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Spring football set to start Friday: Here's a quick guide on what to watch

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Kansas head coach Turner Gill gathers with the team during spring practice on Sunday, March 28, 2010.

Kansas head coach Turner Gill gathers with the team during spring practice on Sunday, March 28, 2010. by Jon Goering

It’s back. Friday marks the beginning of spring football at Kansas University.

Though the story lines surrounding the unofficial beginning of head coach Turner Gill’s second season in charge of the Jayhawks likely won’t excite KU fans the same way a Final Four preview or more talk about the Morris twins would, there’s still plenty to talk about around the KU football program.

Gill spent most of last season — in which the Jayhawks finished 3-9 — adjusting to his new surroundings, learning what he had at his disposal and finding ways to put in the values and philosophies he wants to run. It wasn’t always fun to watch and it rarely looked like the type of system that could work.

But things are different now. For starters, Gill’s ripping and roaring full-boar into his second year. No more tip-toeing around, no more vague answers about this unit or another, this player or that one. Gill knows what he’s dealing with now. The players know what they’re dealing with, too. Beyond that, things changed in the offseason, as well. Several returning players said KU’s offseason conditioning program was much more intense than anything they encountered last season. No longer were the coaches content with good work and great attitudes. Because everyone involved with the program was called to task for how poorly the team performed in 2010, egos were bruised, attitudes changed and everybody inside the walls at the Anderson Family Football Complex decided it was time to do something about it.

There are plenty of things that make it hard to imagine the 2011 season going much better in terms of overall record. First, KU’s schedule now includes all of the other nine remaining members of the Big 12. No more avoiding Texas or Oklahoma every couple of years. In addition, an early-season, non-conference game at Georgia Tech looms as a tough challenge. But just because the record might not improve — and that’s not to say it can’t — does not mean that the product on the field will look the same — that’s not to say it can’t, either.

For a team and coach that looked so overmatched a season ago, there sure are plenty of interesting storylines that should make the 2011 season fun to follow. Some of those start with spring ball, which opens Friday, runs 15 practices long and wraps up with the annual Spring Game on April 30, which is set to kickoff at 1 p.m.

Here’s a look at what to watch during the next four weeks.

Kansas starting quarterback Jordan Webb watches the remainder of the game from the sidelines during the third quarter Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010 at Kivisto Field. Webb came out of the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.

Kansas starting quarterback Jordan Webb watches the remainder of the game from the sidelines during the third quarter Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010 at Kivisto Field. Webb came out of the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury. by Nick Krug

1. Questions at quarterback — Kansas spent all of last season searching for an unquestioned starting quarterback. It never found one. Kale Pick, Jordan Webb and Quinn Mecham all got their shot at being the guy but none of them could hang on to the job. All three return to the huddle this spring, though Pick has moved to wide receiver, and each figures to be a year older, stronger and wiser.

In the offseason, Gill signed highly-touted high school prospect Brock Berglund, a 6-foot-4, dual-threat QB from Highlands Ranch, Colo., and many believed that Berglund would have the chance to step in as the team’s starter right away. Things looked good early on, as Berglund graduated from Valor Christian High in December and enrolled at KU in January, placing him in town in time for spring ball. But what the program called “personal circumstances,” Berglund recently returned to Colorado and is expected to return to Lawrence this summer with the rest of the Class of 2011. His absence this spring does not mean Berglund can’t start the season opener against McNeese State on Sept. 3. It does mean, though, that whatever read we get on the quarterback position this spring won’t be quite complete.

2. Newcomers galore — Two months ago, Gill introduced his first full recruiting class at KU, a group that included nearly 30 players, many of whom were three-star prospects, most being high school seniors. A couple of juco transfers sprinkled into the mix make this one of the most intriguing classes in recent KU history. The reason? Gill said on signing day that as many as 15 of these newcomers could play this fall. Whether that means they’ll be in the starting lineup, on the two-deep depth chart or simply holding down spots on special teams, Gill’s claim indicates a couple of things.

Highland C.C. linebacker Tunde Bakare was one of 27 members of the Kansas football 2011 signing class.

Highland C.C. linebacker Tunde Bakare was one of 27 members of the Kansas football 2011 signing class.

First, last year’s roster did not have enough talent to compete in the Big 12 and Gill and his coaching staff did everything they could to upgrade it this offseason. Second, the Class of 2011 includes some talented players, guys who could go a long way toward getting Kansas back on the right path.

Perhaps the biggest reason Gill seems so confident that such a high number of newcomers will play this year is the fact that nearly all of them will bring serious speed to the team. Adding speed was Gill’s top priority this offseason and that alone should give this team a whole different look in 2011, provided these guys can do what it takes to get onto the field.

3. Offensive line play improved? — Check out the names on the list of returning offensive linemen: Hatch, Spikes, Hawkinson, Zlatnik, Marrongelli. Sound familiar? They should. All five of those guys have logged serious time in the trenches during the past couple of seasons and all five, when healthy, have shown that they can play up front. The word from KU camp is that Hatch and Spikes have been monsters this offseason, which can only mean good things for the KU offense — particularly the running game. Add to that the considerable upside of Zlatnik, perhaps the most improved player on the entire roster last year, and the steady-eddy play of Hawkinson at left tackle and you’re looking at a crew that could be a strong point for this year’s team.

Marrongelli has experience, but there’ll be at least six newcomers pushing him — and the others — for playing time this year. It’s too soon to tell which of the freshmen will get the first crack at snaps — BV West product Dylan Admire may have a leg up since he’s been on campus since January — but whether they start or simply spell the starters, all of them will add depth to a position that didn’t have much in 2010.

Kansas running back James Sims looks to put a move on Oklahoma State safety Johnny Thomas (12) during the second quarter, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 at Kivisto Field. In back is OSU linebacker Justin Gent.

Kansas running back James Sims looks to put a move on Oklahoma State safety Johnny Thomas (12) during the second quarter, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 at Kivisto Field. In back is OSU linebacker Justin Gent. by Nick Krug

4. Running back riches — Two years ago, then-freshman fullback Toben Opurum led KU in rushing, only to be moved to defense the next year. Last season, freshman James Sims led the Jayhawks in rushing but is no lock to get the bulk of the carries this fall. It’s unlikely that Sims will be moved to defense, but the competition around him has increased dramatically. The only four-star prospects in the 2011 recruiting class are running backs, Darrian Miller, of Blue Springs, Mo., and Anthony Pierson, of East St. Louis, Ill., and two other backs figure to be in the mix for carries in returner Brandon Bourbon, a four-star prospect from the Class of 2010 who red-shirted last season, and Wichita Heights High prospect Dreamius Smith. That gives Gill five high-quality running backs, with Sims being the slowest of the bunch, and a seemingly endless number of options on how to attack opposing defenses with the ground game.

It’s not likely that all five will see meaningful carries this season, but one assistant coach told me this winter that Gill was going to give all of them a shot to play running back, letting the healthy competition between them add fire to the team and sort out the carries.

5. Defense poised to produce? — It’s probably hard to remember this now, but the KU defense actually played decent down the stretch in 2010. After giving up 159 points (and scoring just 24) in a three-game stretch against Baylor, Kansas State and A&M midway through the season, the Jayhawks gave up just 17 more (176-92) during the final five games of the year. That may not set the world on fire, but it was progress. Players who had changed positions started to settle in and a few play-makers started to flash their skills. Several starting defenders are gone from last year’s squad, but that might not be all bad.

Kansas safety Bradley McDougald can't keep up with Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle as Randle heads in for a touchdown during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 at Kivisto Field.

Kansas safety Bradley McDougald can't keep up with Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle as Randle heads in for a touchdown during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010 at Kivisto Field. by Nick Krug

The secondary returns five guys with starting experience and could be the strongest unit on this side of the ball. Safeties Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald have big-play potential and cornerbacks Greg Brown and Tyler Patmon were both at their best late last season. Safety Lubbock Smith also started a bunch of games, but there’s talk that he could slide down to linebacker.

In the middle, only senior linebacker Steven Johnson returns from last year’s ultra-thin linebacking corps, but with the players Gill brought in, that’s not a bad thing. Darius Willis, a transfer from Buffalo who sat out 2010, may be the best of the bunch. Juco transfer Tunde Bakare also figures to play a ton, as does Malcolm Walker, a transfer from Navarro Junior College, which won the juco national title in 2010. Add to that list the return of former starter Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last year with injury, and four true freshmen with serious speed — Collin Garrett, Ben Heeney, Jason Hensley and Jake Love — and it’s easy to see that this group will be much deeper, if not more talented, than it was in 2010.

Up front seems to be the biggest question on defense, and the D-Line should be one of the more interesting positions to watch this spring. Toben Opurum is set at defensive end and Patrick Dorsey, though undersized, seems to be a solid option at tackle. Beyond that, it’s a guessing game. Gill said late last year that a few former defensive ends were bulking up in an attempt to move inside. Kevin Young is the biggest name on that list. Keba Agostinho is another, though there’s still some question about whether he’ll play inside or out. That’s all still in the experimental stage at the moment. Replacing Jake Laptad opposite Opurum will be a challenge, but newcomers Julius Green and Michael Reynolds, among others, could emerge.

The bottom line for the KU defense is this: If it can get solid production from its D-Line, this defense could be pretty good. If not, it could be another rough season.

Football season is upon us. Stay logged in to KUSports.com throughout the spring for all the football news and information you can handle.

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