best seven sacks.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Corey Avery — The true freshman from Dallas led KU’s rushing attack with 645 yards and five touchdowns, all while operating with the burden of knowing that there was very little depth behind him. Avery showed in his first season as a Jayhawk that he’s tough enough to run inside and shifty enough to bounce it to the outside. He also showed he understood just how important ball security was. The future looks bright for the young back.

Runner-up: Nigel King — The Maryland transfer ranked third on the team with 30 receptions, but was second in receiving yards (537) and emerged late in the season as both Cummings’ favorite target and KU’s best deep threat. His 17.9 yards-per-reception average illustrates how often one of King’s catches stretched the defense. His 78-yard touchdown reception against TCU marked KU’s longest play from scrimmage in 2014.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Fish Smithson — With so many seniors and returning starters making up the bulk of KU’s defense, there was not much room for newcomers to shine. But Smithson had his moments when he did just that. The juco transfer finished fifth on the team with 49 tackles and never shied away from contact while serving as the back-up to both Cassius Sendish and Isaiah Johnson.

Runner-up: T.J. Semke — The part-time bounty hunter and former walk-on earned a scholarship during preseason camp and then showed it was money well spent by the Jayhawks, who got 21 tackles and six starts out of the tough, physical, lunch-pail type defensive tackle.

Game of the Year: No. 5 TCU 34, Kansas 30 — There were three victories on the schedule this season, but none of them delivered the kind of excitement, drama and respect as KU’s near-upset of the fifth-ranked team in college football. After surrendering a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, the Jayhawks controlled things from that point on, building a 27-17 lead that held up until a TCU punt return late in the third quarter put the Horned Frogs on top for good. KU had a chance to tie late and another chance at a game-winning touchdown drive in the final few minutes, but could not convert either time. Even though the Jayhawks came up short on the scoreboard, the effort went a long way toward regaining the KU program some respect.

Runner-up: Kansas 34, Iowa State 14 — It’ll go down as the first — and only — victory during interim head coach Clint Bowen’s eight-game audition, but it sure was impressive. The Jayhawks dominated the Cyclones from start to finish and closed out the game by giving Bowen a blue Gatorade bath on the sideline.

Offensive Play of the Year: Nigel King’s circus catch against TCU — This was the one that made people start to believe that an upset of No. 5 TCU may have been KU’s destiny. On the first play of KU’s drive that followed TCU cutting the lead to 20-17, King triple tipped a Cummings pass along the TCU sideline, corralled it with one hand and then raced 78 yards for a touchdown that put the Jayhawks back up by 10. The play, which actually was dubbed “circus” within the KU offense, was nominated as one of four finalists for national play of the year and is one they’ll be talking about around Lawrence for years.

Runner-up: Tony Pierson’s 74-yard touchdown run against Central Michigan — One week after suffering an embarrassing beating at Duke in which KU was questioned for not giving Pierson enough touches, the Jayhawks opened the CMU game by handing the ball to Pierson on the game’s opening play and the speedy running back did the rest. Behind a wall of blockers to the left side, Pierson raced untouched through the middle of CMU’s defense and then turned on the jets in the secondary to put KU up 7-0 en route to a 24-10 victory.

Defensive Play of the Year: Jake Love sniffing out a CMU screen pass late in the third quarter of KU’s 24-10 victory — With the Chippewas trailing 17-10 and looking for a game-tying touchdown, Love ad-libbed out of a blitz and stuffed a screen pass for a loss that not only forced CMU to punt but also took the wind out of the Chippewas’ sails. The play was the second in a row made by Love, who finished the game with four tackles for loss.

Runner-up: Michael Reynolds’ forced fumble against Oklahoma State in KU’s 27-20 loss — It was about this point in the season when the Wichita senior really turned it on and started to become a handful for opponents. Reynolds finished with two sacks and a ton of hurries against OSU, but his forced fumble, which was recovered by Tevin Shaw, led to a field goal that pulled Kansas within 20-10 and sparked the comeback that tied the game at 20 with 6:55 to play.

Special Teams Play of the Year: T.J. Millweard’s completion to Trent Smiley on a botched field goal attempt vs. TCU — The play was just one of several wild and crazy moments that had KU fans believing an upset might be in the cards. After a long drive ended with what looked like KU settling for a field goal, third-string QB, Millweard popped up after bobbling the snap and sprinted to the left while looking downfield for someone to throw to. That someone was tight end Smiley, who made a nice catch to keep the drive alive. A few plays later, KU scored a touchdown to tie the game at 7 midway through the first quarter.

Runner-up: Nick Harwell punt return touchdown at West Virginia — It mattered very little in the outcome of the game, but Harwell’s 76-yard punt return TD with 2:23 to play in Morgantown, made the final score a more-respectable 33-14 and helped KU leave WVU with the belief that it had started to turn the corner under Bowen, who coached his first game in place of Weis.

Most Improved Player: QB Michael Cummings — Everyone knows how Cummings made it back onto the field and everyone saw what he did when he got out there. But because things like toughness, confidence and a never-say-die attitude were the things for which Cummings was best known, very few people truly saw how much this guy had improved since we last saw him in 2012. Cummings proved he could make all kinds of tough throws and also showed he was more than just a rocket arm. His touch on the deep ball was greatly improved and his vision of the field and command of the offense resembled that of a three-year starter, not a third-string afterthought.

Runner-up: WR Justin McCay — McCay never quite lived up to the unfair expectations that KU fans had for him after he transferred back home from Oklahoma, but his senior season was by far his best. His numbers don’t tell the full story, as the big, physical wideout from Kansas City finished with just 189 yards and two touchdowns on 18 catches. But every one of those grabs looked sure-handed and McCay’s focus and ability to keep fighting rarely left him during his senior season.

Feel-good Moment: Former players return to support program prior to Oklahoma State game — Before the first home game of Bowen’s time as KU’s interim head coach, a couple hundred former KU football players returned to Lawrence and lined the field as the Jayhawks came out of the locker room. The line stretched from the fence near the locker room all the way into the south end zone and featured many players who said they came to show their support for Bowen. Several were former Bowen teammates and the group included Jayhawks who played during seven different decades.

Runner-up: KU snags another Big 12 victory — In the five seasons since Mark Mangino left town, conference victories have been tough to come by for Kansas. So when the Jayhawks thoroughly dominated Iowa State at home in early November for just the third Big 12 victory since 2009, the fans rushed the field, ripped down the south goal post and celebrated with the team long after the final horn sounded.

Feel-not-so-good Moment: Surrendering NCAA single-game rushing record to OU freshman Samaje Perine — In miserable conditions in Norman, Oklahoma, the Jayhawks were embarrassed by an Oklahoma offense that cleared the way for Perine to rumble his way to 427 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries. The 245-pound freshman with light feet and a heavy engine averaged 12.6 yards per carry and broke the week-old record set by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon on the second play of the fourth quarter during a 44-7 Oklahoma rout.

Runner-up: 41-3 drubbing at Duke during second week of the season — The Duke game was supposed to be the one where KU proved that 2014 would be different, but it wound up being a sign that more bad things were ahead. KU was manhandled from start to finish and was out-gained 511-297 on offense. The loss was one of six road defeats during the 2014 season, and KU takes a 33-game road losing streak into 2015.