Projected to finish fourth in the Big 12 North, Kansas squashed the doubters and Mark Mangino went from the preseason hot seat to earning consensus coach-of-the-year honors during a magical ride in 2007. In one of the nation's biggest turnarounds of last season, Kansas rose as high as No. 2 nationally and went to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1968, where it beat its first top-five team in 13 years. Good news for Jayhawk fans: There could be more to come.
Briefly: Consistency key for Jayhawks' success
Let's get this out of the way: Kansas lost three All-Americans in offensive tackle Anthony Collins, cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive tackle James McClinton. For the first time in its history, Kansas produced a 3,000-yard passer in Todd Reesing, a 1,000-yard rusher in Brandon McAnderson and a 1,000-yard receiver in Marcus Henry. McAnderson and Henry are also gone.
But Mangino enters his seventh season with one of his deepest rosters, including 15 returning starters from the only team in the nation to rank in the top five nationally in both scoring offense (second) and scoring defense (fourth), and that finished in the top two in seven categories in the Big 12. While optimism runs rampant among a group that entered the spring bursting with pride as the Orange Bowl champions, its workman-like approach befits a program unwilling to take things for granted.
The seeds are planted. Mangino is pleased as he prepares for the fall.
"It was similar to last year's spring," he said. "The kids really took a business-like approach to it. We had a good up-tempo spring. It was physical. It was very hard from the time they were on the field and they learned a lot. There was a lot of learning taking place. I don't see a major difference from last year."
Is it harder to reach a first-place tie in the North or staying there? Well, it took Mangino six years to climb to that point. This season, the North appears as tough as ever.
"They're both equally difficult," Mangino predicts, "I can assure you of that."
While Reesing spent the spring adapting to a pair of new offensive tackles and a receiving corps that remains wide open heading into training camp, the defense returns nine starters and boasts considerable depth headlined by first-team All-Big 12 middle linebacker Joe Mortensen and cornerback Chris Harris, the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year by The Associated Press. The defensive line will remain a battle heading into the fall but isn't short on talent, either.
"We feel pretty good about our defense," Mangino said. "We feel like our defense is going to be pretty stellar again. It's going to be a stellar group again."
It all culminates into a sunny outlook as the Jayhawks get seven games at home, including matchups against Colorado, Texas Tech and Texas – three of six opponents coming off bowl seasons. Meanwhile, a nationally-televised meeting at South Florida on Friday, Sept. 12 will offer the first true test for Kansas four weeks before the start of the league season. The Oct. 18 contest at two-time defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma will be difficult, but the date on everyone's calendar is the regular season finale against Missouri in Kansas City – a game that could decide the North again.
"Last year's group wanted to prove something," Mangino said. "This year's team wants to maintain the excellence that last year's team had. I don't see a major difference in it at all."
Offense: People laughed at the thought. Todd Reesing? Starting quarterback? He's 5-foot-11 in thick soles. He's too frail for the Big 12. All Reesing did was emerge as the surprise in the league, throwing for 3,486 yards and guiding Kansas to school records in points, total yards and passing yards as the Jayhawks finished No. 2 nationally in scoring, No. 8 in total yards and 17th in passing offense.
Mangino enters with a clear starter for the first time at Kansas while Reesing, believed to be too fragile, became the first passer in the Mangino era to survive the season without suffering a major injury. A tweaked ankle late hurt Reesing's mobility but in no way rendered him ineffective. The offense is in good hands with Reesing, who should be the man for the next two years.
"I expect Todd to do what he can and to play within his abilities," Mangino said. "I don't expect him to put up obscene numbers this year. I expect him to have another strong year like last year. There's no reason for him not to. The biggest thing is we don't want for him to feel like he's got to carry the offense."
The offense didn't finish the way it wanted to in the spring. The first-team unit ran 71 plays for 308 yards and the second team had just 92 yards with seven punts. However, expect the offense to primarily show its no-huddle, spread look that it used with some regularity a year ago, an approach that will become a commonality in the Big 12 and that could allow Reesing to further expose defenses. In completing 13 of 18 passes, Kerry Meier remains steady as the backup. A.J. Steward, the team's top scout player a year ago, spent the spring alternating between quarterback and wide receiver.
The key here?
"We're trying to surround (Reesing) with good playmakers," Mangino said. "He lost a few of them from last year but we feel like we have plenty of playmakers on our offense to make for a strong supporting cast."
New wide receivers coach David Beaty replaces Nebraska-departee Tim Beck but the Jayhawks return four of seven receivers who posted at least 20 catches a year ago. While Dexton Fields returns 63 catches for 834 yards and 6 TDs in leading the team in receptions for two straight years, Dezmon Briscoe showed promise behind 43 catches for 496 yards and 7 TDs as a freshman and made strides in securing the ball better in the spring. Meanwhile, Meier fills a need at slot receiver and should be a dangerous weapon in embarking on his first full year at the spot.
"We know what (Meier) is capable of," Mangino said. "He and Dexton Fields right now are our two more dependable receivers."
From there, it gets interesting. What the Jayhawks need is a pass-catcher inside that can make defenders miss and create in traffic. Enter Rod Harris, a late junior college signee who believes he will bring such ingredients to a bunch that, among others, features possible up-and-comer Rell Lewis. But don't be surprised if the taller Johnathan Wilson or highly-touted Tertavian Ingram gets an opportunity to prove their tools and earn some major playing time.
Tight end is a concern. Sophomore Bradley Dedeaux made one catch last season and is the only returner with experience for the spot vacated by three-year starter Derek Fine, the school's all-time career and season leader at tight end. Nick Plato graduated from high school early and got reps in the spring. A pair of freshmen in Tim Biere and Tanner Hawkinson[/db] will join the group in training camp.
The offensive line must give Reesing some time. Center Ryan Cantrell didn't participate in the spring due to a leg injury, but should be OK by training camp. The senior started all 13 games last season. So did left guard Adrian Mayes and right guard Chet Hartley. Both tackle spots are open with the departure of Cesar Rodriguez and All-American Collins opting to leave for the NFL. Mangino left the spring believing Matt Darton and left tackle and Jeff Spikes were the best candidates at pass protection, but the line surrendered six sacks in the spring, including three on Reesing. Mangino said Spikes "may be one of the most talented offensive linemen we've had here."
"We might have found the right combination," Mangino said, "and that's something we're pleased with."
It's not a done deal yet. Nathan D'Cunha is 25-year-old Australia native who spent the spring adjusting from rugby and Ian Wolfe has added bulk to go along with outstanding footwork.
Junior Jake Sharp is the only proven running back as he had 147 carries for 821 yards and 7 TDs as a reserve last season. Even before he improved on his blocking in the spring, Sharp was the guy here. But he could get a challenge from Jocques Crawford, the NJCAA Player of the Year, who attended the spring game and believes he has what it takes to take the rushing attack to another level. Angus Quigley has always carried potential, offers a physical style and has been around for a while but must be consistent. As a true freshman, Carmon Boyd-Anderson got carries but needs further development.
"Jocques will come in here and compete like every other guy on the team," Mangino said. "He was recruited because we were hoping he'd have an immediate impact."
RETURNING LEADERS – PASSING: Todd Reesing (276-446, 3,486 yds, 33 TD, 7 INT), RUSHING: RB Jake Sharp (147 att, 821 yds, 7 TD), RECEIVING: WR Dexton Fields (63 rec, 834 yds, 6 TD)
Defense: For as much as the offense excelled last season, the defense wasn't far behind. The Jayhawks welcome back nine starters, including seven that started in every game. Four of their leading tacklers and 10 of their top 12 tacklers from a year ago return from a unit that held six of eight league opponents to fewer than 80 rushing yards and allowed just two carries longer than 25 yards during the season.
The biggest loss was the departure of coordinator Bill Young, but Clent Bowen was promoted to the position while continuing to coach safeties and Joe Bob Clements takes over Young's duties in guiding the defensive line.
Talib and McClinton are gone, but Mangino might have the deepest defense he's had at Kansas.
Perhaps that's illustrated best in the defensive line, where Jamal Green and Richard Johnson started in the spring game at the tackle spots, ahead of 13-game starter Caleb Blakesley and Todd Haselhorst in a competition that will run into training camp. At 325 pounds, incoming freshman Darius Parish is expected to be a monster.
"We're working hard to replace James McClinton and we probably don't have a James McClinton type," Mangino said, "but we have a committee of guys that will give us the repetitions we need."
Both defensive end spots should be accounted for in seniors John Larson and Russell Brorsen. Larson missed the spring game due to illness but will be OK for the fall. Jake Laptad played in all 13 games as a freshman and Maxwell Onyegbule could be used as a third-down rush end.
"(Onyegbule) is one of the most improved players in the program," Mangino said. "He has really come a long way since the Orange Bowl. He's gotten stronger, faster, is more confident in his assignments and is coming off blocks better."
Don't look now but Kansas could harbor the best trio of linebackers in the league. Mortensen missed the spring with a leg injury, but the first-team All-Big 12 selection had 106 tackles and led the league with 1.15 tackles for a loss per game. A pair of All-Big 12 honorable mention selections in James Holt and Mike Rivera, are back as well. Holt ranked second on the team with 99 tackles, including 13 for a loss while Rivera had 96 tackles, including at least 10 tackles in three games. All three finished in the top 13 in the league in tackles.
Believe it or not, the defensive secondary could emerge as the strength sans Talib. A host of playmakers with considerable experience return a combined 10 INTs from a year ago. Harris should gain All-Big 12 consideration after a stellar freshman season and Kendrick Harper fought through injuries but started three times last season. Expect Isiah Barfield and Anthony Davis to provide depth along with converted wide receiver Ryan Murphy. Free safety Darrell Stuckey is a ball hawk and finished fourth on the team with 72 tackles, 2 INTs and recovered two fumbles but strong safety Justin Thornton has Velcro for hands. Thornton missed the spring due to a leg injury but will return a team-high 5 INTs and started the last four games of last season.
"For the first time we feel like we have developed some depth in our secondary," Mangino said, "a solid two-deep."
And that could be bad news for the rest of the league.
RETURNING LEADERS – LB Joe Mortensen (106 tackles, 15.0 loss, 3.0 sacks), FS Darrell Stuckey (72 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF), RE John Larson (43 tackles, 12.0 loss, 2 INT)
Kicking game: The biggest blemish will come on special teams. Both three-year placekicker Scott Webb and four-year punter Kyle Tucker are gone. Redshirt freshman Stephen Hoge is the early favorite over fellow redshirt Jacob Branstetter. Meier handled punting duties in the spring but 2008 signee Alonso Rojas served as punter at Bowling Green in 2006 and should arrive for training camp. Kickoff return duties are in good hands, though, in Marcus Herford, whose 28.5 yards per return ranked 15th nationally. Punt returner is a little suspect as Lewis and Murphy combined to muff three punts in the spring game.
From his lips:
"I don't analyze the North versus the South because we're all in the Big 12 and eventually you've got to play everybody. But I've seen some signs of the North teams emerging I'm still a firm believer that things go in cycles." — Kansas coach Mark Mangino
6 — Categories in which the Jayhawks led the Big 12 in 2007, including scoring offense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, turnover margin and tackles for a loss.
Rivals.com '08 Best Catch: RB Jocques Crawford It's a mystery how this guy ended up being a four-star recruit and not a five-star stud. Crawford, whose first name is pronounced "Jock," was named the NJCAA Player of the Year after rushing for 1,935 yards (most by a NJCAA running back since 2000) and 19 TDs (second in NCJAA in 2007) on 283 carries (6.8 ypa). The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Memphis native had five 200-yard rushing games as a sophomore last season at Cisco (Texas) Community College. And Mangino landed him less than one year after Crawford, who also played strong safety as a freshman at Cisco, indicated he would stick to his initial commitment to Texas Tech. Obviously, Crawford was better at his other position and believes he will thrive at a different school. "I feel like Kansas is a place where I can step in and be the main guy," Crawford told JayhawkSlant.com in January. Upon watching the Kansas spring game on the sideline, Crawford, who is expected to push junior Jake Sharp, admitted to the Topeka Capital-Journal, "I really like my chances."