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In defense of Kansas football

Spring football starts next week, which explains why everything I’m seeing today has a reddish hue. Could it be the rose-colored glasses I wear about this time every year? Could be, but what joy lies in squashing hope?

I think a lot about Kansas football and how Kansas elevated itself to win three bowl games last decade. I spoke with Todd Reesing about that and much more recently and will share his thoughts in coming days. For now, let’s take a position-by-position look at the 2014 defense, an easier side of the ball on which to feel solid optimism.

Defensive line: KU ranked eighth among 10 Big 12 teams in 2013 with 21 sacks and had to send the house frequently to get that many. KU has not had truly disruptive D-linemen since James McClinton (last season was 2007) pushed the pocket and before that Charlton Keith (2005) flew off the edge.

Ben Goodman has moved inside from the buck position, which creates more downs for Michael Reynolds. At times, Reynolds has looked like a star on the cusp of emerging, but those moments haven’t been consistent enough. The urgency so many seniors play with could bring out the best in the talented pass-rusher from Wichita. He led the team with 6.5 sacks a year ago. Can he double that total? If Reynolds doesn’t make a big leap, maybe juco transfer Anthony Olobia, a 6-5, 240-pound recruit who drew an offer from Oklahoma, could push him for time. Victor Simmons has moved to buck, a new view for him in teeing off on quarterbacks.

Keon Stowers was the most consistent performer in the middle of the defensive line and will receive help from underrated Tedarian Johnson and Ty McKinney. Andrew Bolton, who looks most like an NFL player in terms of body type of anyone on the roster, has a high ceiling. Before he injured his knee at junior college, which led to him red-shirting a year ago for KU, LSU was on his trail. That's L-S-U. Forgive me if that three-letter combination makes me optimistic that KU’s D-line might not need as much help in getting to the quarterback as it needed a year ago.

Linebackers: I hear complaints about middle linebacker Ben Heeney running wildly out of his assignment area at times. Maybe some of those are legitimate. Maybe some of those making the complaints aren’t in on where he’s supposed to be? This much I can see with my own eyes: When healthy, he’s really fast, really physical and really tough. Those all are great qualities for a middle linebacker.

But where is the help for Heeney? Undersized Jake Love performed well in place of an injured Heeney in the middle and was solid on the outside before that.

Kyron Watson of East St. Louis, Ill., certainly is an exciting prospect, but at 6-1, 210, he ideally could use a year in the weight room before starting his college eligibility clock. Samson Faifili, injured most of last season, returns on the outside and Schyler Miles adds depth on the inside.

Come to think of it, the Jayhawks might not have the luxury of red-shirting Watson. His speed could come in handy right away. Incoming freshman Josh Ehambe from Arlington, Texas will fight to get on the field as well. Marcus Jenkins-Moore, a juco transfer who missed last season with a serious knee injury, still is on the mend.

Concerns over the lack of depth at linebacker are eased by the reality that the base defense has a buck and a nickel back on the field, which leaves room for just two linebackers.

Secondary: Strongest, deepest unit on the roster.
Cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, both seniors, upgraded the position with solid junior seasons and there is no reason to believe they’ll do anything but improve. Junior safety Isaiah Johnson tied (with TCU’s Sam Carter, behind only Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert) with five interceptions and earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors.

Johnson definitely has a knack for picks and is a nice complement to assignment-sound Cassius Sendish, a coach’s dream of a safety in that he brings such smarts onto the field. Courtney Arnick performed well late in the season at nickel back and will be bigger and better.

Kevin Short, the highly regarded juco transfer forced to sit out last season because he was not cleared academically by the NCAA, will push all five returning starters and if he doesn’t beat out anyone will give KU excellent depth. Junior Brandon Holloman and juco recruits Anthony “Fish” Smithson and Ronnie Davis add to the depth.

I’ll be shocked if the 2014 defense isn’t KU’s best in the post-Mark Mangino era.

For more thoughts on impending spring football, check out the transcript of Matt Tait's chat.

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Many names in news have ties to KU football

For the fifth year in a row, Kansas University sat out the college football bowl season, which coincides with coach hiring/firing season. However, many making headlines during the past month of festive football games and optimism-filled, introductory news conferences for coaches had ties to KU football.

Mark Mangino: Now that the former KU head coach has moved from Youngstown State to Iowa State, Oklahoma State is the only current Big 12 school that was part of the Big Eight when Mangino first worked in the conference for Kansas State that has not employed him. The Cyclones’ new offensive coordinator does have orange in his background, however, having won the 2008 Orange Bowl.

John Reagan: Offensive line coach at KU under Mangino, Reagan left his post at Rice after coordinating the Owls’ offense in a 41-24 victory against Marshall in the Conference USA championship game to return to KU. He was not on hand to try to help the overmatched Owls in a 44-7 loss to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl.

Charlie Strong: Coming off a 12-1 season capped by a 36-9 demolition of Miami (Fla.), the Louisville coach takes over for ousted Mack Brown at Texas. It wasn’t the first time he interviewed for a Big 12 job. Strong, then an assistant at South Carolina, was one of three candidates to have an in-person interview with then-KU athletic director Al Bohl, according to a former KU athletic department official. The Dec. 1, 2001 interview took place in Bohl’s home, later noted for Bohl’s dramatic “crushed me like a dove” driveway press conference in which the AD fingered basketball coach Roy Williams for his tenure ending. Strong and wife Vicki flew in and out of KCI the same day the interview took place.

Mark Dantonio: The Michigan State head coach had the season of his life, leading the Spartans to a No. 3 national ranking, a 13-1 record and a Rose Bowl championship earned in a 24-20 victory against rugged Stanford. A look at Dantonio’s resume might lead most to the conclusion that after four seasons as secondary coach under Glen Mason at Kansas (1991-94), Dantonio left for Michigan State because it had a better football program. Not so, according to multiple former KU staffers who say Mason showed Dantonio the door, opening an opportunity for him to work on Nick Saban’s staff at Michigan State.

J.B. Grimes: Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn took Grimes with him from Arkansas State to coach the offensive line. Auburn led the nation in rushing with Grimes, O-line coach at Kansas for Turner Gill’s two seasons, instructing the blockers.

Geneo Grissom: The former Hutch High defensive end turned teammate Eric Striker’s sack-fumble into a touchdown during No. 6 Oklahoma’s 45-31 upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Grissom, who has one season of eligibility remaining, also had two sacks of his own.

Grissom had made a verbal commitment to Kansas. After Mangino was fired, Grissom let it be known he would honor his commitment as long as linebackers coach Bill Miller was retained by the next staff. Miller was sent packing and Grissom signed with Oklahoma. Grissom started his OU career as a defensive end, was switched to tight end, then back to his original position. With the amazing hands he showed on a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. Texas, it looks as if he might have been a good tight end too.

Tom Hayes: Defensive coordinator for Kansas State, winner of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, which is played not in Buffalo, rather in Tempe, Ariz. Hayes was KU’s defensive coordinator/secondary coach in 2001, when he took over as interim head coach for three games after Terry Allen was fired. Hayes interviewed for the head coaching job in Bohl’s home. During that interview, Bohl twice excused himself to take calls he received on his cell phone, according to former KU officials, who said they later learned those calls were from Mangino.

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John Reagan knows how to build blockers, but needs more building blocks

In addition to designing an offense that makes sense for the personnel on hand, new Kansas University football offensive coordinator John Reagan must develop young blockers into Big 12-ready offensive linemen.

It’s not an easy task for anyone, but it’s not as if Reagan hasn’t been there, done that. Reagan built quite the resume in his five seasons as O-line coach under Mark Mangino (2005-2009). In 2008, Reagan’s line featured a pair of red-shirt freshmen (Jeremiah Hatch and Jeff Spikes) at tackle and a former walk-on (Adrian Mayes) at one of the guard spots.

Reagan’s known throughout the industry as a relentless driller of fundamentals.

But the former Syracuse lineman faces quite the challenge in working his magic in time to provide ample protection for Jake Heaps, the favorite to earn the starting quarterback job, provided the coaches are confident he won’t face the same pass rush that hammered him into retreat mode the first two-thirds of last season.

On paper, KU looks as if it has enough strength and experience to get the job done in the middle three positions.

Center Joe Gibson impressed during his red-shirt season. Juco recruit Keyon Haughton, enrolling for second semester, will get a chance to show what he has at center and guard in spring football. Returning guards Ngalu Fusimalohi, Damon Martin and Mike Smithburg make that a position of strength.

It’s at tackle that KU appears frighteningly thin and could use a boost from a graduating transfer with one remaining year of eligibility. (Rice has no such players who fit the profile.) Sometimes, the most frank assessments of position outlooks are offered by players who have used up their eligibility, such as Gavin Howard, who spent five years in the program and made at least one start at all five O-line positions.

“Losing that experience always is going to hurt, but the good thing is we have the three guards coming back that all have good experience,” he said. “And I’m really expecting big things out of some of those young guys. (Brian) Beckmann, I’m expecting big things out of him. He’s just got to get his confidence down. He’s got great footwork. He’s long. He’s got a good body. I’m expecting big things out of Beckmann next year.”

A 6-foot-6, 300-pound 2012 graduate of Blue Valley West High, Beckmann was ranked third-best overall prospect in Kansas heading into a senior season he missed with a shoulder injury. A three-star recruit, he also was offered a scholarship from Kansas State. A tackle, he has three remaining years of eligibility and has yet to appear in a game.

Howard also praised Gibson and mentioned Bryan Peters, who will be a fourth-year junior, as a ready-for-prime-time tackle prospect.

“Peters, he came in a little soft as far as weight-room wise,” Howard said. “But he’s really started hitting the weight room a lot, so I’m expecting good things out of him next year. There’s definitely talent there. The real issue is going to be there are not very many guys.” Devon Williams, a 6-5, 340-pound tackle from Georgia Military, has made a verbal commitment. It would be nice to have the luxury of red-shirting juco linemen, but he’ll be a candidate for a starting position the day he walks on campus for summer conditioning.

At least the linemen will be taught well.

“Coach Reagan’s a good guy,” said Howard, recruited to KU by Reagan and instructed by him during his red-shirt season. “He plays smart football. He knew about angles and how to take angles to get up there. And he really worked well with younger guys like Tanner (Hawkinson) as a freshman, Spikes and Hatch as freshman tackles. He did a real good job with younger guys. I think he’ll do a good job of molding those younger guys like he did when he was at Kansas with (Mark) Mangino.”

Still, Reagan will need more materials than what the roster offers at the moment.

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Nick Harwell likely to be big hit for Kansas football, based on performances of other recent transfers from four-year schools

Dayne Crist, Anthony McDonald and Mike Ragone from Notre Dame. Jake Heaps from Brigham Young. Josh Williams from Nebraska.

All five were highly rated out of high school and for various reasons were not able to either earn or keep starting assignments at their original colleges.

Based on those five transfers’ performances for Kansas under Charlie Weis, expect big things from Miami (Ohio) transfer wide receiver Nick Harwell. Why? Because the others performed at a similar level at Kansas as they had at their first schools.

The lesson to be learned: It’s generally not the school, the coach, or the system that keeps a player from excelling. It’s how his ability translates to college competition and the degree to which his body holds up. Obviously, how they do against college competition is a far greater predictor of success than how highly they were ranked in high school.

In three seasons at Miami, Harwell averaged 76.3 receptions, 1,055.3 yards and 7.6 touchdowns. In 11 games as a sophomore, Harwell caught 97 passes for 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns. In a five-game stretch that ended with the 2012 season-opener, he caught 55 passes for 867 yards and eight touchdowns.

No need to worry whether he can handle Big 12 competition. Harwell played two games against Big 10 schools. His combined totals vs. Minnesota and Ohio State: 20 receptions, 282 yards, one TD.

Harwell was suspended by Miami last April after he was arrested. He ultimately pled guilty to attempted theft, a second-degree misdemeanor. He is eligible to play in 2014.

To put his numbers in perspective, consider KU’s TD reception leaders from the wide receiver position the past four seasons: 2010: Daymond Patterson and Johnathan Wilson, two; 2011: D.J. Beshears and JaCorey Shepherd three; 2012: None; 2013: Rodriguez Coleman, Justin McCay, Tony Pierson, Andrew Turzilli, one.

Despite book-ending his junior season with multiple drops, tight end Jimmay Mundine had five of the team’s nine TD catches.

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James Sims-led rushing attack gives Kansas a shot to make a game of it against Kansas State

Spread the field and run the football. It worked for Kansas against West Virginia and it worked for Oklahoma against Kansas State.

Sometimes, it pays to take the obvious approach. I’ll be shocked if Charlie Weis makes the mistake of thinking that just because K-State knows it’s coming means it’s time to throw a changeup. You know, start Jake Heaps and fire passes all over the field to receivers who have trouble getting open and a tough time catching passes when they are open.

James Sims doesn’t need the surprise element to run effectively with the field spread, true freshman Montell Cozart at quarterback and Kansas State playing without injured run-stopper supreme Ty Zimmerman.

Sims, the only running back in KU history who has rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, wraps up an underrated senior year today.

Sims is averaging a career-best 4.9 yards per carry and career-high 24 receptions. Sims needs two rushing touchdowns today to make it four consecutive seasons with nine rushing touchdowns.

After a poor performance a week ago in Ames, Iowa, where he stepped out of bounds a yard in front of the first-down marker and seemed bothered by the extreme cold, Cozart has a chance to show he’s a tough competitor by running more aggressively than he ever has with a Jayhawk on the side of his helmet.

A strong season finale would establish Cozart as the favorite to win the quarterback competition heading into spring football, not that means much. Whichever quarterback performs the best and is seen as the best fit for incoming offensive coordinator/O-line coach John Reagan’s offense in the battle that includes UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard, will win the job.

Still, Cozart can only help his cause with an effort that shows he has the physical toughness and passing accuracy (20 for 56, 3.8 yards per attempt, no touchdown passes so far) to lead a Big 12 team.

The weather.com forecast calls for 7 mph winds and 44 degrees for the 11 a.m. kickoff, which ought to feel plenty comfortable for a game to be played on an ice-free field.

Naturally, Kansas State is favored by a couple of touchdowns and a field goal, in that range.

No player in a Kansas uniform for today’s game has won the state-rivalry game. K-State has won the past four games, the past three by an average score of 58-15.

This one doesn’t feel like that sort of a lopsided game. It’s starting to feel as if KU can make a game of it.

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Charlie Weis makes wise decision in bringing John Reagan on board as OC/O-line coach

Charlie Weis is coming back for his third season as Kansas University’s football coach, but his offense isn’t.

That’s why news that John Reagan will join KU as offensive coordinator/O-line coach is a win-win for a football program that can’t keep firing its head coach every two years and can’t expect to become competitive in the Big 12 running an offense ill-suited for the college game.

One criticism of Weis you never have read here was the one so often aimed in his direction: He’s an arrogant know-it-all.

No, he’s not. He’s an obnoxious Jersey wise-donkey, but he’s not as stubborn as a mule. Never has Weis shown that he doesn’t claim to know it all more clearly than now, by going outside the program to bring in a guy who has shown he knows college X’s and O’s and wins games even when he doesn’t have the fastest Jimmies and Joes.

Weis couldn’t beat Reagan, so he enticed him to join him, not the move of a man too proud to acknowledge he is not the master of the football universe.

Reagan’s plate will be full, handling both OC and O-line duties, but maybe he’ll be able to bring one of his former KU linemen who has been working under him at Rice with him to help out. Adrian Mayes and Ryan Cantrell both are on the Rice staff.

What happens to Tim Grunhard? He’ll resign from KU.

Word began to spread throughout high school football circles in recent weeks that Aquinas High in Overland Park, which has a football head coaching vacancy, would be interested in talking to him. It’s not known whether Grunhard, former head coach at Miege, will pursue the opening.

Next season, Weis’ two most influential assistants will be former Mark Mangino aides, with Reagan running the offense and Clint Bowen the defense. Weis has proven he knows how to motivate players to bring the energy on Saturday and get it done in the classroom. Winning in football is a tough challenge at Kansas.

Heading into next season, Weis will have two years’ worth of trial and error on which to bank, and two assistants who won three bowl games in a four-year span.

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The time has come for Ben Goodman to give Benny Goodman a listen

I asked Kansas sophomore Buck (hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker) Ben Goodman during summer camp if he had ever listened to big band leader/clarinet player Benny Goodman, to whom my father used to tap his foot and snap his fingers while wearing the sort of grin Ben wore after starring in Saturday’s 31-19 victory against West Virginia. He said he had not and named Jay-Z as favorite recording artist.

After Goodman’s big day at the office — a great catch to start a 54-yard interception return, six tackles, two for a loss, one sack and a blocked field with his right hand while showing a strong vertical leap — I again asked him if he had had a chance to check out Benny Goodman.

“I haven’t listened to him, but every time I try to look up an article on me, he’s the first person to pop up,” Goodman said. “I always said if I scored a touchdown, I was going to take a personal foul and go to the band and lead it.”

Goodman was having a great time talking after the death of KU's 27-game Big 12 losing streak, the start, he hopes, of a Big 12 winning streak.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing football,” he said. “I love my teammates. I love my coaches and I love the atmosphere and our fans.”

And he would love Benny Goodman’s music if he just would give it a listen. Now that Ben has gone from the bad-hands club — he said he repeatedly dropped the football in a pre-game catch with Andrew Turzilli ­ — to the good-hands club, he really does need to check out the ultra-quick hands of drummer Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, Teddy Wilson on piano, all in their primes playing in Benny Goodman’s big band.

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Holy cow, what a huge hole the offensive line opened up for James Sims!

Listen to this call and see if it doesn’t rekindle your anger over the Royals turning Bob Davis into a mop-up relief pitcher. Such passion, such a distinct voice and style. And nice work by David Lawrence pointing out that right guard Damon Martin took out the linebacker, one of the keys to James Sims scoring on a 68-yard run with 28 seconds left in the half. Whereas most of us tend to watch the ball, Lawrence sees the whole field every play.

Fifth-year senior center Gavin Howard supplies background on the play call.

“All of us had been telling the coaches that they’re trying to stop the inside stuff because we’d been gashing up the middle,” Howard said. “I was like, ‘We’ve got to start running some outside stuff.’ And honestly, I mean, it was just a play to kind of end the half. We weren’t thinking we were going to get 75 yards on the play because you don’t ever think that on a run play. But I reached my guy, Aslam (Sterling) reached his guy, Damon (Martin) got up on the linebacker, Ngalu Fusimalohi off the back side and James’ got some speed on him that I didn’t know he had.”

Coach Charlie Weis said he was hoping the play could get 30 yards, at best, setting up a pass into the end zone.

“When he came through the hole, I couldn’t believe how big the hole ended up being,” Weis said.

It was only the second time on the day that KU used the unbalanced-line formation and the first time was near the goal line. Left tackle Riley Spencer moved to the right side of the line, lining up outside Sterling, the right tackle.

“I’m pretty sure if you watch it on the film, Riley pushes his guy out and we kind of cut it at Aslam,” Howard said. “So all of us back-blocked and the safeties didn’t make the play.”

Check out Sims' 68-yard TD run:

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Look for Charlie Weis to start Montell Cozart and let him finish what he starts

Weather forecasts call for south winds of 27 mph at kickoff and staying close to that throughout the game.

Not that Kansas football coach Charlie Weis needed another reason to hand the football to true freshman quarterback Montell Cozart and let him win it or lose it without feeling as if he’ll be replaced by Jake Heaps at the first sign of trouble, Mother Nature drove home the point.

At least half the time, passing the ball will be extremely difficult. Defenses geared to stop the run have a tougher time doing that with fast, elusive Cozart at QB than with the immobile Heaps.

Look for Weis to not only give Cozart his first start for today’s 11 a.m. kickoff against West Virginia. Look for Charlie to let the young talent finish what he starts. I’ll be surprised if the coach does otherwise.

West Virginia is better against the run than the pass, but Kansas runs better than it passes, so that’s a push. The weather breaks the tie.

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Wide receiver Nick Harwell at top of deep pool of KU football red-shirt talent

Charlie Weis doesn’t coach like a guy on the hot seat and with good reason. His seat won’t heat up until next season and even then only if no signs of significant progress are visible on offense.

Weis has been conservative about not ripping red shirts off of players he believes will benefit from an extra year in the program. That’s building for the future, not selfishly bankrupting it. (Pointing out the obvious, Weis has said that decisions on red shirts have not been made yet. It’s not an official move to red-shirt a player. It’s just that the ability to red-shirt him is lost once he plays in a game, excluding in the case of medical red-shirts, a category for which running back Taylor Cox and outside linebacker Samson Faifili would qualify if their injuries keep them out the remainder of the season.)

A look at probable red shirts who haven’t yet played in the program and bring exciting possibilities, in order of a guess as to how soon they could make a major positive impact, with their class as of next year listed:

1. Nick Harwell, Sr. WR, 6-1, 193: Unlike the other Div. I transfers Weis has recruited, the excitement he generates is based on his collegiate performance, not on his high school rating. As a sophomore at Miami of Ohio he had 97 receptions for 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns. Had big seasons as a freshman and junior as well. Attempts to earn eligibility for him this season failed.

2. Kevin Short, Jr. CB, 6-2, 185: Was ruled academically ineligible because not all of his credits were approved and will have two years of eligibility remaining. Long and fast, he has an excellent shot at turning of the five returning starters in the secondary into a frequently used reserve.

3. Montell Cozart, Fr. QB, 6-2, 189: His confidence borders on cockiness and, really, is that such a bad thing? Has been clocked at 4.5 in the 40, throws well on the run and in the pocket, and has a legitimate shot at competing for the starting job as soon as this spring. For the first time, Cozart’s name appeared on the depth chart this week, which at the very least gives Oklahoma an extra dimension for which to prepare.

4. Andrew Bolton, Jr. DE, 6-3, 280: LSU was interested in stealing him from KU after he made a verbal commitment, but the Tigers backed off once he injured his knee. Bolton was not fully recovered from the injury during summer camp, so he’ll make his debut next season. He’s built like a prototypical, long-armed NFL pass-rusher.

5. T.J. Millweard, So. QB, 6-3, 210: Committed to Virginia Tech, then Arizona State and then UCLA, following the assistant coach who recruited him to ASU. More mobile than Jake Heaps, but not as mobile as Cozart. Transfer rules require him to sit out this season.

6. Marcus Jenkins-Moore, Jr. OLB/buck, 6-3, 210: Undersized but fast, he suffered a season-ending knee injury during the summer. Will need to dedicate himself 100 percent to rehab to maintain his greatest asset, his speed.

7. Colin Spencer, Fr. RB, 5-10, 180: In similar fashion to Tony Pierson, Spencer accelerates to top speed in a blink and his top speed is way up there. An elite combine athlete, he played cornerback in high school.

8. Ben Johnson, Fr. TE, 6-5, 235: Basehor Linwood grad drew late interest from Oklahoma. High school defenses couldn’t figure out how to stop him from catching passes.

9. Joey Bloomfield, Fr. OL, 6-6, 295: Kansas State was among the schools to offer scholarship to the three-star prospect form Louisville.

10. Colton Goeas, Fr., MLB, 6-2, 245: Many recruiting analysts expected this three-star ’backer to attend the same school as high school teammate, Reeve Koehler, a four-star offensive lineman who disappointed KU when he headed for Arkansas. If all goes well, he’ll progress from third string (Ben Heeney, Schyler Miles) to second (Miles) to starter by his junior season.

11. Mark Thomas, Jr., WR, 6-0, 210: A nice blend of size and speed, but couldn’t beat out active receivers in the summer, so he’ll need to make most of this development year to make an impact.

12. Kellen Ash, Fr., OLB, 6-3, 225: Has made the most of weight-room workouts and has already packed muscle onto his frame. Sack-minded nature makes him a possibility at buck position as well.

13. Ishmael Hyman, Fr., WR, 6-0, 180: KU beat out Boston College and Purdue for the deep threat from New Jersey.

14. Jordan Darling, Fr., QB, 6-4, 226: A strong-armed, drop-back passer in the mold of Dayne Crist, he projects as fifth-string next season, but has the arm to move up if he grasps everything the position demands.

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