Note: This story is part of the 2010-11 KU football preview section that appeared in Saturday's Journal-World.
Kansas University football coach Turner Gill must feel like he’s staring down at one of those 5,000-piece puzzles.
With serious depth at just about every offensive position, Gill has plenty of weapons at his disposal. The key will be finding a way to fit them all together.
After three years of high-flying, scoreboard-popping offensive football, KU enters a new era. Gone are Todd Reesing, Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier, three of the most potent offensive players the university ever has seen. Thrust into the position of trying to replace them is a new coach who will run a new system with a handful of talented, but unproven, players.
Though he’s had just a handful of practices to work with his new crew, Gill has made it clear that things will change in 2010. In place of the seemingly endless aerial attack employed by the former regime, Gill and his staff will strive for balance. In doing so they’ll put greater emphasis on the ground game, but not so much that they’ll abandon the pass.
“We’re going to have our offense adjust to whatever talent we have,” Gill said. “We’ll run multiple sets on offense, and we’ll have a little bit of everything in our repertoire.”
That’s a good thing for the Jayhawks, who have a little bit of everything on their roster.
At quarterback, the Jayhawks entered preseason camp with two players battling for the right to replace Reesing. Third-year sophomore Kale Pick and red-shirt freshman Jordan Webb bring different skill-sets to the field, but they share a desire to compete and win.
Having spent 2009 as the direct back-up to Reesing, Pick began the spring with a slight edge if for no other reason than experience alone. Pick is a dual-threat type of quarterback who spent most of last season rushing the ball but nearly all of his high school career as a gunslinger. Though he has been asked to learn a new system, Pick seemed up for the challenge throughout the spring.
“Coaches say I have confidence, and I’d like to think I do,” he said. “They like players who step on the field with confidence, and if you’re not confident in what you do, I don’t think you’ll be very successful.”
Webb’s confidence increased as the spring went on, and by the end of spring drills it had reached a level that matched his arm strength, intelligence and attitude. Webb said throughout the spring that he loved the new offense, and his emergence as a co-leader in the race for the starting spot proved that he had a handle on what was expected.
“I think we can do anything we want on offense,” Webb said. “We definitely want to establish a run game because that’ll be important. But I think we can play to whatever the defense wants to give us.”
On the ground, the Jayhawks have several options. Sixth-year senior Angus Quigley, who returns to his natural position after an experiment at linebacker flopped, was the one running back who gained the most praise from Gill and the staff this spring. But he’s far from alone in competing for carries.
Last year’s leading rusher, Toben Opurum, will be in the mix, as will junior Rell Lewis, red-shirt freshman Deshaun Sands and true freshmen Brandon Bourbon and James Sims.
“We say it every year, but this year I really feel like we chance to have great depth with our running backs,” Opurum said. “We all bring a different style to how we run.”
KU’s biggest challenge may come at receiver, where senior Johnathan Wilson and sophomore Bradley McDougald return as the most experienced wideouts. Both hauled in more than 30 receptions a season ago, and both will be leaned on heavily as the team seeks to replace Briscoe and Meier.
Wilson has paid his dues and should get the first crack at being this team’s go-to receiver. He should have plenty of help down the field, though, no matter how well he fares.
Junior Daymond Patterson returns to wideout from the secondary and he, along with sophomore D.J. Beshears, provide the Jayhawks with two lightning-quick weapons in the slot. Up top, Wilson will be joined by red-shirt freshmen Chris Omigie, Erick McGriff and Christian Matthews.
“To be honest with you, the thing that we have, the thing that we love about the system, is that it’s versatile,” wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt said.
One new wrinkle that has seldom been seen at KU during the past several seasons is the expected increase in importance of the tight end. Junior Tim Biere emerged late in 2009 as a viable option in the passing game, and he appears to have picked up right where he left off. His confidence along with the set-up of the new system appear to have Biere poised for a breakout season.
“This new offense is great for tight ends,” Biere said. “Last year I was more in a blocking role. Toward the end of the season, we did a little bit more with catching passes, but this year it’s night-and-day. We’re out there almost every play.”
Up front, the Jayhawks return four regular starters on the offensive line but have little proven depth behind them. Preseason All-Big 12 selection Tanner Hawkinson will anchor the line at left tackle, and he’ll be joined by seniors Sal Capra and Brad Thorson, junior Jeremiah Hatch and sophomore Trevor Marrongelli. Thorson enters camp on the mend from a broken foot, and the line also will be without junior Jeff Spikes, who injured his Achille’s tendon in July and will miss the 2010 season.
Despite the injuries and lack of depth, the KU coaches feel good about having stability up front and about the task of trying to piece everything together.
“The offensive line has a little more stability there, with the experience,” offensive coordinator Chuck Long said. “And having the offensive line back with experience does help. It’s a good start. Especially with young quarterbacks. One of the best things about our entire offense is we have a lot of young guys who are going to be around awhile.”