In Northern Illinois, a much tougher opponent awaits Kansas University’s football team Saturday than the McNeese State squad the Jayhawks defeated 42-24 Saturday night in Memorial Stadium.
Win or lose, though, for those who hold season tickets, the weekly battle to stay awake at games appears behind them.
An infusion of fast, slippery athletes has juiced an offense that a year ago left spectators wishing they could get infomercials on their iPhones.
Many in the announced crowd of 41,068 left buzzing about three true freshmen and one red-shirt freshman. They brought speed and/or the ability to bust quick moves that trip up defenders.
Wide receiver JaCorey Shepherd (three catches, 107 yards, two touchdowns) and super-fast running back Tony Pierson (averaged 14.6 yards on five carries, one for a TD) had the same sort of glide as players from national powerhouses. Running back Darrian Miller (4.8 yards per carry on 13 rushes) has a little bit of everything, and Brandon Bourbon (three carries, 19 yards) showed he’ll develop into far more than a fourth-string tailback. Mix in sophomore James Sims (19 carries, 104 yards), and Kansas is set at running back.
For a school that typically doesn’t get the first pick of athletes to have that much young talent at offensive skill positions leads to the inescapable conclusion that Turner Gill has assistant coaches who can recruit, two in particular: recruiting coordinator/running backs coach Reggie Mitchell and receivers coach David Beaty.
Mitchell, with the help of offensive coordinator Chuck Long, convinced Bourbon of Potosi, Mo., to come to KU after he already had committed to Stanford. Mitchell drew a commitment from Pierson after he had pledged to Missouri. Miller, of Blue Springs, Mo., had solid offers from Iowa, Kansas State, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Mitchell convinced him KU was the place for him.
Sims committed to Beaty out of Irving, Texas, and stayed with KU after Beaty wasn’t retained by Gill. Hired by Gill after a year at Rice University, Beaty convinced Shepherd, of Mesquite, Texas, to give him the same answer he had given Darrell Wyatt before Wyatt left KU to join Mack Brown’s Texas staff. Shepherd originally was headed to Iowa.
Sure, the offense still has issues. Quarterback Jordan Webb isn’t there yet in spotting open receivers in a timely manner, and his accuracy remains suspect. A better defense will recover too quickly for a receiver to remain open as long as Daymond Patterson was before Webb finally spotted him and hit him for a touchdown. One of Shepherd’s scores was on a pass intended for Kale Pick.
Credit Webb with managing the game well enough that KU didn’t turn the ball over once. He wisely didn’t try to be Todd Reesing because there were only two Todd Reesings, and the first one’s name was Fran Tarkenton.
The run, run, run, pass primarily when the defense has been sucked in approach worked. If the healthier, more fit offensive line can dominate to the extent it did against a lower-division defense, it might remain competitive against better teams.