The players who make up Mark Mangino's sixth football team at Kansas University will head back to work Monday, intent on closing the gap on upper-division Big 12 teams.
The workouts are "optional." It always pays to remind new players what that really means: If they don't show up for all of them and don't work as if their scholarships depend on it, Mangino has the option to leave them on the bench.
They'll work hard, all right. That never has been a problem under Mangino, an organized disciplinarian. By now, the progress the program has made under the former assistant to Bill Snyder at Kansas State and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma can be measured in simple terms: Wins and losses.
Can Mangino's sixth team accomplish what no previous Kansas football squad has in 11 tries? Can the Jayhawks break even in the eight games against Big 12 competition? If the answer is yes, the program has made legitimate, measurable strides.
In his only season at the helm after the Big 12 added the four Texas schools, Glen Mason went 2-6 in conference play. Terry Allen's records were 3-5, 1-7, 3-5, 2-6 and 1-7, for a total of 10-30. Mangino's records have been 0-8, 3-5, 2-6, 3-5, 3-5, for an 11-29 total.
Mangino went 0-8 with the players and culture left him by Allen. Mangino has been here long enough to put his own stamp on things. All the remaining players are his recruits. The program is marketed aggressively. The crowds have grown. Now the question is, can Kansas win four of these eight: at Kansas State, Baylor, at Colorado, at Texas A&M, Nebraska, at Oklahoma State, Iowa State and vs. Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium?
In an attempt to upgrade the caliber of athletes on board, Mangino initially recruited too many junior college players, which indirectly ran the program into trouble with the NCAA. In the area of recruiting players from two-year schools, the quantity has gone way down, the quality up.
The key to this season could be the holes plugged by JC recruits. Only three new ones joined the team, but they all experienced encouraging springs and are expected to play key roles. Cornerback Kendrick Harper and safety Patrick Resby should make the secondary better. Guard Chet Hartley, all 315 pounds of him, will be counted on to help an offensive line that is anchored by NFL prospect Anthony Collins at left tackle, but is shy on proven Big 12 blockers. On paper, the O-line is the team's biggest cause for concern, especially given Kerry Meier's penchant for throwing interceptions facing pressure and Todd Reesing's tendency to fumble.
Defensively, the depth of the line also is a concern, though coordinator Bill Young is so clever he could come up with ways to use packages that make depth at linebacker mask lack of it up front.
Leadership shouldn't be an issue, given the presence of tight end Derek Fine, running back Brandon McAnderson, defensive tackle James McClinton, and safety Darrell Stuckey.
Al Davis, czar of the Oakland Raiders all these decades, would give Mangino's KU teams passing grades in following two of his three key sayings: "Commitment to Excellence," and "Pride and Poise."
Two down, one to go. The toughest one.
"Just win, baby!"