Note: This story is a part of the 2012 KU football preview section that appears in Sunday's Journal-World.
New faces and an increase in talent figure to turn the Kansas University offense into one of the biggest surprises in the Big 12 Conference this college football season.
After finishing near or at the bottom of the Big 12 in many offensive statistical categories in 2011, the Jayhawks should be one of the most improved offensive teams in the league this season. While teams such as Baylor (Robert Griffin III) and Oklahoma State (Brandon Weeden) are trying to replace some of the league’s top quarterbacks, the Jayhawks have upgraded at the position.
New KU coach Charlie Weis brought to town two former five-star QBs, including likely starter Dayne Crist, and also recruited several junior-college transfers who should serve as dangerous weapons for the Kansas offense.
Here’s a look at how KU’s point-producers break down by position.
From the day he committed to Kansas back in December, former Notre Dame quarterback Crist, a fifth-year senior, was penciled in as the starter, and in the months since, Crist has done nothing but cement his spot as the leader of the offense.
Voted by teammates as one of KU’s three co-captains, Crist’s experience and intelligence should give the Jayhawks a big lift on offense both in terms of ability and the confidence he brings to the huddle.
Since Crist’s arrival, Weis has talked repeatedly about the trust he has in the QB he recruited to Notre Dame. But Weis is not the only one who feels at home again.
“I was recruited for what coach Weis wanted to do,” Crist said. “I feel so much more comfortable doing the things coach Weis asks me to do. That’s why I committed to him the first time at Notre Dame.”
Behind Crist are sophomore Turner Baty, a junior-college transfer from City College of San Francisco, and red-shirt freshman Michael Cummings. Both have the ability to beat opposing defenses with their legs as well as their arms and both are in the mix to be Crist’s immediate back-up.
Few positions on this KU team have as much depth as running back, where four backs will challenge for carries throughout the season.
The leader of the pack and likely the team’s most dangerous tailback is sophomore Tony Pierson, a speed back who can score from anywhere on the field and is as fast and elusive as any player on KU’s team. Weis has said throughout the offseason that Pierson is a guy who has to touch the ball 15-18 times a game, but the biggest question for Pierson’s 5-foot-10, 168-pound frame is whether he can take the pounding that comes with being an every-down back. Pierson finished his freshman season with 396 yards and three touchdowns.
Behind Pierson are sophomore Brandon Bourbon (190 yards and 1 TD) and juco transfer Taylor Cox. The Jayhawks also will have the services of junior James Sims, the team’s leading rusher in 2010 and 2011, but Sims will miss the first three games because of a suspension.
Nearly a dozen different receivers are vying for playing time in the KU passing game this season, but, unlike running back, where the Jayhawks at least know what they have, the receiver position is full of guys who are still looking to make a name for themselves within the offense.
Seniors D.J. Beshears, Kale Pick and Daymond Patterson were far and away the team’s top threats during the spring, and all three should play an important role in the passing game this fall. Beshears and Patterson are dynamic play-maker types who can turn short passes into big plays, and Pick seems to have become the team’s reliable possession receiver.
Outside of those three, the Jayhawks still are looking for a deep threat down the field, and there are several guys who could step into that role. They include: returners Chris Omigie, Christian Matthews and Andrew Turzilli, as well as juco transfer Josh Ford.
“I’d say of all the positions on the team, the position that there’s been the most competition has been wide receiver,” Weis said midway through spring drills.
Although the Jayhawks lost three-year starter Tim Biere to graduation, the tight end position also seems to be one of the deeper units on the team. One problem: No one on the depth chart has proven he can be a team’s go-to tight end.
Returners Jimmay Mundine and Trent Smiley were at the top of the depth chart this spring, but they will be pushed quickly by transfers Mike Ragone (Notre Dame) and Charles Brooks (Scottsdale CC), as well as true freshman Jordan Smith (Reicher High, in Waco, Texas).
Ragone, primarily a blocker at Notre Dame who was one of the top tight end prospects in the nation out of high school, this preseason was one of 25 tight ends named to the Mackey Award watch list.
A 6-foot-4, 262-pound senior from Cherry Hill, N.J., Ragone transferred to KU after spending five seasons at Notre Dame. He appeared in 37 games for the Fighting Irish and recorded 11 catches for 109 yards for his career, including six receptions for 60 yards during the final season he played for Weis.
Depth is a major question on the offensive line, but KU’s front-line guys have loads of talent and experience.
Seniors and returning starters Tanner Hawkinson, Trevor Marrongelli and Duane Zlatnik will anchor the line, with Hawkinson returning to his familiar spot at left tackle, Zlatnik lining up next to him at left guard and Marrongelli replacing the departed Jeremiah Hatch at center.
On the right side, Gavin Howard is a likely option at right guard, with Riley Spencer and juco transfer Aslam Sterling (6-5, 330) holding down the right tackle position.
Hawkinson, a four-year starter, was voted as one of three co-captains in April. Zlatnik had a breakout year in 2011 and should translate well into Weis’ offense. And Marrongelli, who has spent the past couple of seasons in a utility role, should benefit from playing one position full-time.