The Kansas University football team’s offense and defense have had both good and bad moments throughout the first eight games of the season.
KU’s special-teams play, however, has been a consistent problem.
From giving up blocked punts and punt returns to struggling with personnel and execution, the Jayhawks have been victimized in the area that many coaches emphasize as the third-most-important facet of the game.
Some weeks it has cost the Jayhawks dearly. Others, it’s simply added to their misery.
Tuesday, at his weekly news conference, KU coach Turner Gill talked at length about his team’s struggles on special teams. Although the Jayhawks continue to have issues there — Iowa State’s Josh Lenz returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown last week — Gill said he and his staff had identified the problem.
“I don’t think scheme’s an issue at this point in time,” Gill said. “We’ve tinkered with that in all different areas, but right now we’re set in our schemes. It’s just a matter of, when you have an opportunity to make a play, you gotta make it.”
Too many times this season, the Jayhawks have not.
In the season opener, against North Dakota State, the Bison blocked a punt in the second quarter, with Kansas leading 3-0. Though the block didn’t directly lead to points, it did shift the field-position battle, and, two drives later, NDSU cashed in with a game-tying field goal.
Two weeks later, at Southern Miss, another breakdown in punt protection led to a special-teams touchdown for the Golden Eagles late in the first half. That blocked punt turned an 11-point KU deficit into a three-score game, and the Jayhawks never recovered.
In the games that followed, the Jayhawks began to protect senior punter Alonso Rojas better, but punting still was an issue. The loss of four-year starter Kayl Anderson at long snapper has hurt, and Rojas, who until this season was a pro-style punter, also has been asked to mix in a few rugby-style kicks.
In addition, the Jayhawks have looked confused on several occasions, with both too few and too many men on the field during punting situations.
“That’s inexperience,” Gill said. “But it’s also (that) our guys need to finish plays. I’m not going to try to sit here and make excuses. We’ve got the guys in there to make plays, and they’ve gotta make the play.”
These days, KU’s biggest special-teams concern appears to be in the return game. While the kickoff return numbers are similar (22.9 yards per return for KU and 23.9 for opponents), KU’s foes have had the advantage in punt returns, with the Jayhawks averaging just 3.8 yards per return and opponents averaging 14.7.
“Whenever you (give up) a big play in any phase of it it is disappointing,” Gill said. “We had opportunities to make plays in the punt return (against Iowa State), and that was really a big play in the ballgame. I thought that was one area where we thought we’d be pretty good in. We have improved, but when you have a big play like that, it’s disappointing.”
The Jayhawks have had a few good moments on special teams this season. Sophomore D.J. Beshears has been electric on the kickoff-return unit, averaging 27.8 yards per return, with one touchdown.
“All the other areas have kind of been inconsistent,” Gill said. “There’ve been games we’ve done pretty good, and there’ve been games where we haven’t done so well. We continue to make adjustments, continue to improve and continue to work at it.”
Starting QB still a mystery
KU coach Turner Gill said Tuesday he still did not know who would start at quarterback this week against Colorado.
It seems as if Gill is waiting to see how injured starter Jordan Webb (non-throwing shoulder) progresses this week. If healthy, Webb will start.
If not, Gill said the job would go to either sophomore Kale Pick, who has returned from a concussion, or junior Quinn Mecham, who started last week at Iowa State.
“I think we just have to wait and see as we go through the week,” Gill said. “We’ll just kind of take it day-by-day.”
Offensive coordinator Chuck Long said the delay in the decision would not handcuff the KU offense much.
“Different guys do different things better,” he said. “We put together a gameplan with our base stuff first and then (look at) what we can do to hurt the other team. When it comes to different quarterbacks being in the game, I just go to a different section of the playbook.”
Asked if he’d be comfortable going with Mecham after seeing him perform last week against the Cyclones, Long said, absolutely.
Pass rush improving
The KU defense has lived in the opponents’ backfield a little more during the past two weeks. Defensive coordinator Carl Torbush credited the play of defensive linemen Toben Opurum, Richard Johnson, Jake Laptad and Patrick Dorsey, among others, for the improvement.
“I think they’ve just played better,” Torbush said. “I don’t know if it’s anything that we’ve done. We’ve been able to put a little more pressure on them, but probably a key is that we’ve been able to get people in more third-down situations.”
Marshall making progress
Sophomore, D.J. Marshall, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound defensive end from Mesquite, Texas, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in late 2009, has made significant progress toward defeating the disease, Gill said Tuesday.
“He is now cancer-free,” Gill said. “He has been lifting weights and also now is doing minimal football activities. It’s really a smile that’s great to see on his face. It’s really good to see a young man who has had a lot of tough times (make this kind of progress).”
After numerous trips in and out of the hospital and several different types of treatments, Marshall’s future at Kansas remains very much tied to the football program.
“I’m happy for him, I’m also happy for our football team,” Gill said. “Hopefully, as we go into spring football practice and next season, he will be available for us.”