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10 things you might not have thought about regarding KU's season opener vs. McNeese State
With the opening of the 2011 Kansas University football season just a day away, it’s time to toss out all of the things I heard and saw this week that didn’t make it into any of my articles, be it because of a lack of space or Texas A&M leaving the Big 12.
For those who may have been living in a different country for the past several months — that’s a little shout-out to my buddy who just moved to Thailand — KU opens with FCS foe McNeese State at 6 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
On paper and at first glance, this one looks like an easy win, right? I mean, come on, it’s McNeese State and there’s no way in the world that the Jayhawks will let a North Dakota State sized debacle happen two years in a row, right?
Well, that remains to be seen — although I am confident that KU will play well and win — and it no matter what the outcome it should be a blast. There’s just nothing better than the opening day of the college football season, complete with all the fixings — fans tailgating, the sun shining, optimism in the air.
While many of you are making your final gameday preparations, below is a quick look at a few things you might not have thought of heading into KU’s season opener. Enjoy the game, be patient and try to stay to the end. There’s not a whole lot of atmosphere in the press box so every body in the bleachers helps.
• After stepping in to replace former defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, who retired in the offseason to focus on his fight with prostate cancer, new KU defensive coordinator Vic Shealy will make the trip upstairs prior to kickoff to call the game from the press box for the first time. Last year during the games, Shealy, also the cornerbacks coach, was on the field. Although he says there’s no better place to be than on the sideline with your team, Shealy also says being up in the box offers a better view of the opposing offense so that’s where he’ll be. He admitted that he’ll miss the energy and action of being at field level but also said he was looking forward to the challenge of calling a game from the box.
“You’d much rather be with your players on the field,” Shealy said. “It’s hard not to enjoy being out there with your players, just to see their faces and see their eyes. But the game slows for the play-caller up. It’s eerily quiet and sometimes you feel like you’re watching a video game with the sound off.”
• Don’t let their demeanor fool you; Game 1 means a lot to this year’s seniors. Obviously, it means something to everyone on the team, but for the seniors, guys like Tim Biere and Daymond Patterson, who were here when KU was ranked and going to bowl games, getting their final season off to a good start would mean a lot.
“Coming into your senior year, it is a little different,” Biere admitted. “It seems like you just got here and now it’s the start of your last season. You just want everything to go well. I’ll never have this opportunity again in my life. I have 12 games left, so I’m gonna make the most of all of them.”
• There’s been very little talk from the KU coaches and players regarding how they feel about most people’s expectations for the team this year. That’s by design. For most on the outside, the ceiling for this year’s team is three or four victories, and that’s only if everything goes well. For those in the locker room, though, they’re thinking big. And by big I’m not talking just six wins and a bowl game. They’re talking about being competitive each week and pulling off an upset or two and winning. While that idea has driven them through summer workouts, they turned it up a notch this week.
“It’s just been like a light switch since this week started,” junior Kale Pick said. “I’ve been waiting for a whole year, our football team’s been waiting for a whole year, and just hearing everybody doubt us and everybody talk, I’m just ready to put all the words into action and show people that this is a different KU football team this year.”
• By now, everyone knows that junior defensive end/linebacker Toben Opurum considered transferring after being moved to defense before the start of the 2010 season. Everyone also knows that after thinking about it and deciding to stick it out, Opurum has been one of the hardest working Jayhawks and has a chance to become a big-time playmaker on the KU defense this fall. So how does Opurum feel about all that’s happened to him in the last 365 days?
“I’m proud, really,” he said. “I’m not a guy who’s gonna go around shouting my emotions or telling everyone how I feel. That’s never been me. But I am proud to be a captain on this team. It shows the confidence that my coaches and my teammates have in me. I feel like I finally have a solidified role on this team and I’m ready to lead this team to the promised land.”
• Tom Petty fans they might not be, several Jayhawks said earlier this week that the waiting was, in fact, the hardest part. After suffering through 2010’s 3-9 season and then grinding it out during spring practice, summer workouts and preseason camp, these guys are ready. They’re ready to see if all the hard work is going to pay off. They’re ready to hit somebody in a different colored uniform. And they’re ready to have fun and put last year behind them. While waiting for kickoff has been tough this week, sophomore QB Jordan Webb said the team did a great job of fighting through it.
“I think it is the waiting,” said Webb when asked what the most difficult part of the week was. “You get out of the camp phase and you start going against the compete team and it’s kind of hard to keep the same level of intensity that you have when you’re going against your ones on defense. But that’s something I think we’ve really done a good job with, the coaches have kept pushing us to keep the intensity up.”
• There’s been plenty of talk about how KU’s true freshmen were preparing for their first college football game this week, but don’t forget that Saturday’s contest against McNeese State will be the first Div. I game for a handful of junior-college transfers and red-shirt freshmen, too. Guys like Tunde Bakare, Malcolm Walker, Isaac Wright, Brandon Bourbon and Pat Lewandowski all will play a role in Saturday’s game. And although the guys themselves said the anticipation of gameday did bring with it a little first-game feel, KU coach Turner Gill said they all appeared to be ready to roll.
“They have a little bit of experience so they’re more excited about it, more comfortable and more controlled,” Gill said. “Some people may have a little anxiety because they haven’t really played college football and then they go into a game and aren’t quite able to execute. But I think the guys that red-shirted and maybe sat out a year, they’re gonna have a big impact on our football team and I think we’re gonna see that in this first ballgame.”
• KU has won six of its last seven season openers at home, dating back to 2004. Other than last year’s upset loss to North Dakota State, the last time KU dropped a season opener came in 2003, when the Jayhawks lost, 28-20, to Northwestern in front of 27,000 fans and under a torrential downpoor at Memorial Stadium. That was Mark Mangino’s second season in town and, later that year, the Jayhawks capped a 6-7 season with a trip to the Tangerine Bowl, where they lost to Phillip Rivers and NC State. KU is 67-47-7 all-time in season openers.
• When he trots out there for the first offensive play of the game, junior offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson will be making his 25th consecutive start, good for the most on the team. Hawkinson, who earned freshman All-American honors after a stellar 2009 season, started all 12 games in each of the last two seasons at left tackle. Because of the return of Jeff Spikes, who missed all of last year with a torn Achilles’ tendon, Hawkinson’s streak will live on at right tackle, where he is slated to play this season.
• Have you heard all of that talk about the extra emphasis placed on special teams this offseason? It’s real. Consider this as proof. Earlier this week, coaches said that sophomore linebacker Huldon Tharp was the captain of KU’s kickoff team. Also expected to play on that team are team co-captain Steven Johnson, second-string running back Brandon Bourbon and true freshmen Collin Garrett and Ben Heeney. All four players have drawn high praise from the KU coaching staff for their work this offseason and their presence on the various special teams units should help KU improve dramatically in an often overlooked area of the game.
• In 121 previous seasons of college football, the Jayhawks have never faced McNeese State. KU is 3-3 all-time against Southland Conference opponents, registering splits in past two-game series against Northwestern State, Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana.