Tale of the Tait
5:43 p.m. Update:
Just finished up with interviews for the day. Some six hours of tape and about 10 actual interviews and not a single negative word about Zenger. In fact, none of the people I talked to today had even heard anyone utter a negative thought about the ISU athletic director, who will take over at Kansas on Feb. 1.
Here are some interesting things I learned about Zenger today:
• Despite not being a big guy, the guy's a big eater. According to ISU football coach Brock Spack, Zenger's favorite meal is anything that starts with the letter "f" ends with the letter "d" and has two "o's" in the middle. Associate AD Aaron Leetch backed Spack's claim, saying simply, "He's never met a meal he didn't like."
Because of this, Zenger doesn't necessarily have a favorite restaurant. He likes them all. I was told to see a man named Art for breakfast in the morning at a popular diner in town. I'm told Art will have some great Zenger stories.
• Leetch also told a tale of Zenger spearheading a seating chart overhaul at the basketball arena, in which donors were repositioned according to the amount of money they donated. Instead of doing this overnight, Zenger gave each donor a clear indication of where they stood and then gave them three years to get up to speed before being moved. Leetch said this method was received very well by the ISU community, many of whom did up their donations and some who chose not to worry about it but were not outraged when they were moved. Reminded me a little of the reorganization of Allen Fieldhouse that Lew Perkins and Co., did a few years back. Good to see Zenger has experience in that area.
• Speaking of experience, Zenger appears to be a master fund-raiser. Though the money is not nearly what he'll be dealing with in Lawrence, it's still impressive on a relative scale. During Zenger's first year in Normal, donor gifts totaled approximately $650,000 for the year. Six years later, in 2010, that number nearly doubled as donations totaled more than $1.2 million. That's just annual gifts. That doesn't include money donated for upgrades at numerous facilities, including the baseball field, which received a major overhaul and is now among the nicest in the Missouri Valley Conference. Said ISU donor and Zenger friend, Don Franke, "It's just really hard to say "no" to Sheahon."
• ISU president Dr. Al Bowman told me that, when he hired Zenger in 2004, Zenger was one of three finalists and was not ISU's first choice. Sound familiar? The reason Zenger wound up with the job: "He hit a home run in his interview and I was impressed with him right away," Bowman said.
There's plenty more where that came from, as I talked to several other colleagues and a few student-athletes. Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to meet with ISU men's basketball coach and former KU assistant, Tim Jankovich.... After breakfast with Art, of course.
Check back tomorrow for more.
For now, here are a few more photos from today. Enjoy!
12:47 p.m. Update:
Just ate lunch at a place called "Pub II" apparently, it's the place to go in Normal for grub, beers and all things sports.
Pretty much what you'd expect from a college-town bar and grill. Bears, Cubs, Blackhawks and ISU banners and jerseys dominate the decor and meals for $5 or less dominate the menu. Good stuff.
Heading off to do some more interviews now....
12:04 p.m. Update:
So far today, I've done four interviews and met dozens of different people employed by Illinois State. Not one of them has had anything less than sensational words to say about Sheahon Zenger.
My first stop took me to the athletic department to meet Mike Williams, the SID for football, who acted as my tour guide today. Poor guy.
He's been great, driving me here and there and taking me to all of my interviews. Mike was born and raised in Normal and seems, no surprise, to be a pretty normal guy. I'm not sure if this is just the way people are here or if this is an indication of the culture that Zenger helped create but Mike has gone out of his way to make my stay pleasant.
So, too, have all the people I've met, which, so far, includes ISU football coach Brock Spack, who was hired by Zenger, ISU president Al Bowman, ISU vice president of student affairs, Steve Adams, and women's basketball coach Stephanie Glance, who started last April and also was hired by Zenger.
All four had incredible things to say about Zenger and what he's done in this town. They talk about his integrity, his geuineness and his generosity. They talk about his passion for ISU athletics, for the student-athletes themselves and how important it was for him to be accepted by this quaint little community.
This afternoon I'll meet a couple of donors and ISU's associate AD for external affairs and I'll also get a chance to hit the town and tour a few of Zenger's hot spots.
I'll have much more then, so check back soon. So far, though, I can tell you that all of that positivity and good will that surrounded Zenger's hiring was not a facade. The people here love him and they're certain that Jayhawk fans will, too.
Check back in a bit...
Original Post, 6 a.m.
Good morning and welcome to Normal, Illinois.
For the next three days, I’ll be based here, learning the ins and outs of the city that is home to Illinois State University, from where Kansas University recently plucked its newest athletic director, Sheahon Zenger.
Zenger won’t officially join the Jayhawks until Feb. 1 but we’re not going to wait that long. For the next few days, I’ll talk to the people Zenger worked with, the people who worked for him and the people around town who knew him best. All in an attempt to find out just who the new guy in charge of Kansas Athletics really is.
Thanks to Redbirds sports information director, Todd Kober, I’ve got an awesome lineup of interviews for the next couple of days. I’ll talk with ISU coaches, I’ll talk with alums and donors and I’ll talk with senior administrators who worked side-by-side with Zenger for the past six years.
It’s my hope that things won’t stop there. I plan to check out restaurants, barber shops, insurance offices and grocery stores. So far, we’ve heard nothing but great things about Dr. Zenger and I’m looking forward to hearing more.
Check back often in the next few days as I plan to update this blog throughout each day, while stockpiling the really good stuff for a complete print and online package upon my return to Lawrence.
I’m heading up to campus in about an hour. For now, here are a few facts I dug up about the city that, upon driving into it, reminded me a lot of a smaller-scale Topeka. We’ll start there, and, as we peel back the layers, I’m sure I’ll discover a lot more. Enjoy!
-- FACTS ABOUT NORMAL, ILLINOIS (courtesy of www.normal.org) --
• Population: 52,750
• Number of parks: 17
• Number of golf courses: 1
• Number of libraries: 1 (books in library, 187,660)
• Normal was home to the first Steak ‘n Shake Restaurant in the world. It was located at Main and Virginia streets, south of Illinois State University.
• ISU educated, among others, actors John Malkovich, Gary Cole ("The Brady Bunch movie"), Sean Hayes (”Will and Grace”) and actresses Laurie Metcalf (”Roseanne”), Judith Ivey (”The Five Mrs. Buchanans”, “Designing Women”).
• Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, Inc., is one of the most technologically advanced automotive manufacturing facilities in the world and has a production capacity of 240,000 vehicles annually. It is designed to accommodate several different models intermixed on one assembly line.
• Stand on the top floor of ISU's Watterson Towers and you are at the highest point in Illinois between Chicago and St. Louis.
• Although not widely known, ISU was founded 10 years before the University of Illinois and is the oldest public university in Illinois.
• Illinois State used to field teams nicknamed the Cardinals, but a Pantagraph newspaper sports editor changed the nickname to Redbirds so collegiate teams would not be confused in headlines with the St. Louis Cardinals.
• The farmland around Bloomington-Normal ranks among the top three areas in all the world for corn and soybean production. Ironically, the Twin Cities have seven streets named after fruits (Cherry, Apple, Bayberry, etc.) but none after vegetables.
With Bowl Season 2010 officially under way, it’s time for a quick look at those KU opponents who will be playing in the postseason.
In all, eight teams responsible for making the Jayhawks 3-9 last season will play in a bowl game during the next few weeks, including two of the four non-conference opponents and six Big 12 foes. (Oklahoma and Texas Tech also qualified for bowl games, but KU did not play either team in 2010).
Southern Miss (8-4) will kick things off at 7 tonight when they play Louisville (6-6) in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Southern Miss is a 2.5-point favorite in Vegas in this one, but several people seem to be picking the Cardinals, who have a deep and talented senior class that is eager to let loose in its first bowl game.
Even though Southern Miss handled KU pretty easily, I wasn’t that impressed. I’m leaning toward picking The Ville in this one, as well.
I said before the season began that the Southern Miss game was the most important on KU’s schedule in 2010. Though my reasoning (a win at USM would’ve given KU three non-con wins and made the prospects of winning three games in the Big 12 a little more realistic) seemed to be sound, it probably wouldn’t have made that much difference in the long run. At most, KU could have won four or five games had they beaten USM. Reaching a bowl in 2010 was probably pretty unrealistic from the jump.
Having said that, there aren’t that many teams out there who faced a schedule packed with nine teams that reached a bowl game, so, in some small way, that helps lessen the blow of KU’s 3-9 season.
Here’s a quick look at the rest of the bowl games that feature KU’s 2010 opponents:
• Dec. 27, Independence Bowl, Air Force (8-4) vs. Georgia Tech (6-6): The loss to KU in Week 2 almost cost the Yellow Jackets a chance at bowl eligibility. However, Paul Johnson and Co. were able to get things turned around and find themselves taking on a tough Air Force team in Shreveport, La. My pick: Air Force.
• Dec. 28, Insight Bowl, Missouri (10-2) vs. Iowa (7-5): I really liked Iowa all season and, when the bowls were announced, this was one of my favorite matchups. However, now that several key Hawkeyes have been hit with legal trouble, I don’t think this will be much of a game. Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert rides high in his MU swan song. My pick: Mizzou.
• Dec. 29, Texas Bowl, Illinois (6-6) vs. Baylor (7-5): The Bears were the story of the conference through four weeks of play. But a tougher schedule and declining play cost them late. Still, Art Briles got the Bears to their first bowl in years and I think the feel-good season ends on a positive note. My pick: Baylor.
• Dec. 29, Alamo Bowl, Oklahoma State (10-2) vs. Arizona (7-5): This is another great match-up, despite what the records say, but I think Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon will be far too much for the Wildcats to handle. ’Zona plays tough defense and has a ton of energy offensively. But I’m not sure they’re ready for this kind of a shootout. My pick: Oklahoma State.
• Dec. 30, Pinstripe Bowl, Kansas State (7-5) vs. Syracuse (7-5): It’s basically a home game for the ’Cuse but I really don’t think that will matter. K-State played in the better conference and has better talent, including the best player in the game in running back Daniel Thomas. The KSU fans will be outnumbered 3-1 in the stands, but the Orange will probably be outnumbered by that same margin on the scoreboard. My pick: K-State.
• Dec. 30, Holiday Bowl, Nebraska (10-3) vs. Washington (6-6): Yaaawwwnn. We already saw this game once this year and the Huskers rolled. It’ll be closer this time, but not much. My pick: Nebraska.
• Jan. 7, Cotton Bowl, LSU (10-2) vs. Texas A&M (9-3): The Aggies were awful until they finally got things rolling. I’m afraid the season is going to end the way it started for Mike Sherman’s club. LSU was strong all year and should be able to out-physical A&M in this one. It’s another great match-up, though, and playing in Texas certainly won’t hurt A&M’s chances. My pick: LSU.
Real quick, here’s one final note of interest for those looking ahead to 2011: Nine teams on KU’s 2011 schedule are playing in bowl games this season. The only teams that aren’t? McNeese State, Iowa State and Texas.
Happy Holidays, everyone. Enjoy the bowls!
With job openings at attractive football schools such as Miami, Florida and Pitt, every program in America has to take a look at its coach and wonder if he might be interested in bolted or persuaded to leave his current situation if given the chance.
Consider Kansas University to be among the few schools that don’t have much to worry about.
With KU coach Turner Gill just one year into his time at Kansas, it’s highly unlikely that the former Nebraska quarterback who led a remarkable turnaround at Buffalo before coming to Lawrence would be interested in leaving anytime soon. Gill’s under contract for four more years and he’s talked openly and often about his desire to turn KU into a consistent winner, even uttering the words “winning dynasty” on more than a couple of occasions.
Still, the football coaching community is an odd one and deals between friends and past relationships often weigh heavily into deciding all of this stuff.
While Gill isn’t a serious candidate at Miami or Florida, he might be at Pitt, where former Nebraska AD Steve Pederson is currently in charge. Bob Pompeani, of KDKA in Pittsburgh, is reporting that Boise State offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and Gill are at the top of Pederson’s wish list in finding a replacement for Dave Wannstedt, who resigned earlier this week.
In fact, Pompeani’s report indicated that Pederson pushed hard for Wannstedt to hire Gill as his offensive coordinator when Gill was still at Buffalo.
Having been through a coaching search recently, those of us around here know how these things go. The hiring is preceded by a ton of rumors and speculation that make for interesting conversation but have very little merit.
That may be all this is, but a couple of different message board threads on PantherDigest.com have popped up about Gill being a good fit for Pitt.
Something to keep in mind is that with the rising pressure for schools to interview minority candidates for coaching positions, Gill’s name might get thrown around a lot over the next few years. That doesn’t mean he’s leaving and it doesn’t mean he’ll even listen.
One other thing you have to keep in mind here is that whoever fills the jobs at Florida, Miami, Pitt and elsewhere, likely will be leaving other openings behind. Nebraska’s Bo Pelini has been linked to a couple of these jobs and, although he’s probably not going to take them, you all know what kind of wild scene Pelini leaving Nebraska would create around here.
Anyway, with all that said, I don’t think there’s any chance that Gill leaves Kansas any time soon.
Here’s a quick list of reasons why.
There are bigger fish in the sea. Despite the turnaround at Buffalo and Gill’s excellent reputation as a player and person of great character, he’s simply not a big enough name (yet?) to get ADs and fan bases at those schools fired up.
Why start over again? 2010 was rough, and there’s no way that Gill — or anyone else, for that matter — would want to go through it again. First years can be incredibly difficult no matter who the coach or what the school. Now, moving on to Florida or “The U” or even Pitt would probably make for a smoother transition than Gill experienced in Year 1 at Kansas. But there are no guarantees in that department and I can’t see it being worth the gamble.
Loyalty. Gill pledged to do a job here at Kansas. He has a plan. He stuck to that plan throughout an entire season and remained committed to it, even when the easy answer would’ve been to deviate a little in order to have a better chance at success right away. Because of his belief in his plan, in addition to all of the work he’s done in recruiting and developing relationships with his players and the community, I just can’t see Gill giving all that up. He loves his coaching staff. He loves his players. He’s got more on the way. He believes in what he’s doing here and doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would be OK with not seeing that through.
Family. Don’t forget about the role family plays in all of this. One of the things that made Gill most excited about landing the job at Kansas was the chance to be closer to his oldest daughter, Jordan, a student at KU. In addition, Gill already relocated his wife and youngest daughter from Buffalo to Lawrence. I can’t imagine he’d put them through that again.
Money. Gill’s making $2 million a year at KU. I can’t imagine he’d make more than that anywhere else nor does money seem to be the driving force behind why Gill is in the coaching business to begin with.
Now that a few days have gone by and the 2010 season is behind us, it’s time to look back at the season that was for Kansas football.
This season wasn’t memorable enough to merit weeks upon weeks of these sort of retrospective pieces, but the job would not be complete without them.
So read it if you like, skim it if you’d rather or sound off below with your own grades in any or all of the categories.
Once we get past this stuff, we’ll start looking ahead to 2011, which has to be better than 2010.
Quarterback — D — This team never truly had a starter as three different guys held down the job during the course of the season. None of them separated from the rest and that made life hard for the offense all season long. Kale Pick never got a real chance to show what he could do. Jordan Webb had his moments but they were too few and far between and Quinn Mecham, the best of the bunch in my opinion, was too often asked to manage games instead of winning them.
Running Back — B — Freshman running back James Sims was one of the true bright spots for the Jayhawks this fall. He ran for 742 yards and nine TDs and often was the team’s best player on offense. He alone is responsible for the running back position getting the best grade on the team this season.
Wide Receivers — C — There’s a lot of talent here but because of KU’s struggles at quarterback (and in protecting the quarterback) the receivers were never given the chance to shine. Daymond Patterson was the most consistent of the bunch, Johnathan Wilson made a couple of plays and Erick McGriff and Chris Omigie came on late. But none of them did enough to earn higher than a C.
Offensive Line — C- — Injuries hurt this unit was much as any and that made for a tough season in the trenches. So, too, did the switch from a spread offense, which put these guys in pass-block situations most of the time, to a running offense, which wanted to grind it out. Duane Zlatnik was a pleasant surprise, Jeremiah Hatch has to be commended for playing hurt and Tanner Hawkinson, Brad Thorson and Sal Capra each gave it his all throughout the season. It just never consistently clicked up front.
Tight End — C+ — Tim Biere was poised for a breakout year and, with a more stable situation at quarterback, he may have had it. Still, the junior led the team in touchdown receptions, with four, and often ran good enough routes to get open, whether he was rewarded or not.
Defensive Line — C- — Halfway through the season, this probably would’ve been an F. But that was before Toben Opurum was moved to defensive end and Jake Laptad came on strong. Both defensive ends finished with fire and Opurum looks like a real player at the DE spot. With their improved play came more consistent play from defensive tackles Patrick Dorsey and Richard Johnson Jr. This was still one of the weakest defensive lines in the conference but their improvement and persistence earned them a passing grade.
Linebacker — B- — Steven Johnson, Justin Springer and Drew Dudley. When the season began the big question was whether these guys could stay healthy all year. They did and, because of it, they played nearly every snap at linebacker for the Jayhawks in 2010. That alone earns them a B. The fact that all three made plays and poured their heart and soul into every game only solidifies their strong grade.
Cornerback — C- — Tyler Patmon’s a star in the making. Greg Brown was starting to become a player in the final few weeks of the season. And Isiah Barfield showed improvement and strong tackling late in the season. Beyond that, KU didn’t have much to brag about at cornerback, especially once Chris Harris moved over to safety. Calvin Rubles and Anthony Davis both had a couple of good moments, but nothing consistent nor worth noting.
Safety — C — Olaitan Oguntodu was solid against the run. Keeston Terry was a stud when he was in there. And Chris Harris finally looked as if he had found a home again. Add to that the impressive play of Bradley McDougald late and you’d have to say that this unit was at least average in 2010. They have to get better against the pass but they were good against the run and they should get some help in the offseason when Gill’s first full recruiting class arrives on campus.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Punt Unit — D- — The Jayhawks had three punts blocked and too often went to that rugby style of punting, turning all-conference weapon Alonso Rojas into a player without much confidence.
Kickoff Unit — B — Both Ron Doherty and Jacob Branstetter did a pretty good job of getting the ball deep this season and the coverage unit rarely was burned for a big return.
Field Goal Unit — C- — Branstetter was 8-of-14 this season, including a 6-for-6 mark inside of 40 yards. The total included two blocked field goals and one miss from 52 yards. The senior wasn’t as good this season as he had been in the past but he also didn’t get as many opportunities. In addition, during a four-game stretch in the middle of the season, Branstetter hit 6 of 7 field goals and, at times, was KU’s best offensive weapon.
Kickoff Return — B- — Sophomore D.J. Beshears always seemed to be just a step or two away from taking it the distance. That kind of explosiveness was a big boost for an offense that struggled to consistently move the ball. Beshears set a school record for kickoff return yars (922 yards on 36 returns) and also took one kick to the house, a 96-yarder against New Mexico State in Week 4.
Punt Return — F — There had to be one F and this easily was it. For the season, KU finished with just 57 punt return yards, that’s less than five yards per game. And that’s not good. What’s more, most of the time it didn’t even seem as if the Jayhawks had a chance to gain more yards than that. Of course, their opponents didn’t really punt all that much either (just 48 times all year, compared to 67 punts for KU).
So the Miami Hurricanes go 7-5 during 2010 but fire head coach Randy Shannon and are now rumored to be considering former NFL coach Jon Gruden as Shannon’s replacement.
Big deal, right?
It could be. Hear me out.
Though the specifics of such moves might not have any direct ties to Kansas University, the fallout from all of it could. Here’s why. Remember KU assistant coach Robert Wimberly? Sure you do. He came to KU with Turner Gill, he’s in charge of the safeties and he’s from the Miami area. Because of Wimberly’s ties to South Florida, KU has been in on and gotten a couple of players from that area already. Could more be on the way?
It’s definitely possible. Any time a coach is fired, the question about what will happen to the guys who have committed to play for him always pops up. I’d expect it will again here and I’d expect that Miami’s commitments will be highly desired by programs across the country.
Coming to Kansas might not be the first thing on the minds of these players, but, given time, Wimberly and Gill could change that.
Here’s a look at Miami’s current list from the Class of 2011. The ‘Canes only have seven oral commitments so far, which could have been part of Shannon’s problem.
Having said that, KU might not have a need for all of them, but you can bet the coaches are at least taking a look, especially now that the season is over and all they have on their plates is recruiting.
• Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Miami, 6-3, 185, 4 stars
• Anthony Chickillo, DE, Tampa, 6-3, 226, 4 stars (Had an offer from KU)
• Jeremy Davis, DB, New Berlin, NY, 6-4, 189, 3 stars
• Phillip Dorsett, WR, Fort Lauderdale, 5-10, 170, 4 stars
• Marcus Jackson, OL, Vero Beach, Fla., 6-2, 315, 3 stars
• Albert Louis-Jean, DB, Brockton, Mass., 6-1, 172, 4 stars
• Nick Menocal, LB, Miami, 6-3, 235, 3 stars
His name is Alex Smith. There’s nothing catchy about it; nothing that lends itself to a good chant or even a snazzy catch phrase or slogan.
Smith. One of the most common surnames in the English language.
And, in a lot of ways, that’s exactly how he prefers it.
See, this Alex Smith — and by my rough estimate there are about 89,341 people (guys and gals) out there with this same name — is nothing like former Notre Dame football walk-on, Daniel Ruettiger, who found glory, first by working his way onto the field during a real game with the Fighting Irish, and then again when Hollywood got ahold of his story and made the film, “Rudy.”
Smith’s seen the flick. He even admits to liking it. But he doesn’t want people to think that his story is anything like the movie. Good thing, too. Because it’s not.
For four years, Alex, an offensive lineman, suited up every day, worked his butt off at practice without saying much and then disappeared into his surroundings. He had a helmet. He had a locker. He had a jersey with a number on it — No. 62 — and he enjoyed all the perks of being a part of the Kansas University football team.
All the perks, that is, except for playing time. But that wasn’t a problem for Alex. It’s what he expected. It’s what he signed up for. It was the deal he worked out with former KU coach Mark Mangino, who found a soft spot in his heart for Alex because the young man from Basehor, Kan., was willing to work so hard and take such a beating from the first-stringers without asking for anything in return.
“I knew where I stood,” Alex said, matter-of-factly during a recent interview. “And I was OK with it. I just wanted to be a part of the program. I just wanted to keep playing football because I loved the game so much.”
Out of high school, Smith had offers to go elsewhere. Smaller colleges and junior college programs throughout the country had invited him to join their teams on scholarship. But the two-time all-league defensive lineman was not interested in going somewhere small or far away from home. He loved Kansas. He wanted to be a Jayhawk and he wanted a chance to compete.
At 5-foot-11, 266 pounds, Alex’s chances of playing any real minutes on a Div. I college football team — in the Big 12, no less — were slim. But again, Alex wasn’t looking for playing time, fame or fortune. To him, just being allowed to suit up every day and be a part of a team was fortune enough.
As the years went by, Alex found himself able to survive. After playing both offense and defense for Steve Hopkins and the Basehor-Linwood Bobcats in high school, Alex began to focus full-time on the offensive line in college.
He red-shirted as a freshman in 2006, spending his time lifting weights, learning the playbook and making the insanely difficult leap from Class 4A Kansas High School football to big-time college ball.
In 2007, (the year the Jayhawks won the Orange Bowl) Alex played sparingly as a back-up offensive lineman. But, right away, he showed that the hard work and extra attention had paid off. During the opening week of the season, which culminated with a 52-7 rout of a formidable Central Michigan team, Alex was named the scout team offensive player of the week.
“Being on the scout team helped me a lot,” Alex said. “I got regular reps, I had to learn new offenses and new schemes each week and it gave me a chance to try to hold my own against our defense.”
In 2008, as a sophomore, he once again was listed as a backup, and, last season, as a junior, he played a few snaps against Northern Colorado in the season opener.
During Alex’s time with the Jayhawks, KU’s overall record is 34-26. That includes two bowl victories, one dramatic win over Missouri (2008) and dozens of memorable moments.
There will be no bowl this year for Alex, who will play the final home game of his career at 11 a.m. Saturday against Oklahoma State. But that really isn’t a problem.
After all, Alex’s real reward came several months ago, before the season ever started. It was then, on that day in mid-August, that he learned from new KU coach Turner Gill that his final season with the Jayhawks would be paid for. Smith had earned a scholarship.
When Gill announced the news to the media, he told a tale of nearly 100 Jayhawks — Alex’s teammates — hooting and hollering when they heard the news.
Clearly, the guy had earned some respect. And to think, he didn’t even have to record an improbable sack or be carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders to get it.
Alex’s senior season at Kansas has been his most productive. He’s played in seven of the Jayhawks’ 10 games, including last week at Nebraska and during mid-October in his final Sunflower Showdown. Some days he’s played on the offensive line, where he currently sits as the second-string center behind Jeremiah Hatch. Other days his playing time has been limited to special teams, where he lines up as the left wing on KU’s punt team.
“He has great tenacity and he’s very passionate about the game,” said Gill of Alex, when asked to talk briefly about all 20 KU seniors during his weekly “Hawk Talk” radio show Thursday night. “He’s a great guy to have on our team.”
Just being out there, being part of the team, has made all the bumps and bruises, wins and losses worth it for Alex, who said he’d never forget the opportunity he was given at KU.
As for that whole “Rudy” thing.... Well, Alex admitted that any walk-on in the country is going to have a small dose of “Rudy” in them. After all, none of these gridiron ghosts would reach the heights they did without a few similarities.
“(There are) probably some,” Alex said. “Just as far as trying to stay determined and knowing that even though I may not be a starter, I can still help the team. I played on the scout team for three years and just try to play really hard every day to get my shot.”
But it’s not the fame, the glory, the stats or the successes that make Alex’s story special.
Nope. It’s just the fact that the smalltown kid from 30 miles away came to KU to live out a dream and walked away having done so much more than that.
Win or lose, the outcome of these next two games — nor KU’s final record this year — won’t take anything away from Alex’s time at Kansas.
He never was the best player on the team. He never was the best player at his position. But, many will tell you that, day-in and day-out, there wasn’t a guy who worked harder or cared more.
There's a chance, this Saturday, that the Kansas University football team's offense will score more than three points, gain more than 87 yards and pick up more than five first downs. A good chance, in fact.
Heck, the Jayhawks might even quadruple all of those numbers they suffered through during last week's loss at Nebraska.
But no matter what Quinn Mecham and company do — save for pulling off a shocking upset of the No. 10 team in the nation — KU's offense will look drastically inferior to the product that Oklahoma State puts on the field.
The Cowboys come to Lawrence sporting the nation's top-ranked offense, which ranks first in total offense, second in passing offense, third in scoring offense and 30th in rushing.
Quarterback Bradon Weeden leads the nation in passing. Wide receiver Justin Blackmon leads the nation in receiving. And running back Kendall Hunter ranks fourth in rushing and second in rushing TDs nationally. Even OSU place kicker Dan Bailey ranks third in the nation in scoring and second in field goals.
But it's not just Oklahoma State's offense that has this team rolling. The defense has improved each week and seems to be hitting its stride. Coach Mike Gundy, he of the famous, "I'm a man; I'm 40" rant from a few years back, is a no-nonsense kind of guy who demands perfection and seems to be awfully close to getting it week-in and week-out.
I could go on and on about how talented, dangerous, entertaining, etc., the Cowboys are. Or I could just let those who cover them on a daily basis do it for me.
So, here's a look at some of the more recent articles written about the 9-1 Cowboys.
Brandon Chatman of The Oklahoman makes a compelling case for WR Justin Blackmon to be considered in the Heisman Trophy voting. In case you miss it, the best part of this article is the subhead, which has the following quote from OSU's offensive coordinator: "All I can say is this: Every time he's on the field, he's the best player.”
The Oklahoman's John Helsley talks about OSU emphasis on turnovers in his OSU football notebook.
Tulsa World columnist Dave Sittler writes that the Cowboys have earned and deserve respect.
Bill Haisten, of The Tulsa World, examines how Oklahoma State has reversed its fortune in road games this season. OSU will be looking to cap off a perfect season on the road Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The Oklahoman's Jenni Carlson, a KU grad, pens this story about former KU defensive coordinator Bill Young, the man in charge of the Cowboys' defense. Young, of course, spent several seasons on Mark Mangino's staff at Kansas, including the magical Orange Bowl year of 2007.
Here’s a question that’s been on my mind since the fourth quarter of KU’s 20-3 loss to Nebraska last Saturday: Did the Jayhawks play well in that one?
My answer is yes.
Maybe this is just a sign that I tend to prefer defense to offense, that I value dishing out a big hit over receiving one and that I pay too much attention to the Las Vegas point spreads (NU was favored by 35 points) to make an accurate read.
Or maybe I’m just crazy.
Let’s look at a few facts. Offensively, the Jayhawks only were able to gain 87 yards, five first downs and three points. What’s more, they completed just three passes and never, I repeat NEVER, took a snap in the Nebraska red zone.
Furthermore, the defense gave up nearly 400 yards of offense, including 230 yards on the ground, and allowed NU to jump out to a 14-0 halftime lead that Kansas never could recover from.
Having said all that, how, then, could someone — in this case me — possibly say the Jayhawks played well? Heck, how could anyone even say they played OK or decent or not bad or... you get the point.
Allow me to explain my insanity.
Although Turner Gill’s club has showed drastic improvement in the past three weeks — losing 28-16 at Iowa State, beating Colorado 52-45 at home and falling, 20-3, at No. 9 Nebraska — the memories of the epic beatings this team suffered in the weeks before those games still are so fresh in my mind.
I remember nearly every play of the 55-7 beatdown at Baylor. I can recall, in detail, the carnage that unfolded in the second and third quarters of a 59-7 loss to K-State. Beyond that, I can see vividly all of the silly mistakes, stupid penalties and inexcusable confusion that the Jayhawks delivered for most of the first six or seven weeks of the season.
And that brings me to my point: We’re not seeing that anymore.
KU might not have ever really been in that game in Lincoln, last weekend. But they weren’t really ever out of it either. And, to me, for this team, that’s a major step in the right direction.
During that entire game, all 2 hours and 37 minutes of it, the Jayhawks committed just one penalty and had just one turnover. (Nebraska was flagged for six penalties and turned it over twice). When you’re playing a ranked team on the road, there’s one sure-fire way to make things turn nasty in a hurry and that’s to beat yourself. The Jayhawks didn’t do that last Saturday and, for that, they should be commended.
What that tells me is that they were prepared and focused and that they played inspired, determined football. Was it good enough to win? Nope. Not even close. But that’s because Nebraska was the more talented team. NU has better, faster and stronger players at most positions. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes in this game. And, 99 times out of 100, that team with better talent is going to win.
Someday, the Jayhawks may have better talent. Through recruiting and continued hard work they may get bigger, faster, stronger, better, and that might allow them to beat teams like Nebraska.
But for this team, with the talent it has and the new system it’s trying to run, Saturday’s effort was a stellar performance. At least that was the view from my seat.
During a third-quarter daze while watching last night’s Atlanta Falcons vs. Baltimore Ravens NFL game on The NFL Network, I began thinking the unthinkable.
What if Kansas won this game on Saturday?
I know, I know. It’s virtually a lock that Nebraska, ranked No. 9 in the nation, is going to win and win big. But is it that hard to envision a scenario in which the Jayhawks pull off the upset?
I know. “Yes” seems like the obvious answer, so while I watched and wondered if the Falcons really were good enough to win the Super Bowl this year, I came up with short list of questions and answers that might help us better evaluate KU’s chances this weekend.
Take a look.
Question 1: How many turnovers would the Jayhawks need to create to have a chance?
Answer: KU coach Turner Gill said the Jayhawks must get three or more. I think he’s right. So far this season, Nebraska has fumbled an astonishing 31 times. The Huskers have lost only 11 of those fumbles, but the mere thought of that many balls bouncing around on the turf in Lincoln made me think that getting three or more turnovers might not be that tough. For the sake of the game, let’s say the Jayhawks get four. Two fumbles, one interception and one fluke takeaway on special teams.
Question 2: How many turnovers can the KU offense give up while still being OK?
Answer: None. No questions asked. When you’re playing a team as talented as Nebraska at their place, you have to be nearly perfect in every aspect of the game to have a chance. But the one area that you absolutely cannot slip up is giveaways. Let’s say Quinn Mecham stays hot, takes care of the interceptions and the KU running backs run hard with two hands on the ball at all times.
Question 3: How many points will the Jayhawks have to score to win this game?
Answer: For Iowa State last week, 32 was the magic number. For Missouri the week before, 32 would have done it there, too. 32 points also would’ve been enough for South Dakota State and for Texas. So, in the last six games — of which Nebraska has lost just one — 32 points would’ve been enough to beat the Huskers four times. Let’s say the KU defense is up to the task of slowing the NU offense down the way it was against Georgia Tech in Week 2. If that happens, 32 points could win this game.
Question 4: How many points can the Jayhawks give up without digging too deep of a hole to climb out of?
Answer: Realistically speaking, this number can’t be any higher than the number from question three, right? So it won’t be. If the Jayhawks can hold the Huskers to 30 points or fewer — forcing a few drives to end with field goals instead of touchdowns — they may have a chance to win this game.
Question 5: What do the guys in Las Vegas think about this week’s KU-NU matchup?
Answer: Oddsmakers set the opening line for this weekend’s game at Nebraska by 32. It hasn’t stayed there. As of Thursday night, the line had been bet up to NU -35 in most spots, with the over/under set at 61. When Nebraska played K-State earlier this year, the line was NU -11 and the over/under was set at 47. The Cornhuskers covered that number by themselves, winning 48-7. If NU’s favored by 35 and the over/under is set at 61, doesn’t that mean that Vegas believes KU might be able to score some points, too?
OK, so what have we learned?
Plug those hypotheticals into the computer and here’s one scenario that might come out. It’s based on nothing more than a simple analysis of few facts and figures that pertain to both teams: If KU can force (or at least get) four Nebraska turnovers, give up none of its own, score at least 32 points and hold the Huskers to 31 or less, KU will have a chance to win this game.
Of course, that’s much easier said than done. But I think this exercise shows that, despite the fact that most people think this is a guaranteed laugher for Nebraska, circumstances do exist that say Kansas could compete.
I think they will, but I don’t think they’ll win. Nebraska 45, Kansas 21.
There are plenty of conclusions — both good and bad — to draw from the outcome of last week’s incredible comeback victory over Colorado.
But forget ’em all.
Forget that the defense was terrible in the first half and only slightly better in the second half in giving up 464 yards of offense to Cody Hawkins (322 passing yards) and Colorado and digging a 45-17 hole.
Forget that the offense clicked like it had yet to click this season and scored a school-record 35 points in a single quarter. If that hadn’t happened yet in 100-plus years of KU football history, it’s not likely to happen again any time soon.
Forget the fortunate bounces, the big-time hits, the wild wave of momentum that saturated the west side of Memorial Stadium and the fact that this KU team showed some life, passion and heart and then showed how powerful that stuff can be.
Forget all of that, for now, because there’s more football to be played in 2010. But remember it when the season ends. Remember it when you’re wondering if this team has any talent. Remember it when you question if KU coach Turner Gill and his coaching staff are worth a darn. Remember it when you wonder if there’s any hope for the future of Kansas football.
Beating a bad Colorado team by way of a record-breaking comeback is not necessarily something that provides a definitive yes answer to any of those questions. But it does show — even if you still don’t believe it actually happened — that, when everything clicks, when the coaches push the right buttons and the players use passion as their vehicle, Kansas football can look and play the way people around here want it to.
Take away all of the unbelievable plays that helped make the incredible comeback a reality, and you’ll realize that Saturday’s result was about two things: A coach who believes in his players and his system and a group of players who were willing to fight for that coach and themselves.
“I’m just very, very proud to be associated with these young men,” Gill said Sunday night. “I just kept telling my wife (Saturday night) I feel so proud of our staff and our players. Guys gotta make plays and play relentless and this is a great example of what relentless, the word, meant.”
Things get considerably more difficult from this point on, with KU scheduled to face three ranked opponents — Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Missouri — to close out the season. The Jayhawks will be expected to lose each of those games, however, regardless of the outcome of those contests, last Saturday’s victory against Colorado ensured two things.
Turner Gill will be the KU football coach next season and beyond.
Now that the Jayhawks have seen what a little passion and fire can do, it’s highly likely that they’re going to bring it to each of those three remaining games.
And, hey, who knows what can happen then?