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Entries from blogs tagged with “Tale of the Tait”

How Jake Heaps’ big spring game was different from Dayne Crist’s in 2012

For the second year in a row, last Saturday's Kansas University football spring game featured a strong performance from a new quarterback to whom KU fans, coaches and players alike have tied their wagon for the upcoming season.

So, for the second year in a row, I wrote about the quarterback.

Last year it was Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist who looked sharp, decisive and, frankly, different, in leading the more talented Blue squad to a runaway victory over the White. And last Saturday, it was BYU transfer Jake Heaps who did the same.

As we all know, Crist's spring game performance turned out to be one of his few highlights during a disappointing season. I don't think we'll be saying the same thing about Heaps by December.

Here's why.

Throughout the spring, the one question I was asked more than any other was, 'How does Heaps look?' Each time I gave an answer that painted a picture of a talented QB who could make a difference for the KU offense.

That question, however, was surpassed by another during the couple of days since the spring game, with the more cynical but certainly understandable, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, but didn't we say the same thing last year?' becoming the more popular inquiry.

I'll be honest; I did. I even went back and read what I wrote about Crist after the 2012 spring game. Here's a taste:

More important than the final score (45-0) or the statistics (Crist was 11-of-19 passing for 156 yards, no interceptions and no TDs) was the fact that Crist showed everyone in attendance that the Jayhawks were running a different, more efficient offense. No play better illustrated that than sophomore running back Tony Pierson’s 88-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. As Crist walked to the line of scrimmage, he surveyed the defense and identified the middle linebacker, a staple of Weis’ offense. Not seeing the set he wanted, Crist called an audible and Pierson did the rest.

I don't remember much about last year's game — that's why I went back and read my story — but I do remember enough to know that what I saw from Heaps on Saturday was much different than what I saw from Crist 12 months ago.

From what I remember, Crist looked good — big, strong and smart, a far cry from anything KU had put under center for the previous few seasons. Heck, in many ways, Crist even looked better than Todd Reesing.

But Jake Heaps actually played good.

A year ago expectations were so low (at least from the realists) and the program was in such bad shape that even the mere presence of players who looked better on the field made it seem like things were headed in the right direction.

The eye test won't fly this time around. And that's why it's important to emphasize that what Heaps showed last Saturday was far more than the ability to be KU's quarterback. He showed he can play.

Even Heaps admitted that he was far from perfect during the spring game. He finished 20-of-28 for 257 yards and four touchdowns, but also took a couple of sacks, short-armed a throw or two and said there were moments that the tempo could have been better, which he put squarely on his shoulders.

But it's not fair to use Heaps' personal standards to judge his play in this one. We all saw his ability for ourselves and there was plenty to like.

In the past 16 months, I've probably seen Heaps throw 5-10 times, including once in last year's spring game, where he was 7-of-10 for 116 yards and the game's lone TD. Saturday's performance was by far — allow me to add a little emphasis to that, BY FAR — the most impressive I've seen him look.

Here's how:

• He threw with confidence. You can't get the ball out in less than three seconds on half of your plays without (a) knowing what you're doing or (b) believing that what you're doing is right.

• He threw lasers. Half the time Heaps threw he released the ball before his receivers (most often chemistry-compadre Justin McCay) had even come out of their breaks. Just about every time the ball was on a line and looked as if the receiver had no choice but to catch it.

• He showed decent mobility, proved he could throw on the run and was wildly accurate. That last one might be his biggest strength.

• And, most importantly, he carried himself the way any fan, coach or teammate would and should want a quarterback to carry himself — with fire, focus, purpose and fun.

See, Heaps is passionate playing the game of football and will do anything to make sure he can play it for as long as his body allows.

I enjoyed my year of covering Crist and think he's one of the better dudes to come through the KU football program. But I didn't always sense his love of the game the way I get it from Heaps. I think it was there, but it didn't always surface. Call it pressure, call it fear, call it a guarded personality or call it self-doubt. Whatever it was, I think it severely prevented Crist from lining up and letting it all hang out. That won't be a problem with Heaps.

So, if you want the truth, it wasn't so much Heaps' final numbers or the fact that he lit up KU's second string defense for four TDs and a 71 percent completion percentage that impressed me. It was the way he did it.

Heaps is not Todd Reesing. He's not as exciting, not as electrifying and certainly not as much of a rebel gunslinger. But he can play. And for the first time since Reesing graduated, Jayhawk fans may find themselves falling in love with their quarterback again this fall.

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Weis releases KU football spring game format

The weather outside might not be a good indicator, but, yes, we are just a few days away from KU football's annual spring game at Memorial Stadium.

-- Despite today's wintry weather, the good news is that the forecast calls for sunny and 60s on Saturday, so hang in there --

In many ways this spring has flown by, partly because of the early start, partly because of the week off for spring break and partly because it overlapped with March Madness. Regardless, I've been busy stockpiling all kinds of notes and quotes to help get us through the months of May, June and July with some fun and interesting football coverage.

So just because spring drills are about to end, don't think for a second that our coverage will.

I'll have plenty more this week about the final week of spring practice and a preview of Saturday's spring game, which will kick off at 1 p.m. and is free to the public.

For now, though, here's a quick look at the format for the game, which will feature a roster division that leans toward a passing team on one side (blue) and a rushing team on the other (white). I like the way they've split it up. Should make it interesting no matter which side has the ball.

Here's how it will all go down:

  1. There will be four 15 minute quarters with a running clock, with the exception of the final two minutes of each half, where normal game clock rules will be followed. Outside of that, the clock will stop only for injuries, timeouts or at the referee's discretion.

  2. A coin toss will decide who gets the ball.

  3. Possessions to begin each half and after scores will start at the 30 yard line.

  4. No kickoffs. (This is to avoid unnecessary injuries)

  5. There will be an abbreviated halftime of 13 minutes (NFL format).

  6. Punt/punt return will end when the returner fair catches the ball, picks up a rolling ball or when a defender downs the ball. Normal rules apply for touchbacks.

  7. On field goals, if the ball hits the ground, the play will be blown dead.

  8. Red jerseys worn by the quarterbacks will protect QBs in the pocket only. In other words, if they run, they're free to be hit. (Don't expect Jake Heaps to take off to much, if at all.)

  9. Game MVPs will be announced after the game. The team will join the band for the alma mater after the game.

All in all, it's a pretty decent format for a game that has the potential to be both competitive and entertaining. I have no problem with some of the rules put in place to avoid injuries. Sure, you want to entertain the fans that show up, but not at the expense of getting someone hurt.

There will be plenty of opportunities for the crowd to enjoy what it's watching, both on offense and defense.

I'll leave you (for now) with a quick look at some of the marquee names on each squad.

BLUE OFFENSE:
Tony Pierson
Jake Heaps
James Sims
Justin McCay
Christian Matthews
Tre' Parmalee
Andrew Turzilli
Jimmay Mundine
Colin Spencer
Pat Lewandowski
Randall Dent
Dylan Admire
Gavin Howard
Aslam Sterling

BLUE DEFENSE:
Jordan Tavai
Chris Martin
JaCorey Shepherd
Ben Heeney
Cassius Sendish
Jake Love
Keon Stowers

WHITE OFFENSE:
Michael Cummings
Taylor Cox
Brandon Bourbon
Josh Ford
Jordan Shelley-Smith
Chris Omigie
Ngalu Fusimalohi
Mike Smithburg
Damon Martin
Riley Spencer
Brian Beckmann

WHITE DEFENSE:
Greg Allen
Tevin Shaw
Darius Willis
Michael Reynolds
Ben Goodman
Ty McKinney
Dexter McDonald
Nasir Moore

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Annual KU football coaching clinic mixes good entertainment with wealth of knowledge and coaching advice

The Kansas University football program wrapped up its annual coaching clinic on Saturday with the back end of a two-day clinic that drew dozens of college and high school coaches from around the area and focused on everything from X's and O's to the way KU coach Charlie Weis and his staff run the program.

The clinic was structured in a way that allowed every coach that attended a chance to interact with KU's coaching staff in small groups and also allowed time for the coaches to give presentations on a variety of topics that focused on their areas of expertise.

Defensive coordinator Dave Campo talked coverage concepts. Recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello shared with the coaches ways for them to help their athletes get recruited. And so on and so on.

All of the coaches who spoke at the event showed genuine enthusiasm and did not mail it in in any way. In fact, several of them seemed legitimately bummed when the time ran out on their Saturday sessions. Here are but a few of the more interesting and/or entertaining points:

• Weis kicked things off bright and early Saturday morning with a brief overview of who he was, where he came from and where he was headed. His message was simple and he repeated it often: “You have to change with the times and be able to adapt you to your personnel not your personnel to you. It's a big difference, fellas.”

Weis, who emphasized a football coach's role as a teacher, said he first learned that extremely important lesson from the first coach who ever hired him in Morristown, N.J.

“When I understood that football is nothing other than the subject you teach, that's when I really became a football coach,” Weis said.

• Linebackers coach Clint Bowen, who diagramed run fits and discussed them in terms of concepts the way Campo described Read, Mix and Cloud coverage concepts, shared with the coaches in attendance some words of wisdom he first heard from former KU defensive coordinator Bill Young.

“The more times you can say always and never the better chance you have,” Bowen said.

Most of the material covered by both Campo and Bowen focused on generalizing your defense and the buzz words within it to make it as easy as possible to adjust quickly from one look to another.

• Offensive line coach Tim Grunhard, in wrapping up his session, made a genuine plea to the coaches in attendance to come up and hang out in the summer from time to time. Grunhard, who coached for six years at Bishop Miege High, said he never got the feeling during that stretch that KU's coaching staff reached out to the prep community, and he's proud to be part of a staff that values that and sees its importance.

• Strength and conditioning coach Scott Holsopple may have stolen the show by talking with great enthusiasm about the ins and outs of his job and laying out not only his personal philosophies about strength training but also outlining a year in the life of the KU football program. He talked fast and covered everything, from what the Jayhawks do and how often they do it during spring, the offseason and in season to what they do on a daily basis and why it's important.

At the end of Holsopple's talk, which went 10-15 minutes longer than scheduled, several coaches in attendance were so fired up that they turned to one another and simply said, “Let's go get a workout in.”

Perhaps the best part of Holsopple's session was not the behind-the-scenes look at how KU football operates, but the way he tailored his talking points to what could best help the coaches in attendance. Throughout the hour-long Q&A, Holsopple kept going back to the fact that he wanted this to be worth these guys' time and wanted to help them get as much out of it as they could, stuff that they could learn and take back to their programs and utilize.

• Friday night's portion of the clinic included two guest speakers, legendary Florida high school coach George Smith and Smith Center, Kan., high school coach Roger Barta. Before the room broke up into buzz sessions by positions, the two coaching giants held court on everything from their humble beginnings in the business to detailed

More than a couple of coaches, including Campo, told me Saturday that the hour-long session run by those two guys was as cool a moment as they had enjoyed in coaching in a long time.

• In addition to the individual time with KU's coaching staff, the coaches at the clinic were invited to watch Friday's regular practice and a 90-play scrimmage on Saturday.

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What caught my eye at Tuesday’s practice: April 2

Tuesday's KU football practice was open to the media for the first time this spring.

Tuesday's KU football practice was open to the media for the first time this spring. by Matt Tait

Tuesday marked the first practice of the spring that was open to the media and instead of the usual 20 minutes of stretching and warm-ups, KU coach Charlie Weis opened the door and pulled back the curtain for the entire hour-and-40-minute session.

A good chunk near the end was spent on special teams, but, with this team, even that was an area worth watching.

With that in mind, here's the first (and maybe only) edition of “What Caught My Eye” from spring drills. Grab a chair and get comfortable.

• New year, new leaders. In addition to the bounce in their step and hope in the air (none of that was there during the final few weeks of the 2012 season), it's always interesting to see what a new team looks like during spring drills. Who steps up and leads. Who is most vocal? Who leads by example? All of that and more is easy to spot during an open practice. But the easiest way to find out who the leaders are is to watch the stretching lines. Usually the guys closest to coach Holsopple are the biggest leaders and, on Tuesday at least, that seemed to hold true. The first line included quarterback Jake Heaps, linebacker Ben Heeney and running back James Sims. A couple of surprises on the first line included Keba Agostinho, Randall Dent, Dexter Linton, Jacorey Shepherd and Ron Doherty. A few of those guys are seniors, but a few are not. Nothing earth-shattering there but it was the first thing that jumped out.

• The Coach Weis song of the day seems to be back, at least for now, and today, the practice DJ stacked a Bruce Springsteen song on top of a Bon Jovi song. Talk about buttering up the head coach.

• Darius Willis, who now wears No. 52, looks substantially bigger than I ever remember him being. Willis, whom Weis said recently is pushing Heeney for first-string reps at middle linebacker, looks mobile, physical and ready for a bigger role again. In short, he's everything I thought he would be when he first arrived from Buffalo.

• One of my favorite drills of the day was a drill in which five receivers ran different routes on the same play, with each one receiving a ball at the same moment. The drill was made possible by the fact that all three KU quarterbacks — Heaps, Michael Cummings and Blake Jablonski — along with QB coach Ron Powlus and one of the managers dropped back and threw to a designated guy. While this unfolded for nearly 10 minutes, Coach Weis sat in a golf cart in the end zone and coached both the receivers and the quarterbacks. The way the receivers and running backs ran routes at different depths reminded me of the fountains at the Belagio in Las Vegas dancing to the music.

• Speaking of routes, I thought it was very cool to see the different ways Tony Pierson was used. I don't think for a second that we saw even one-fifth of what KU will ask of Pierson this season, but what we did see was the dynamic junior speed back running routes all over the field. Short. Long. Seam. Post. Corner. If he and Heaps can develop some chemistry, he'll be a nightmare for opposing defenses this fall.

KU running back Tony Pierson takes a handoff from Charlie Weis Jr., during Tuesday's practice at Memorial Stadium.

KU running back Tony Pierson takes a handoff from Charlie Weis Jr., during Tuesday's practice at Memorial Stadium. by Matt Tait

• Another dude we've heard about who truly has gotten bigger is red-shirt freshman tight end Jordan Smith. The guy's lower body looks like a tank. Didn't watch him a ton in route-running and pass-catching drills, but he's bulked up, no question about it.

• We didn't get to see much of the offensive or defensive lines during live action, so I'll stick with the linebackers and secondary. The first string looked like this: Courtney Arnick, Heeney and Jake Love at linebacker, with Shepherd and Cassius Sendish at corner and Greg Allen and Dexter Linton at safety. When the team went to its nickel package, Dexter McDonald checked in at nickel back. When they went dime, Allen, Linton, Shepherd, McDonald, Sendish, Tevin Shaw, Willis and Heeney were all out there.

• Remember that talk of accountability that we heard from these guys at the start of spring drills? It's legit. I heard more guys calling out other guys today than I can remember all year last year. Nothing major and nothing nasty. Just guys yelling at other guys after a dropped pass or for jogging instead of sprinting. No bad blood, no whining, just players responding to a little push from another teammate. Pretty cool to see, really.

• One of the most exciting sessions of the day was the one-on-ones, where wideouts or running backs lined up against a defensive backs and ran routes. Overall, the offense seemed to get the better of the defense during this one. By my count, the offensive player got the best of the defense 19 out of 31 times. That included nine of the first 10, though, so the DBs made a decent comeback late in the drill.

• Got my first look at new defensive backs coach Scott Vestal in action. He's intense. The guy really has a motor and he has a set of lungs to match. Really like his style and passion.

• We saw some pretty extensive special teams work and, of all the return men, Tre' Parmalee and JaCorey Shepherd stood out as the most impressive. Both had multiple long returns and looked incredibly shifty no matter where they were on the field.

• Speaking of special teams, it was cool to see the punting and kickoff drills because that gave us a good look at new kicker Trevor Pardula. I know it was just one practice, but I'd be shocked if Pardula didn't have both jobs locked up already. He's solid and consistent on kickoffs — something that even teammates paid attention to and responded with, 'We need that,' — and he can really boom his punts. On a couple of occasions, Pardula's punts inspired Weis to say the following: “Woo Hoo Hoo Hoo.” Huge upgrade.

• As for field goal kicking, it appears there's still some work to be done there. Pardula was decent and veteran Ron Doherty had his moments, but nobody stood out the way Pardula did in the other aspects of the kicking game. That's not all bad news. Remember, Hutch Juco walk-on Michael Mesh is still coming this summer and he should have a good shot of winning the job.

• Pardula did deliver when it counted, connecting on a 38 yarder to close practice. Had he missed it, the team would have run. Instead, they celebrated. Want another sign of progress? Last year, this was the drill that Weis had his team do over again because it didn't celebrate the made kick properly. No such problem Tuesday.

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KU becomes pioneer in using virtual reality to enhance football program

I just received a news release from KU that forced me to do a double-take. Turns out what I thought I read the first time actually was true.

KU has become the first NCAA program to incorporate virtual-reality training into its regular routine of preparing its student-athletes for competition.

The full release is posted below. It sounds to me like this is a potentially very cool development and certainly keeps KU on the cutting edge and at the forefront of college athletics when it comes to training practices and facilities.

Here's the release:

Kansas Athletics became the first NCAA institution to partner with EON Reality, the world's leading interactive 3D software provider, in the creation of software to eventually be used in a virtual reality football simulator. The simulator utilizes EON Reality’s popular Icube and will enable student-athletes to simulate an actual game for training and teaching purposes.

“This state-of-the-art training will greatly benefit our student-athletes and makes Kansas a leader of virtual reality in sport,” Kansas Director of Athletics Sheahon Zenger said. “We constantly seek responsible and innovative ways to help our student-athletes and this cutting-edge technology brings a great opportunity to our football team.”

Once the software is fully developed, student-athletes will be able to step into a 10 feet by 10 feet room and be immersed into simulated-game action. The experience makes the user feel as if they are standing on an actual playing field, complete with crowd noise, realistic game speeds and football player avatars running real plays.

The student-athlete will be able to experience game action of any play desired. The virtual reality football simulator is at the forefront of a growing trend of applications using virtual and augmented reality within the sports industry.

“At the elite level, everyone is pretty much the same when it comes to size, speed and strength,” said Brendan Reilly, Co-Founder of EON Reality Sports. “What separates an average team from a great team is how they perform from a cognitive standpoint – reading plays, understanding coverages, reducing mistakes and making quick decisions, etc.

“The teams that do these seemingly little things right usually wind up winning. Virtual Reality has been proven to dramatically increase a user’s experience level. The end goal is to speed up the experience level of an athlete and essentially have freshmen operating at the same cognitive level as a senior.”

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Why KU-Carolina won’t happen

Let me start out by saying that the whole idea for this blog entry was born from the simple belief, of this writer at least, that North Carolina coach Roy Williams is a good person.

Having grown up in Lawrence and hung around with his son, Scott, I know this to be true. He’s a kind, compassionate, genuine man with an intense love of basketball and a highly competitive spirit.

Fans of Kansas University basketball know this, whether they’ve spent the past 10 seasons rooting against him or not. As the old saying goes, or at least went, Ol’ Roy had more desire to win in his little finger than all of the Kansas basketball fans in the world combined. Before the divorce, KU fans loved that about him. As time goes by and more distance is put between his 15 seasons in Lawrence and the present day, I think KU fans will slowly begin to remember that.

The scene at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday certainly made that seem possible. With thousands of KU fans in the stands waiting for the Jayhawks, Williams was cheered when UNC took the floor for its open practice session.

So what does any of this have to with Caronlina’s first-round match-up against Villanova on Friday at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.? That, too, is simple. It’s my contention that the basketball gods simply are not that cruel to put one man through losing to his former school on the biggest stage in the world twice in the past 12 months and three times in the past five years. It was cruel enough of the committee to put the potential match-up out there, but the gods will intervene.

Roy left. He did what he had to do for himself and his family. And, truth be told, had most of you been in his position, you would’ve done the same thing, whether you’re willing to admit it or not.

But he has paid his debt to the Jayhawk Nation. After getting drubbed by Kansas in the national semifinals in 2008, Williams stuck around for the title game against Memphis and wore a Jayhawk sticker on his shirt. For that he was crushed by the UNC fans, and when the two schools met again in last year’s Elite Eight in St. Louis, he had to relive the whole experience while suffering through another heartbreaking loss to his former school at the same time.

Every time he's been asked, Williams has had nothing but positive, heart-felt things to say about KU and his time here.

So when is enough enough?

North Carolina, which enters the game as a four-point favorite, may have more talent than Villanova. The Tar Heels may be a bit under-seeded — third in the ACC and a berth in the conference tournament title game usually gets you more than an 8 seed — and may have the luxury of having at least a few players who have experienced the NCAA Tournament and its intense pressure in much bigger games and venues. But I don’t think they’ll win.

Forget just playing the hunch, though. Villanova has real talent. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono was a unanimous selection on the Big East’s all-rookie squad and the Wildcats have a size advantage inside, led by senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou (6-foot-10, 255 pounds) and sophomore bruiser JayVaughn Pinkston (6-7, 260). In addition, the Wildcats are the better defensive team, are better free-throw shooters and have a more quality wins. Forget about the 20-13 overall record. In the past 59 days alone, ‘Nova knocked off Louisville and Syracuse in back-to-back games and also snagged victories over Marquette and Georgetown. That’s victories over a No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament and 11 total games (4-7) against NCAA Tournament teams. UNC? Not a single victory against a team currently in the Top 25.

I think Villanova wins. I think Roy goes home sad. But, when it’s all said and done, I don’t think it hurts as bad as losing to Kansas — again.

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“Expert Picks” interesting to read but how much do they mean to you?

For the most part, it seems that fans of Kansas University basketball are a pretty superstitious bunch.

Whether that's derived from the great tradition at the school that dates back decades or the recent success, it seems that “signs” are everywhere and can be taken from just about anything, especially during March.

There are, of course, reasons behind many of the superstitions and they seem to straddle both sides of the fence. Some fans like when KU gets a No. 1 seed and is considered one of the favorites. Others prefer the Jayhawks to be the under-the-radar bunch with less attention and therefore less pressure placed on them.

And then, of course, you've got the thousands of fans who wear the same gameday shirts, sit in the same seats or watch the games at the same establishments, all in the name of keeping the peace.

With that in mind, I couldn't help but wonder how being picked by the experts to reach the Final Four makes most KU fans feel. Nervous? Excited? Proud? Satisfied?

Earlier today, I saw an ESPN.com Insider column titled “Experts Final Four Picks” and naturally I was compelled to click on it. It's always fun to see who other people are picking and why, regardless of whether they're named Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps or Donald Duck and Dave Grohl.

It's not that I'm searching for the answers. I'm a firm believer that nobody out there has even the slightest clue how things are going to go, and that's what makes the Big Dance so wonderful and so captivating every year no matter where it's played or which teams are playing. Besides, I've got my own bracket, thank you very much, and I feel pretty good about how it looks — at least today.

But, still, it's interesting to see what others are thinking and saying about the four teams who will advance to Atlanta. Here's a quick rundown of the “Experts Picks” from ESPN.com.

As you can see, two of the five included Kansas. My question to you is this: Does that make you feel better, worse or the same about the Jayhawks' chances?

(PS: I'm still searching the web for more “expert picks” and will add them to the bottom of this list as I find them so check back often.)

ESPN.com

Jay Bilas
Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, VCU, Indiana
Title: Louisville over Indiana

John Gasaway
Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, Kansas, Indiana
Title: Louisville over Indiana

Seth Greenberg
Final Four: Louisville, Gonzaga, Kansas, Indiana
Title: Louisville over Indiana

Joe Lunardi
Final Four: Louisville, Gonzaga, Florida, Miami
Title: Louisville over Florida

Ken Pomeroy
Final Four: Louisville, New Mexico, Florida, Miami
Title: Florida over Louisville

CBSsports.com

Garry Parish
Final Four: Louisville, Wisconsin, VCU, Indiana
Title: Louisville over Indiana

Gregg Doyel
Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana
Title: Ohio State over Michigan

Jeff Goodman
Final Four: Louisville, Gonzaga, Florida, Indiana
Title: Louisville over Indiana

Dennis Dodd
Final Four: Louisville, New Mexico, Georgetown, Miami
Title: Louisville over Miami

Yahoo! Sports

Greg Anthony
Final Four: Louisville, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Miami
Title: Louisville over Miami

Pat Forde
Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, Georgetown, Indiana
Title: Louisville over Indiana

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Blind Bracket pick ‘em contest opens eyes, offers different look at NCAA Tournament field

Having trouble filling out your bracket?

Maybe this can help. I stumbled upon it the other day via Twitter — where else? — and I've probably tried it four or five different times since discovering it.

In a word, it's awesome. But in greater detail, it's the Wall Street Journal's Blind Bracket exercise. To the best of my understanding, it's an actual bracket pool, with prizes available and the whole bit. I haven't actually entered it yet, but it seems like an interesting way to increase your odds of winning something this March.

Here's how it works:

Just as you do in a normal bracket, you pick each round, game by game, but instead of knowing the identity of the teams you're picking, you're simply given two profiles and asked to pick one. The profiles, which come complete with fake names such as “Boom Boxes” or “The Ice Cube Trays,” include six categories, a brief summary, seed and RPI ranges and vague conference affiliation, such as mid-major or high major.

Values are assigned to each of the six categories — basically, the 1-5 star system, with five being the best — and that's how you determine which team you're picking.

You go through blindly the entire way, picking 32 games in Round 2, 16 games in Round 3, 8 games in Round 4, 4 games in Round 5, 2 games in Round 6 and, of course, the title game.

After it's all over, your picks are recorded and the site spits out the completed bracket.

The first one I did yielded the following results: Final Four – Duke, Gonzaga, Florida and Indiana, with Duke topping Florida in the title game. I'm not crazy about those picks, considering none of them are in my actual bracket picks, but maybe that's a sign that I should reconsider before making it official. As for KU, I picked the Jayhawks to the Elite Eight in my blind bracket and had them losing to Florida. Not bad.

Anyway, if you want to try your luck, here's the link. Enjoy!

http://projects.wsj.com/blindfold-brackets-2013/

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KU football Pro Day is upon us

Friday is a big day for several former Kansas University football players hoping to make a name for themselves with pro scouts.

The Jayhawks annual Pro Timing Day will run from 10:30 a.m. to about 1 p.m. and will feature all of the same types of drills that took place at the NFL Combine last month.

Two Jayhawks who participated at the Combine — Tanner Hawkinson and Bradley McDougald — are expected to go through a few of the drills to try to enhance their Combine numbers. The rest of the Jayhawks expected to compete are guys who are hoping to enhance their draft stock and/or prove that they're worthy of free agent contracts following April's draft.

During the past few years, this event typically has drawn representatives from 6-12 different NFL teams. However, because of the fact that longtime NFL assistant coach Charlie Weis is now KU's head coach — not to mention longtime NFL coach Dave Campo as the defensive coordinator — this year's pro day is expected to draw interest from nearly twice that many teams, perhaps more.

A good showing Friday in the 40-yard dash or the bench press or vertical jump test does not guarantee these guys anything. Many of them already are on the radar of NFL teams because of their postseason all-star game performances. Others are hoping Friday is the day they wow the scouts. After all, it only takes one team to like you, as former Jayhawks and undrafted free agents Chris Harris (now a starter with the Denver Broncos) and Steven Johnson (a special teams regular with Denver) have proven.

Here's a quick glance at the guys who will participate:

Tunde Bakare, LB
Skinny: Hard-charging linebacker determined to make it in honor of his brother, Omani, who passed away a few years ago.
Top skills: Speed. Physicality. Determination.
Prediction: Bakare's mix of speed, power and drive should earn him an invitation to a camp as an undrafted free agent.

D.J. Beshears, WR
Skinny: Undersized wide receiver who made a living using his power and speed to roll through and by defenders.
Top skills: Speed. Toughness.
Prediction: If he tests well, Beshears may get a look as a kick returner but is most likely destined to seek playing time in another league, perhaps the Arena League or the Canadian Football League.

Greg Brown, CB
Skinny: “Lockdown Brown” never quite lived up to that nickname in college but it wasn't for lack of opportunity. Faced the Big 12's best week-in and week-out for two straight years and that should him ready for what's ahead.
Top skills: Closing speed. Athleticism. Vision.
Prediction: I like Brown's chances to make a roster and think he'll have to do it the same way his good friend Chris Harris did — as an undrafted free agent.

Dayne Crist, QB
Skinny: Crist's trouble at KU are well-documented, but just because he struggled during his second senior season does not mean he's out of the mix to make an NFL roster. He did well in postseason all-star games and if he tests well, which I fully expect he will, someone may be intrigued enough to give him a shot.
Top skills: Size. Arm strength. Football IQ.
Prediction: I think Crist's skill set along with an endorsement from Charlie Weis allow him to catch on somewhere. He won't be drafted, he might not make a team, but I think he'll get a shot and I could see him being a practice squad guy with the potential to move up.

Tanner Hawkinson, OL
Skinny: Four-year starter at tackle has a solid mix of size and athleticism and is very much on the NFL radar.
Top skills: Footwork. Consistency. Athleticism. Versatility. Intelligence.
Prediction: If Hawkinson were just a bit stronger, he'd be a second- or third-round pick. As it stands, I think he'll go in the fourth or fifth round. The scouts I've talked to like what he brings to the table.

Trevor Marrongelli, OL
Skinny: Anchor of KU's line last season at center, who also has experience playing guard. Undersized by NFL standards, but a tireless worker who'll give it everything he has.
Top skills: Intelligence. Versatility. Work ethic.
Prediction: Great dude, but my guess here is that Marrongelli ends up being just another solid college player and puts his degree to work.

Bradley McDougald, S
Skinny: The move from wide receiver to safety changed McDougald's future. As a receiver, he would've had, at best, an outside shot at getting picked up by an NFL team. As a safety, he's a likely draft pick.
Top skills: Athleticism. Strength. Power. Hands.
Prediction: It's hard to say if McDougald will be selected in April's draft before or after Hawkinson, but I definitely believe he'll be picked. And I also believe he'll go on to have a solid NFL career.

Toben Opurum, DL
Skinny: Still relatively new to defense, but has good strength and plays at a high speed.
Top skills: Versatility. Intelligence. Motor.
Prediction: Opurum may not have a true position on defense in the NFL, but there still exists the possibility that the former KU running back could catch on as an NFL fullback.

Daymond Patterson, WR
Skinny: Electric play-maker in the open field who uses speed and quickness to make up for what he lacks in the way of size.
Top skills: Elusiveness. Speed. Confidence.
Prediction: Patterson may get a look as a punt or kickoff return specialist.

Kale Pick, WR
Skinny: All-around good athlete who was one of the hardest working guys on the team throughout his college career and benefits as a WR from previous QB experience.
Top skills: Intelligence. Hands.
Prediction: Pick could be viewed as an intriguing prospect because he is so reliable.

Mike Ragone, TE
Skinny: Former Notre Dame player who played one season at KU and stayed healthy for the first time in ages.
Top skills: Blocking. Toughness. Heart.
Prediction: Ragone will give it all he has but his body may not be where it needs to be to land a roster spot.

Lubbock Smith, S
Skinny: Longtime contributor in KU's secondary battled injuries throughout his career but always kept battling.
Top skills: Physical. Relentless. Versatile.
Prediction: Smith's a better athlete than he's given credit for but whether that translates to the NFL is another question.

Josh Williams, DE
Skinny: Former Nebraska defensive end started every game during his lone season in Lawrence.
Top skills: Size. Intelligence.
Prediction: Williams figures to be invited to training camp.

Duane Zlatnik, OL
Skinny: Widely regarded as one of the strongest players on KU's roster, Zlatnik was flat-out dominant at times during his junior and senior seasons.
Top skills: Strength. Mean streak.
Prediction: Size, strength and experience alone should get him a look.

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Crazy KU basketball uniforms selling like hot cakes — even Mario Chalmers wants one

Cincinnati, on Wednesday, became the first team to wear adidas' new-look uniforms this postseason.

Cincinnati, on Wednesday, became the first team to wear adidas' new-look uniforms this postseason. by Matt Tait

The Cincinnati Bearcats officially broke them in for the rest of the world to see earlier Wednesday during their 61-44 victory over Providence in the Big East Tournament, and the expectation is that the Kansas University men's basketball team will do the same during its opening game of the Big 12 Championship on Thursday.

We're talking the uniforms that sent the college basketball world into a frenzy a few weeks ago, of course, as the odd and somewhat bold pattern dreamed up by the folks at adidas certainly has changed the way college basketball teams look on the floor.

As the top seed in this year's Big 12 tourney, the Jayhawks will wear the white version of the wild look. According to most — fans I spoke with, Twitter-dwellers and other writers — the white uniform is the less outlandish of the two, with the blue version bearing the brunt of most of the criticism.

While the initial fan reaction, at least according to Twitter, seemed to reveal that the new look was universally despised by KU fans, a couple of quick phone calls on Wednesday painted a much different picture.

First, I called Jock's Nitch in Downtown Lawrence to find out just how well the uniforms had been received by the public. What I was told surprised me. According to general manager, Ryan Owens, the store sold out of all of its shorts — both white and blue — and even sold more than a few of the jerseys.

Wait. There's more. Somewhere around 15-20 folks even put their name down to snag dibs on the first batch of shorts in Owens' second order. One of them was someone many of you might know — Mario Chalmers.

Chalmers, through Twitter, asked Owens to hold a pair of the white shorts for him.

Overall, Owens said he believed the younger generation liked the look a lot more than most, but also said that he was surprised by the reaction to the blue uniform when people saw it in the store.

“They're different, there's no doubt about that,” he said. “It's definitely something out of the box. But when people get into the store, they actually wind up liking the blue more.”

Rather than stopping there, I thought I'd make a quick call to KU, too, to find out how the new duds had been received on campus. It turns out the reaction was nearly the same. The KU Store, which is connected to Allen Fieldhouse, sold through all of its shorts, both colors, and has made a dent in the re-order, as well. KU Store also sold most of its youth jerseys in both blue and white.

According to the people at adidas, the motivation behind unveiling the wild look was to shake things up during the most fun time of year for college basketball.

After dabbling with something different during last year's postseason with the fluorescent colors worn by schools like Baylor and Louisville, adidas simply wanted to be make another splash in the market and show off something fun on a huge stage.

One person I talked to at KU said they had heard that this specific style of uniform had been selling like crazy across the country, too, with Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Baylor, UCLA and Louisville — all adidas schools — joining the Jayhawks in wearing the wild look this postseason.

Here's the original promotional photo that was sent out a couple of weeks ago that shows all of the teams expected to wear the new uniforms this postseason.

Here's the original promotional photo that was sent out a couple of weeks ago that shows all of the teams expected to wear the new uniforms this postseason. by Matt Tait

The whole thing is part of a huge marketing campaign by adidas, complete with mannequins in the windows of Dick's Sporting Goods stores as well as spreads in the East Bay retail magazine as well as Slam Magazine.

KU coach Bill Self said the Jayhawks' plans were to wear them for one game and that he didn't think it would go beyond that. He did leave the door open for an encore performance, though, by saying that it depended on how well they played in them.

It did seem pretty certain that KU would not be wearing them in the NCAA Tournament.

KU will open postseason play tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Kansas City, Mo., against the winner of tonight's West Virginia-Texas Tech game.

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What caught my eye at Saturday’s practice: March 9 - Part II

Because last Saturday was my first chance to get a quick glance at KU's new-look football program, my "What caught my eye" feature ran a little long.

So here's the second part of a list of things that stood out to me as I took in about an hour of KU's third practice of the spring — and first with pads.

If you missed my video from last Saturday's Hannah & Friends clinic, be sure to check that out. The Jayhawks and participants really seemed to have a great time. Many of them are still talking about it today. Also, if you missed Part I of what caught my eye, go take a look at that, too.

If you're all caught up, here's Part II:

• Got my first look at the newly formed offensive line and I liked a lot of what I saw. One thing that really struck me was the fact that while the current starting five was working its way through drills — Pat Lewandowski, Mike Smithburg, Dylan Admire, Ngalu Fusimalohi and Aslam Sterling — four guys with starting experience (Randall Dent, Gavin Howard, Damon Martin and Riley Spencer) were standing by watching them. There's a lot to be determined still with this group, but I like its potential and depth.

• Speaking of Lewandowski, I think he could be a real surprise this season. It looks like he's got great feet — perhaps even better than last year's left tackle, Tanner Hawkinson — and he's a fierce competitor. The only thing holding him back from being truly ready in the past was his size. But now that he's up to 290 pounds, he appears to be coming along nicely.

• Freshman running back Colin Spencer was involved in the offensive sets the Jayhawks ran during Saturday's practice and I think that's a sign of things to come. I wouldn't make too much of it, but I also wouldn't dismiss it. It's a crowded backfield and there's a ton of talent in front of him, but Spencer's a solid athlete with big-time speed. If he can pick up what they're throwing at him, I think he'll have a role in the offense.

• Long snapper John Wirtel, who announced on signing day that he was walking-on at KU next season, was in attendance watching practice with his family. Seemed like nice people and I was impressed more than once by the way Wirtel's eyes were wide open while taking in what was unfolding in front of him. Recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello came over to the family during a break to welcome them. That was cool to see, too.

• There was no “Coach Weis Song of the Day” on Saturday, but there was a different familiar sign from last season — the exercise bike. Saturday, defensive back Tyree Williams and linebacker Schyler Miles were logging miles on the bike. Miles we knew about, Williams was new.

• JaCorey Shepherd, the junior wide receiver turned defensive back who wore No. 25 last season, has switched over to No. 24 this year.

• It was nice to see former Jayhawks, Maxwell Onyegbule (player) and Louie Matsakis (coach) back in crimson and blue, too.

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What caught my eye at Saturday’s practice: March 9

Before I get into the specifics of what I saw at Saturday's KU football practice, let me explain one thing.

We were told before the spring began that the media would get one day to go out and watch practice but we don't know yet when that day will be. Saturday, those of us who attended KU's Hannah & Friends football clinic at Anschutz Sports Pavilion were lucky enough to observe an hour of KU's third practice of the spring, the team's first in pads.

The clinic itself was great. It was really cool to see so many of these players get into working with the people with special needs. Lots of smiles, lots of laughs, lots of fun. That made the hour of practice a bonus, but it definitely was great to get a look at some of the new guys, which was where I spent most of my time during the practice session.

I just wanted to get that explanation out of the way so you would know that the “What Caught My Eye” feature would not be as regular of a thing this spring. But I hope for it to return full bore in August.

For now, here's what caught my eye from Saturday's action:

• Junior college transfer Tedarian Johnson is a freaking truck. Most recruiting services had him listed at 260 pounds throughout his recruitment, but the guy is a legit 290. And he moves well. I don't know how he'll fit into KU's plans on its suddenly-deep defensive line, but his size definitely caught me by surprise.

• All of that talk about junior defensive tackle Keon Stowers as a leader seems legit. You could see it even during the clinic with the Special Olympians but it really showed up during drills in practice. I think part of the reason Stowers has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, is that (a) he battled injuries last year and could not play to his potential, (b) he didn't want to overstep his bounds and wanted to be respectful of last year's seniors and c) KU really needs leaders on defense. Stowers is one of the real good dudes on this team and it's cool to see him stepping up.

• KU coach Charlie Weis was not afraid to get after these guys — none of the coaches were. I heard a lot of yelling and sensed a lot of urgency from the staff during individual drills. I think they're trying to set the tone for the season early and, by doing that, are reminding these guys that losing is not acceptable. I didn't hear names or see numbers, but at one point I even heard Weis yell, “He's gonna take your job.” Nothing like some good, ol' competition.

• Although limited, Saturday's practice gave me my first extended look since last year's spring game at how QB Jake Heaps works. And even that was not that great of a representation of who he is and how he operates since we all knew then that he could not play in 2012. I really like his demeanor. He's a natural leader, carries himself with confidence and crispness and seems to be a really easy guy to want to follow. We didn't see a ton of throws so that'll have to wait for another day, but there's no question that this is his team and his offense.

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Video: KU football and Special Olympians combine forces for fun-filled clinic

Here's a quick video I put together from today's KU football clinic with about 100 Special Olympians. The event, which was organized by Hannah & Friends, the not-for-profit charity dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with different abilities founded by KU coach Charlie Weis and his wife Maura, included the team and its participants running through 10 different skills stations and an hour-and-a-half of drills, laughs and smiles.

The new KU student group, Hannah & Jayhawk Friends, which, Maura Weis said is the fastest growing organization on campus, also helped make Saturday's fun happen.

After the clinic was over, I got to stick around for an hour of the Jayhawks actual practice and saw some new looks and new faces, so I'll have more thoughts from that later today.

For now, enjoy the video from a great event!

http://playvideo.co/e3aeae44-e5ae-47db-aef6-6f51eeb27d2b?utm_campaign=ljtweet&utm_source=ljtweet&utm_medium=ljtweet

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KU coaching staff already comfortable entering Year 2

At this time last year, many of the coaches and even a few of the players in the Kansas University football locker room were new to Lawrence and new to the KU fan base.

Hard to believe, isn't it?

It sure doesn't that seem that way. Maybe it's just the desire to be the debacle that was the Turner Gill Era in the past or maybe it's the personality and presence that the new crew possesses. Either way, it seems as if head coach Charlie Weis and company have been in town for a lot longer than 15 months. And I'm not the only one that feels that way.

“It does a little bit,” said KU quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus when I asked him if it felt like he'd been around longer than one season. “Because we've invested so much here. And not just in this building but my family and being in town. I mean, we love being a part of this community and this campus.”

Therein lies one of the biggest reasons that even though the record looked worse the first year of the Weis era was an absolute success. Never did Gill truly seem like a part of the community. Never did he seem to have genuine pride in KU or the program. That's not a knock. It's the truth. And it's not that way for Weis.

Weis, a man with homes, ties and connections in many different areas of the country, already has made it clear that Lawrence and KU are important to him and his family. He brought his son with him and moved his annual Hannah & Friends golf tournament to nearby Firekeeper Golf Course just months after arriving in town — that's scheduled for late June and should be a blast, by the way. In addition, when he's not out recruiting, Weis is a regular at KU basketball games. And he's not just there. He's into it. He puts off the same vibe about KU's other sports through his Twitter feed by routinely commenting on and congratulating the women's basketball, volleyball and track and field teams.

When it comes to football, Weis' staff routinely follows his lead down whatever path he sees fit. So maybe that's one of the biggest reasons that the beginning of Year 2 feels more like the beginning of Year 5. Either way, these guys are comfortable here and that can only help the program move forward.

“I do feel like I've been here (a while) but it becomes obvious that I haven't when I don't know a lot of people yet,” Powlus said. “We're still learning people and meeting people and it's great. It's a welcoming community, both on campus in athletics and in the community. We feel like we've been here forever and we'd love to stay here forever.”

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Jayhawks land commitment from 4-star Gardner-Edgerton running back Traevohn Wrench

Although March tends to be all and only about basketball around these parts, there is some decent-sized football news from Allen Fieldhouse today.

I just learned that Gardner-Edgerton running back Traevohn Wrench is in the building today and has orally committed to the Jayhawks.

Wrench, a junior and four-star prospect according to Rivals.com, was one of the top backs in the state of Kansas last season.

During a four-game stretch late in the 2012 season the 6-foot, 191-pound bruiser ran for 1,277 yards and 17 touchdowns, sometimes logging as many as 40 or 50 carries in a single game.

Here's the story our prep writer Benton Smith did on Wrench in advance of GEHS's meeting with Lawrence High in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs last fall.

We'll have more on the commitment in the near future. This is a big pick-up for the Jayhawks, as Wrench would come in at a time when the Jayhawks would be losing James Sims and Taylor Cox to graduation.

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Early look at potential sleepers for KU football in 2013

OK, for this week's final set-the-scene-for-spring-football blog, we'll dive into sleepers.

Rather than just pick a few and speculate how they might fit in or what roles they may play, I'll go position-by-position and give you one player whom I could see making a splash that people may not be expecting.

Now bear in mind that this is being written before the start of spring drills and that time, let alone preseason camp, could change things drastically. But, for now, here are the guys I could see stepping up in some way, shape or form this season.

*Disclaimer: Just because they make this list does not mean I'm saying they will make a huge impact.*

Quarterback: Tough one. I'll go Jordan Darling. Jake Heaps looks like the man and Michael Cummings is a known name as his back-up. I don't expect Darling or fellow-freshman Montell Cozart to play, but one of them figures to get a leg up on the other through scout team reps and if Darling can put up the high school numbers he did while moving to a new school each year, I think he could contribute in a positive way as the show team QB in 2013.

Running back: Freshman Colin Spencer. Weis recruited this guy as an athlete/defensive back and already has moved him to running back. That was partially to cover his butt in terms of depth but more so because Spencer can play. I fully expect him to factor into the offense in some manner right away.

Wide receiver: Ishmael Hyman. Remember how Tre' Parmalee played a much bigger role than anyone expected last season? That's what I keep thinking of when Hyman's name pops up.

Tight end: Trent Smiley. I've long been a fan of Smiley's ability to block. He may be as good as anyone on the team. And because of that, you know he's gonna be out there. Playing time leads to production and even though Smiley won't be asked to do much more than block, I wouldn't be surprised if he came away with three or four touchdowns by default this season.

Offensive line: Let's go with Joey Bloomfield. True freshmen rarely do much on the offensive line at KU, but there's something about Bloomfield (probably his 6-6, 305 size) that makes me scratch my head and wonder if he might be ready for some kind of role a little earlier than most we've seen in recent years.

Defensive line: Keon Stowers. Did not make the splash I thought he would last season, but did participate in plenty of snaps and seemed to improve as the season went along. I've heard his name mentioned more than a few times when it comes to offseason workouts and leadership, and, at 6-3, 290 and athletic, Stowers has the make-up to be a pest in the middle.

Linebacker: Victor Simmons. As a true freshman, I had Simmons pegged as a future star at safety. But then the coaching change happened, he moved positions and my prediction fell flat on its face. Simmons is a big-time athlete who can run and during the past two seasons has bulked up nicely to 6-2, 206 pounds. I doubt he plays much, but if he gets a shot, that speed and his physicality could become a factor much in the way Prinz Kande's was before a knee injury cut his season short last year. (Kande was another good option here, by the way, but you never know how a guy's gonna respond to a serious injury like that).

Cornerback: JaCorey Shepherd. I'm going with Shepherd as a sleeper here only because he's still new to the position and I think he's going to be very good one day. Defensive coordinator Dave Campo has raved about the former wide receiver since Day 1 and we saw flashes of what he could do last season. Coming off a full offseason devoted to defense, I think Shepherd has a chance to be a terrific corner.

Safety: Dexter Linton. Linton fared well when thrust into action because of injuries last season and seems to be the most proven safety among KU's returners. We may have seen his ceiling in those games and the guys Weis & Co. brought in during the offseason may have more talent, but it would not surprise me if Linton played a decent-sized role this season.

Specialist: Ron Doherty. One kicker (Trevor Pardula) was given a scholarship to help eliminate KU's problems in the kicking game and another (Michael Mesh) was encouraged to walk-on with the idea that he could compete for starting place kicking duties right away. I know Doherty has been strictly average during the past couple of seasons, but what if those moves (and getting past an injury that plagued him for most of 2012) are exactly what the senior with experience needs to deliver a breakout season?

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Former KU football coach Mark Mangino joins Youngstown State program as assistant

http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/photos/2009/11/28/ku_fbc_mu_rg09.jpg

The wait and speculation are finally over. Mark Mangino is back in coaching.

The former KU boss, who led the Jayhawks to a 12-1 season and Orange Bowl championship in 2007, has been hired by Youngstown State as assistant head coach and tight ends coach. Mangino also will serve as the Penguins' recruiting coordinator.

During the past several months — and, really, the past couple of years — Mangino has been linked to jobs of all kinds all across the country, from a possible answer for head coaching vacancies to a return to Oklahoma as an assistant and all things in between.

It appears Mangino, a YSU graduate, took the Youngstown State job because of his familiarity with the program and the region.

"This is a homecoming for me," Mangino said in the school's official release announcing the hire. "I'm delighted to be at a great school with a great football tradition with a team and coach poised to do great things. Every coaching job I have ever taken was a rebuilding project, but this program is not rebuilding. This program has the potential to have a very good year and that's a credit to Eric Wolford, his staff and his team."

Also in the release, Mangino elaborated about his respect for Wolford, who played for Mangino at Kansas State and coached with him at KSU when Wolford was a graduate assistant working with the offensive line.

"I am a big believer in Coach Wolford's 'no shortcuts' approach that focuses on getting results on and off the field,” he said. “This school is near and dear to my heart and I'll work very hard with Coach Wolford to get the job done."

Mangino resigned from his post at KU following the 2009 season after compiling an eight-year record of 50-48 and earning consensus national coach of the year honors in 2007.

He guided the Jayhawks to one-third of their all-time bowl appearances (four out of 12 in 125 seasons); led KU to bowl games in consecutive years for the first time ever; posted three consecutive bowl victories for first time in school history; had eight-win seasons in consecutive years for the first time since 1908-09; had six wins in four straight seasons for the first time since 1903-06; won 20 games in a two-year period, the most in school history; brought the program into the national polls for the first time in 11 campaigns and saw the passion for KU football explode as the school set home attendance average records in a four-year span.

Prior to his arrival in Lawrence, Mangino played a key role in the rebuilding process at both Oklahoma (1999-2001) and Kansas State (1991-98).

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KU football’s positions of concern heading into spring practice

On Wednesday, we jumped into the pre-spring position-by-position breakdown with a quick look at the Kansas University football program's three strongest position groups.

Today, it's time to look at the top three positions of concern.

When coming up with this list, I couldn't help but think back to my thoughts at this time last year, when it looked like the offense would be a well-oiled machine and the defense would be the biggest concern.

It didn't turn out that way, of course. The offense struggled — largely because of the passing game — and the defense, though not statistically lights out, performed well above the level I expected and kept KU in a lot of games throughout the season.

We'll see if something similar plays out this year or if both units improve and stick a little closer to one another. According to this list, if you're picking one or the other to worry about this time around, it looks like the offense may be the bigger concern.

We'll see.

1. Offensive Line
This is the one position tied to KU's hopes for success more than any other this season and all the Jayhawks are asked to do is replace three multi-year starters, two of which have a legitimate shot to play professional football.

Putting the O-Line on the concerns list does not mean that the Jayhawks don't have pieces in place to cobble together a solid line, but doing so is far from a certainty and that's why the position is No. 1 on this list. Not only is quality play on the offensive line crucial for KU to keep its potent running game going, but it also is a must if the Jayhawks hope to get improved play out of the quarterback position.

Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist narrowly avoids getting snagged by Iowa State defensivel lineman Jake McDonough, who is pushed away by KU lineman Aslam Sterling during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist narrowly avoids getting snagged by Iowa State defensivel lineman Jake McDonough, who is pushed away by KU lineman Aslam Sterling during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

There is a nice mixture of returners and newcomers on the line heading into the spring, so the potential for a solid unit is certainly there. But it won't show up overnight and at a position that requires five individuals functioning as one entity, that's a major concern. At least for now.

2. Kicker
KU coach Charlie Weis appears to be satisfied with the things he has done to upgrade KU's woeful kicking game in the offseason. He handed out a scholarship to juco transfer Trevor Pardula and enticed Hutchinson C.C. standout Michael Mesh to walk on. Both should compete with returning dual-threat guy Ron Doherty for starting jobs right away.

Kansas kicker Ron Doherty, left, bemoans a missed field goal against Kansas State during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan. At right is holder Blake Jablonski.

Kansas kicker Ron Doherty, left, bemoans a missed field goal against Kansas State during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan. At right is holder Blake Jablonski. by Nick Krug

But neither of the newcomers has done it at this level yet and until they do — and until they do it with some consistency and regularity — KU fans likely will continue to cringe when it's fourth-and-four at the opponent's 25-yard line.

3. Wide Receiver
The fact that this group is a concern says more about last year than this year because KU got very little from its receivers in 2012 and most of the top pass-catching threats graduated. The cupboard is not bare, though, and there are plenty of new (and a few old) faces who could step up and instantly erase the painful memories of not being able to throw the ball in 2012.

Kansas receiver Andrew Turzilli pulls in a deep pass as TCU cornerback Jason Verrett dives in for the tackle during the third quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas receiver Andrew Turzilli pulls in a deep pass as TCU cornerback Jason Verrett dives in for the tackle during the third quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

As you all surely know by now, KU went the entire season without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. That's a freaky stat. Flat-out unreal. I don't think that will happen again this season — for starters because I think Heaps will be solid and, beyond that because I think there's some talent in this unit — but until we get into spring ball a little bit and, really, until we see these guys do it in September and beyond, you have to wonder exactly what you have here.

Returning threats Andrew Turzilli and Tre' Parmalee appear to be two of the more solid options here, and the arrival of newcomers Rod Coleman, Mark Thomas and Ishmael Hyman (along with Justin McCay finally being eligible) make me think this group could be decent. But again, until they actually get out there and deliver you have to wonder what will become of a position that seems to be a strength at nearly every other Big 12 university.

For those of you who may have missed this week's daily pre-spring blogging, here's a look back at the previous entries:

Monday: Talking red-shirts: A look back at the guys who sat out in 2012 and what's in store for their futures.

Tuesday: Top KU football story lines as we head into spring football: No, seriously, spring.

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KU football’s positions of strength entering spring drills

Yesterday, we looked at some of the story lines surrounding the Kansas University football program that figure to make spring practice — which begins Tuesday — interesting and exciting for a number of reasons.

Today, let's dive in a little deeper and begin our look at KU's strengths and weaknesses by position.

We'll start with the three positions in which KU appears to be in the best shape and follow it up on Thursday with the three positions that carry the biggest concern.

If a position doesn't make either list, figure it's in decent shape — not great but not a major problem either.

All right, let's get to it.

1. Running Back
I'm sure this comes as absolutely no surprise. Not only did the Jayhawks have one of the best running attacks in the Big 12 last season, but they also are bringing back their top three ball carriers and still have some pretty incredible depth.

Kansas running back James Sims runs for a touchdown in the first half of KU's game against the Northern Illinois Huskies on Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill.

Kansas running back James Sims runs for a touchdown in the first half of KU's game against the Northern Illinois Huskies on Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill. by Mike Yoder

Senior James Sims headlines the list and will look to lead the team in rushing for the fourth straight season. The two guys who carried the load while Sims served his suspension last season — junior Tony Pierson and senior Taylor Cox — bring talent and versatility, along with even more experience, to the position. And then you still have junior Brandon Bourbon and freshman Colin Spencer. It remains to be seen if Bourbon can break his way into the rotation and there's already talk of Spencer having some kind of role due to his dynamic speed and athleticism.

A lot of this unit's success will depend on what KU gets from its revamped offensive line (spoiler alert for Thursday's blog!!!) but between this group of talent and KU coach Charlie Weis' ability to disguise and tweak the run game, the Jayhawks appear to be ready for another big year on the ground.

2. Linebacker
KU's best defensive player from 2012, Ben Heeney, returns to lead a group of linebackers that all of a sudden looks pretty stout.

Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney (31) tackles West Virginia's Tavon Austin (1) in KU's game Saturday against West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va.

Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney (31) tackles West Virginia's Tavon Austin (1) in KU's game Saturday against West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. by Mike Yoder

Juco transfers Marcus Jenkins-Moore and Samson Faifili have the look of instant starters and if that trio makes up KU's first string, the second unit that backs them up will have a good mix of talent, toughness and experience. Schyler Miles, Jake Love and Huldon Tharp are the most notable names on that list, with veterans Darius Willis (yeah, he's back to linebacker), Prinz Kande and Victor Simmons, along with speedy rookies Courtney Arnick and Kellen Ash, backing them up.

I know it can be dangerous to count too much on transfers, but Jenkins-Moore and Faifili appear to be bad dudes and their addition significantly upgrades the position. What's more, this group seems to have some of the best depth of any on the team.

3. Defensive Line
It seems crazy to be writing this when the defensive line was without question the biggest weakness on the team just two seasons ago, but Weis and company have made it a point to upgrade the D-Line during the past couple of offseasons and, although we won't be able to fully evaluate the group until September, it appears they have done just that.

Standout defensive linemen Marquel Combs, left, and Chris Martin, right, are on their way from the junior-college ranks to Kansas University’s football team after signing and faxing in letters of intent on Wednesday.

Standout defensive linemen Marquel Combs, left, and Chris Martin, right, are on their way from the junior-college ranks to Kansas University’s football team after signing and faxing in letters of intent on Wednesday.

Tackles Marquel Combs and Ty McKinney appear to be big-time, disruptive forces in the middle and ends Chris Martin and Andrew Bolton may very well bring a dimension of nasty pass-rushing off the edge that has been missing around here for quite some time.

It's not just the new faces that make this position one of strength. Returners Jordan Tavai and Keon Stowers have another offseason with strength coach Scott Holsopple under their belts and there still exist a couple of up-and-comers in Ben Goodman and Michael Reynolds, who could explode onto the scene at any minute.

This group also gets depth, experience and leadership from veterans Kevin Young and Keba Agostinho and also still has a couple of potential diamonds in the rough in red-shirt freshman Tyler Holmes and newcomer Tedarian Johnson. For my money, it's the depth here and number of quality options that pushes this position into the top three.

Competition for starting spots and playing time may be more intense on the D-Line than anywhere else. Should be fun to watch.

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Top KU football story lines as we head into spring football: No, seriously, spring

All right. Now that we got past the Kansas University football players who didn't get into the action last year, let's take a quick look at what we should watch for from them and the guys who did.

Here's a glance at the top five story lines heading into spring drills, which begin one week from today, snow or no snow.

Kansas University quarterback Jake Heaps (9) warms up during practice on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas University quarterback Jake Heaps (9) warms up during practice on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, at Memorial Stadium. by Richard Gwin

1. What's up with the quarterback position?
Here we are, three full seasons removed from Todd Reesing's final game as a Jayhawk and we're still searching for a suitable replacement. Jordan Webb, Quinn Mecham and Kale Pick all got their turns during 2010 and 2011, and Dayne Crist and Michael Cummings each had a crack in 2012. While those guys collectively had a couple of decent moments, none of them proved to be the answer or even anything close to it. So now the focus turns to Jake Heaps, the BYU transfer who sat out last season and appears to be the favorite to be the guy this year. Making a complete read on Heaps — good or bad — based on what he does this spring would be foolish, but it will at least be the first meaningful evaluation we get to make.

Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis holds a news conference at KU on Wednesday, August 1, 2012, the day before the Jayhawks’ fall camp starts. Weis spoke about the team’s depth chart and his eagerness for the season to start, saying, “I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been.”

Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis holds a news conference at KU on Wednesday, August 1, 2012, the day before the Jayhawks’ fall camp starts. Weis spoke about the team’s depth chart and his eagerness for the season to start, saying, “I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been.” by Mike Yoder

2. What role will familiarity play for the Jayhawks?
I asked KU coach Charlie Weis in December if Year 2 would more closely resemble Year 1.5 because of the crazy amount of turnover and long list of potential new starters on both sides of the ball, some of whom already are here and others who will arrive in June. His answer was a clear no, which led me to believe that he felt pretty good about what his players learned and retained from his first season in town. Coaching transitions are never easy and the second year is almost always better and smoother than the first. The players know what to expect both in terms of coaching style and schemes and the coaches benefit from a having a full year of relationships with their new guys under their belts.

Kansas players Jimmay Mundine (41) Michael Reynolds (55) and Greg Brown (5) sing the Alma Mater to the student section following their 25-24 loss to Rice on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas players Jimmay Mundine (41) Michael Reynolds (55) and Greg Brown (5) sing the Alma Mater to the student section following their 25-24 loss to Rice on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

3. Which player becomes “the next big thing?”
Each spring, somebody steps to the forefront and becomes the hot name on offense, defense or both. Last spring, it was Michael Reynolds, who was a monster in the spring game but parlayed that into only minimal success during the season. The year before it was Christian Matthews, who, despite stacking back-to-back solid spring games on top of each other, made next to no impact as a receiver (though he did play a key role as a Wildcat QB). So who will be the guy (or guys) that step up this spring? Always fun to watch, awfully tough to predict.

Kansas safety Dexter Linton drags down Baylor receiver Terrance Williams during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 at Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, Texas.

Kansas safety Dexter Linton drags down Baylor receiver Terrance Williams during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 at Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, Texas. by Nick Krug

4. Roster/position changes?
It happens just about every year and we've already heard about one move — incoming freshman Colin Spencer will start at RB instead of DB — but Weis promised that more moves are on the way. In fact, the word he used to describe how many tweaks had taken place was “several.” My best guess is that means all kinds of things — a few guys have left the program, others have changed positions and others may even be looking into new roles while playing the same position. The only clue he gave us was that nobody had jumped from offense to defense or defense to offense. I'm sure this topic will be among the first things he addresses at his pre-spring news conference next Monday, but even after that it will be interesting to see how the changes impact the program and develop throughout the spring.

A quick look at the most updated roster revealed the following changes:

• Dexter Linton has moved from safety to cornerback
• Keba Agostinho is listed at defensive end
• Place kicker Nick Prolago is no longer on the roster
• Punter Sean Huddleston is no longer on the roster
• Long snapper Justin Carnes is no longer on the roster
• Despite rumors about his departure, Huldon Tharp remains on the roster

Kansas special teams coach Clint Bowen looks to hug receiver Josh Ford after Ford's blocked punt by South Dakota State in the second quarter, Saturday, September 1, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas special teams coach Clint Bowen looks to hug receiver Josh Ford after Ford's blocked punt by South Dakota State in the second quarter, Saturday, September 1, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

5. Will the coaching shuffle have any impact?
Linebackers coach DeMontie Cross left for TCU this offseason and stepping in to replace him is longtime Jayhawk Clint Bowen. Bowen knows his stuff and, more importantly, he knows the players. So it seems safe to conclude that the loss of Cross will not hurt the defense much at all. Beyond that, though, there are a handful of other new faces in new places throughout the coaching staff and it'll be interesting to see how quickly those guys can settle in and earn the respect of the players. Many of them are familiar faces simply shuffled into new roles, so that will help. But spring is where it will start.

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