Kansas University's football team will have an intriguing spring.
A program on the up-and-up, KU returns many of its impact players. But question marks still are leaking out of Memorial Stadium.
We may not know the solutions for a while. The month of practices between Sunday and the spring game April 16 mostly will be hush-hush. Fans can watch only one session and the spring game, and media are invited to just two practices.
Inside the covered fences of grass practice fields, though, KU coach Mark Mangino will be trying to come up with answers to at least five questions:
Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
It's the most important issue of the spring -- a four-way battle among Adam Barmann, Brian Luke, Jason Swanson and Marcus Herford. All but Herford, who took a red-shirt season in 2004, have shown the ability to get the job done, though none did it consistently last year. Herford, meanwhile, has received rave reviews from those who saw him on the scout team in 2004, but whether that can carry over to the Big 12 Conference remains to be seen. This question may not be answered publicly until August, but the 15 workouts until then will give KU's coaching staff a good idea.
How will the midyear transfers pan out?
If the six junior-college transfers who showed up in January -- Paul Como, Marcus Anderson, Wayne Wilder, Brian Murph, Eric Washington and Jake Cox -- turn out to be as solid and savvy as the midyear players of last spring, Mangino and his staff will be tickled. Theo Baines, Jermial Ashley and Rodney Harris each helped boost KU's defense from futile in 2003 to feared in 2004, selling Mangino on midyear transfers. Defensive tackle Wilder -- would "Big Double-Dub" be a good nickname for him? -- could be the marquee player in this class, but if three or four make an impact the Jayhawks may not have issues with depth and growing pains.
Can Kansas re-establish its big-play passing game?
In 2003, Bill Whittemore, his pass protection and his receiving options made the Jayhawk offense exciting and explosive, but the deep-passing game wasn't there in 2004. Can KU get it back? It starts up front, where Mangino said KU's offensive line was expected to be stronger and deeper.
That could lead to a more comfortable quarterback in the pocket. But who is going to catch the passes? Mark Simmons is the top returning wideout, and Murph, Charles Gordon and Marcus Henry could be options. Wide receiver was the offensive position hit hardest by graduation, so spring is an important time for these guys to step up and step in.
Who will replace Johnny Beck?
Believe it or not, this is important. Beck's right leg was powerful, but he had problems keeping field-goal tries between the uprights throughout his career. However, he hit his last four attempts, all in pressure situations. Where he will be missed most, though, is on kickoffs. Coupled with solid special-teams work on kickoff coverage, Beck's boots often had opponents starting drives inside the 20-yard line, making the defense better. Mangino is anticipating Scott Webb kicking field goals and PATs, with punter Kyle Tucker slated to launch kickoffs. The question is, will we notice a difference?
How does a program learn to win?
This invisible intangible seemingly is a moving target for a rebuilding program -- how in the heck do you learn to win? It seemed the aura surrounding a close-game situation never was favorable for KU, which led to Nebraska, Texas, Iowa State, Northwestern and Texas Tech dodging bullets last fall. Somewhere between the 27-23 loss to Texas and this September, KU needs to find that magic recipe for a don't-mess-with-us attitude late in games. KU fans won't be in the mood to bear the agony of being "so close, it hurt" in 2005.