To hear Kansas University red-shirt freshman Jeff Spikes talk about what it was like manning the left tackle position early in the season is to picture a youth basketball player learning the proper mechanics of shooting a layup.
“My first three games of the season I was just thinking about myself, trying to get myself right, trying to get my footsteps right, trying to get my techniques, all my fundamentals down,” said Spikes, a native of Painesville, Ohio. “Now I know my techniques and my fundamentals, and I still am trying to improve on them, but now I’m able to also read the defense and read what they’re doing at the same time, so it’s better.”
Spikes, whose first love was basketball, didn’t begin playing football until his junior year in high school. His more experienced roommate, Jeremiah Hatch, also a red-shirt freshman, took over the left tackle spot for the Iowa State game, and Spikes moved to right tackle.
The entire season was a learning experience for Spikes, whose worst performance came in Lincoln, Neb.
“That’s when I saw the most unfamiliar things happen with the defense,” Spikes said. “There were things I hadn’t experienced. There were techniques I hadn’t played against. That was really unfamiliar for me, and that made me not play in my element. I wasn’t too sure, wasn’t comfortable. But I learned the most from that game just because I had the experience of going through things like that I hadn’t seen before. I learned more that game than the first three games of the season.”
Told how Spikes reviewed his season, Kansas coach Mark Mangino said, “That’s a good self-assessment that he made there. I think he was mechanical in the beginning, more worried about how he’s supposed to position himself rather than it coming naturally, and that comes with experience. The more repetitions you get, especially game repetitions, the more comfortable you get. You can see him really starting to understand things, and he’s much more fluid with areas that he struggled with early in the year.”
Before the Insight Bowl, Spikes was asked to name his best game of the season.
“My coach, John Reagan, said my best game was the Missouri game because he said I played well from beginning to end,” Spikes said. “I’m not sure because I really don’t kind of judge it like that, but that’s what he said so I’m going to take what he said and just run with it.”
Spikes isn’t KU’s most effective offensive lineman yet, but his ceiling is considered the highest.
“I still don’t feel like it’s clicked to the point I’m fully understanding what’s going on, like dealing with the defense, that’s something that comes with experience in football, and I’m learning that now,” said Spikes, who added he has learned a lot from teammates Adrian Mayes, Chet Hartley and Ryan Cantrell and former teammate Anthony Collins, now of the Cincinnati Bengals. Collins also came to football late from basketball.
“Being behind him was a blessing all its own because he knew so much, and he’s playing in the league right now, so everything he taught me was a blessing,” Spikes said. “All the knowledge I didn’t have, he instilled in me. And my offensive line coach, John Reagan, he’s still teaching me fundamentals and techniques. The experience of being behind Anthony Collins and playing for a great coach and great teacher, I feel like I’m finally catching up to where I need to be right now.”
Spikes said he tries to talk with Collins weekly.
“He encourages me, and I try to encourage him, too,” Spikes said. “Just because you make it to the league doesn’t mean everything is all nice and dandy like it seems to people. I’m proud of him. Since I got here all he could talk about was, ‘Momma gotta eat.’ He took that as his motivation. Since he made it to the league and got to where he wanted to be and hopefully will continue to excel, I think he’s going to continue to have his mother eat, and he’s going to eat at the same time.”
A return to left tackle could be in the cards for the 6-foot-6, 314-pound Spikes, but Mangino recently didn’t give any hints to the alignment of next year’s offensive line and also praised the play of 6-3, 311-pound Hatch at left tackle.
All three members of the guard box — guards Mayes and Hartley and center Cantrell — are seniors. Wisconsin transfer Brad Thorson is a candidate to start at either guard or center. Moving Hatch to the middle of the line, either at center or one of the guard positions, is another option, provided Ben Lueken or Ian Wolfe is ready to start at tackle. Trevor Marrongelli and Sal Capra both are candidates to play in the guard box.
“I’m not sure I can answer that right now,” Mangino said of Hatch moving inside. “Jeremiah right now is our best left tackle, and he’s getting better and better. I have been with teams where the left tackle was not a big, long, rangy guy, but played well and was very good at that position. Because he has good athleticism, he plays with a low center of gravity, he’s quick, it gives him a chance to be pretty good at that position. We’ll look and see. Here, we evaluate personnel nearly every day. But right now, I’m in no hurry to drag him out of there.”
It’s also possible a player not-yet recruited could work his way into the lineup.
“I think we will have a good line,” Mangino said. “I’m comfortable with what we have here, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of perhaps, if we found a junior-college player that we thought would fit our needs, and would help us, we would do that. But it’s not a high priority in the recruiting, I’ll put it that way.”