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KU football: What we've learned from the first four weeks of 2012

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Kansas safety Bradley McDougald (24) wraps up TCU receiver Brandon Carter (3) during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas safety Bradley McDougald (24) wraps up TCU receiver Brandon Carter (3) during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by John Young

This summer, as Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis sat in his office with a small group of local reporters, he pointed to the first four weeks of the season as a key measuring stick for his Jayhawks.

After the first four weeks, Weis said, he would know a lot more about his first Kansas team.

Well, here we are, four weeks into the season, and piecing together what Weis knows about this team has become an interesting exercise.

There are characteristics, both good and bad, that have emerged clearly during the Jayhawks’ 1-3 start. But the guess here is that Weis expected he might know a little more than he does today, particularly in a couple of key areas.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the three most positive things and the three most concerning things to come from the first four weeks of the 2012 season.

Positives

1. Defense/Turnovers: There’s no question that KU’s ability to take the ball away from opposing offenses has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the young season. With 13 total turnovers caused, the Jayhawks are averaging more than three takeaways per game, and twice have topped four takeaways in a single game, by snagging five in the season-opening victory over South Dakota State and forcing four fumbles in the 20-6 loss to TCU.

2. Productive Running Game: Tony Pierson has looked fast, Taylor Cox has looked tough and, most recently, James Sims has looked better than ever. That’s not a bad three-headed monster in the backfield for the Jayhawks. Toss in the fact that the offensive line has done a solid job of opening holes for all three guys and you’re looking at the strength of this year’s squad — by far. The big question now? Will their early success transfer over when Big 12 play arrives?

3. Improved Defensive Line: One of the glaring weak spots during the past couple of seasons, the Jayhawks appear to be much improved up front on defense. With Josh Williams and Toben Opurum functioning as consistent and disruptive pass-rushing forces and D-Tackles Jordan Tavai, Kevin Young, John Williams, Keon Stowers and Keba Agostinho playing at high speeds week in and week out, the Jayhawks’ defensive line actually has been one of the most improved units on this team.

Negatives
1. Quarterback Play: It’s a well known fact that Dayne Crist has underperformed so far, and while that certainly is understandable given his long layoff and injury history, his erratic play has been tough for the Jayhawks to handle because his miscues have so closely been tied to the outcome of KU’s games. A couple of better throws or decisions here and there, and it’s easy to see that the Jayhawks could be 3-1 instead of 1-3. They’re not, though, and positive production from this position remains a question mark.

2. Fourth-Quarter Collapses: You have to wonder about the mindset of these guys when you look at the fact that they had double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in two of their three losses. They said all offseason and all preseason that this was a different team with a different mentality. And while that may be true in many ways, this still seems to be a team — at least right now — that struggles to slam the door. It’s understandable, given the way the past two seasons have gone, that the Jayhawks might have forgotten how to win, but the fourth-quarter collapses against Rice and Northern Illinois seem to indicate that they still have a ways to go to get past that.

3. Right Side of Offensive Line: Junior Gavin Howard has had plenty of positive moments, especially when you consider that he’s a first-year starter and the same goes for juniors Randall Dent and Aslam Sterling. But all three also have had their share of bad moments, and, when your quarterback is struggling to get comfortable those bad moments are magnified severely. It seems that stamina and experience are areas of concern here, so it’ll be interesting to see if either improve as the season moves along.

In addition, here’s a quick look at the five guys I think have been the best for KU so far and the five guys who I think have underachieved. If they’re not on either list, they’ve played about the way I expected them to thus far.

Kansas cornerback Greg Brown breaks up a pass to TCU receiver Josh Boyce during the second quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas cornerback Greg Brown breaks up a pass to TCU receiver Josh Boyce during the second quarter, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Top performers
1. Bradley McDougald — The catalyst for the KU defense’s turnaround in the takeaway department, McDougald has recorded a few turnovers, forced a few more and generally looked like the toughest dude on this defense.

2. Tony Pierson/Taylor Cox — Both players have done everything one could hope for in making KU’s running game a legitimate strength. Tough inside, dangerous in the open field and not afraid to fight for tough yards, Pierson and Cox have become a solid one-two punch in the backfield.

3. Tanner Hawkinson/Duane Zlatnik — The offensive line has had issues, but very few of them have come from the left side, where Hawkinson and Zlatnik have manhandled defenders on a regular basis in both opening holes for Cox and Pierson and giving QB Dayne Crist good protection. Throw senior center Trevor Marrongelli into this list, too. He's off to a solid start.

4. Toben Opurum — Continues to get better each week and really has become a force to be reckoned with for opposing quarterbacks.

5. Greg Brown — Living up to his “Lockdown” nickname, Brown’s coverage has been air tight, his tackling better than ever and his aggressive nature the norm. This guy’s a stud.

Kansas reciever D.J. Beshears (20) is unable to come up with the ball end the end zone as TCU cornerback Kevin White (25) applies pressure during their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas reciever D.J. Beshears (20) is unable to come up with the ball end the end zone as TCU cornerback Kevin White (25) applies pressure during their game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 at Memorial Stadium. by John Young

Underachievers
1. Dayne Crist — Crist’s struggles have been beaten to death on message boards and blogs everywhere. He’s had plenty of good moments but needs to show he can deliver in the clutch.

2. D.J. Beshears — Has looked nothing like the player we’ve known him to be during the first four weeks of the season. Not sure if it’s in his head or if it’s a physical thing, but the KU offense definitely misses Beshears’ angry style.

3. Ron Doherty — Some of the struggles haven’t been Doherty’s fault, but still, the kicker’s No. 1 job is to bang the ball through the uprights and that hasn’t happened enough so far.

4. Michael Reynolds — He’s made a few plays in the pass game, but obviously needs to become more of a complete player to convince the coaches that he should be out there on first and second downs, too. This defense needs his speed on the field.

5. Aslam Sterling — It’s a lot to ask of a late-arriving junior-college transfer to jump right in and make a difference. But it’s not so much that Sterling hasn’t made a difference as it is that he’s looked a little lazy and disinterested at times that’s concerning.

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