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13 things we'll find out about KU football during the 2013 season
It's game week. Finally. And after watching most of the rest of the college football world open its season last week — pretty wild that North Dakota State spoiled a season opener for another Sunflower State team on Saturday night, eh? — the Kansas University football team gets to join the action this week.
In the next few days, as our access to KU coach Charlie Weis and the players who will determine the outcome of the season opens up again, we'll analyze the match-up with South Dakota — 6 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium — and examine just how ready the Jayhawks seem for their second season under Weis.
For now, though, while we wait for that and the game, I figured I'd give you a quick look at the Top 13 things I'm looking forward to finding out about the 2013 Kansas football team.
1. Can Tony play like Tavon? — We all know that Weis studied tons of film of former West Virginia star Tavon Austin. And we also know that KU junior Tony Pierson is lightning fast and insanely electric with the ball in his hands. So how will the East St. Louis, Ill., native be used this season? Slot? Wide? Backfield? Running Back? Deep Threat? All of the above? I know we won't — or at least shouldn't — see too much of the answer to this question in Week 1, but it sure will be fun to track as the season progresses.
2. Does King James keep his reign? — James Sims has led the Jayhawks in rushing for three straight seasons and during each season, somebody else was supposed to be the reason the Irving, Texas, native came back to the pack. He never has. Will Sims, who has an NFL future and a shot a KU's all-time rushing title, continue to be the man in the KU backfield or will the other KU backs share a significant portion of the load?
3. The emergence of Ben Goodman — When it became final that Chris Martin had been booted from the team, I could not help but think what a huge blow that was to the Kansas defense. But then I watched fall camp and saw sophomore Ben Goodman up close and personal and started to think that maybe the Buck position will be all right after all. Based on the conversations I had with the KU players and coaches, I think Goodman is poised for a monster year and will make the loss of Martin a lot easier to take.
4. What about that secondary? — Is this, with Kevin Short, Dexter McDonald, Cassius Sendish, Brandon Hollomon and JaCorey Shepherd blanketing opposing wide receivers, finally the year that we don't have to watch the KU D-Backs give 10-to-15 yard cushions at the line of scrimmage?
5. Can they kick it? — Weis brought in a whole bunch of new kickers during the offseason and Matthew Wyman, the walk-on who appears to have won the place kicking job, looked great during the preseason. But will Wyman be able to trot onto the field on fourth-and-eight from the 28-yard line and knock a 45-yarder through the uprights? And, perhaps more importantly, will he be able to do it with the kind of consistency that keeps Weis from thinking twice in those kinds of situations?
6. Will the No. 9 jersey be next season's hot seller? — If so, that'll likely be because junior quarterback Jake Heaps had a fantastic 2013 season and won the hearts of many KU fans. I like Heaps. I love his demeanor, I think he's very talented and, more important than that, I think his teammates and coaches think he is as well. By the time it's all said and done, I think Heaps has what it takes to be on one of the all-Big 12 postseason squads in December.
7. What about that offensive line? — Weis is on record saying he thinks the offensive line could be better in terms of physicality and toughness, but the Jayhawks are being asked to replace a ton of experience with Tanner Hawkinson, Trevor Marrongelli and Duane Zlatnik gone from the lineup. Heaps will only be as effective as his line allows him to be, and because of that Aslam Sterling, Ngalu Fusimalohi, Pat Lewandowski, Mike Smithburg and Zach Fondal are among the most important players on the entire roster.
8. How long until a wide receiver catches a touchdown? — As bad as KU's passing game was in 2012, I'm still amazed every time I think about that stat that showed that no KU wide receivers caught a touchdown pass all of last season. That's just incredible. I don't think there's any way KU comes anywhere close to matching that stat in 2013, but the entire offense likely would breathe a serious sigh of relief if that bagel in the TD column disappears sooner rather than later.
9. How fast can KU's fast-break defense be? — It's no secret that KU spent much of the offseason reshaping its defense to be better equipped to keep up with the high-octane offenses in the Big 12. But can the Jayhawks actually play as fast as they'll be asked to play with so many new faces on the field and the majority of the defensive coaching staff signaling in from the sideline on Saturdays?
10. What will this team's identity be? — Last year's Jayhawks, which were better than their 1-11 record indicated, became known as a team that would fight like mad until the final horn week in and week out but never really carried the confidence it took to win in the Big 12. So what will this year's team be known for? With so many new players who bear confidence as their middle name, will the 2013 Jayhawks add a little swagger to that never-say-die mentality?
11. Who will be this year's big surprise? — Last year, sophomore linebacker Ben Heeney certainly walked away with this award, as he went from a special teams guy who couldn't get a look on defense to the third-leading tackler in the Big 12 Conference. The rugged and relentless Heeney won't surprise anyone this year, but, inevitably, someone will. Early favorites to take the honor in 2013 include: WR Rodriguez Coleman, LB Samson Faifili and S Isaiah Johnson.
12. Will the Jayhawks pull of a big upset? — Last season, the overmatched Jayhawks took Texas to the final seconds and Texas Tech to double-overtime on the road. Will this year's squad have that one game where it plays out of its mind and shocks one of the Big 12 powers?
13. Will the Jayhawks roll in Week 1? — I've always thought that you can tell a lot about a team in the opener when it's facing an opponent that it should dominate. The Rice game in Week 2 will be huge for the big picture of KU's season, but I think we'll get a pretty good indication of how things will go based off of the Week 1 result against South Dakota. If KU rolls to an easy victory in the 41-10 range or something similar, it will be a good sign that significant progress has been made. But if the Jayhawks struggle and win 31-17 (like they did against South Dakota State in 2012) or 42-24 (like they did against McNeese State in 2011), I'm a firm believer that it could be a sign of things to come. Sure, you can chalk up a closer-than-expected contest in the opener to nerves or rust, but when a team is superior in just about every area — as appears to be the case with KU vs. USD — anything less than a comfortable clobbering will be cause for concern.
So what does it all mean? I learned a long time ago that making predictions based on players you have or haven't seen is a dangerous business, but what's wrong with living dangerously from time to time? Everyone wants to know — or guess — how many games KU can win in 2013 and, with the season opener less than a week away, now is as good a time as any for me to toss out my best guess.
I've got the Jayhawks finishing 5-7 this season with victories over South Dakota, Rice, La. Tech, Texas Tech and West Virginia and losses to Oklahoma, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State, TCU and Kansas State.
You know what they say about a team that wins five games, though, right? If you can get to five, you can get to six. Who knows? But whether I'm close to right or horribly wrong, I do think this is going to be a very entertaining season and I'm looking forward to covering it.
Let the games begin.