Unless this is your first visit to KUsports.com in the last month, you're surely aware by now that the Kansas University volleyball team has advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and will take on Washington on Friday in Los Angeles.
It's a great story about a great team and one that cannot be told too many times.
As is the case with any team that gets hot — at any level — we've jumped all-in with this squad and covered them inside and out during the past few months, partly because they're winning and playing at a high level and partly because they're an awesome bunch.
I've been a volleyball fan for a long time. My wife played volleyball in college, Olympic beach volleyball has taken off in recent years and even when I was covering high school sports volleyball was one of my favorites to watch and write about.
As for the Jayhawks, I've been a fan of this team since the middle of the 2012 season, and I figured now was as good a time as any to explain why.
The No. 1 thing I enjoy about Ray Bechard's 16th squad at Kansas is how hard it competes. It never matters who they're playing or how they're feeling, they always bring it. That's the case when they're up two sets to none and are looking to close out the match with a three-set sweep and also the case when they're down two sets to one and need to win the last two sets to win the match.
It's not just a couple of players either. It's all of them. I'm sure some of that comes from the fact that they're as close as a team can possibly be — five key players even live together — and I'm sure some of it is just who they are and how they're coached.
“The chemistry on our team is so awesome,” said senior libero Bri Riley. “It's funny, when we talk to other girls at other schools it's, 'I hate so and so and I hate so and so,' and I love everyone on our team. It's hard to be mad at someone who you love so much and I think that really does carry over onto the court.”
Another thing I enjoy about this year's roster is their personalities. These girls have fun out on the floor and they're always smiling, laughing, joking around and messing with each other however and whenever they can. That demeanor has helped keep them loose when things have been at their most intense and helped them plow through the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament at Allen Fieldhouse last weekend instead of tightening up and letting the moment and opportunity get the best of them.
Beyond their general personalities, this team has all the parts you would want. A jokester or two, a super-focused senior, a bubbly newcomer, an All-American badass and a lot more.
To help illustrate that, I sought the input of a handful of people inside the program for a couple of quick buzzwords about each of the KU regulars. The words they came up with were a perfect representation of what this team is all about and why they've saved their best for last — fun, ferocious and fearing no one.
Here's a quick look at the way some folks inside the program view the girls who will go down in history as some of the most important volleyball players ever to come through Lawrence:
Senior libero Brianne Riley – immature, pretty, tan
Senior setter Erin McNorton – sleepy, "Eeyore," witty
Senior middle blocker Caroline Jarmoc – blunt, engineering phenom
Junior outside hitter Chelsea Albers – ridiculous, inappropriate
Senior outside hitter Catherine Carmichael – animated
Freshman middle blocker Tayler Soucie – gullible, delicate
Sophomore outside hitter Tiana Dockery – social, therapist, popular
Junior outside hitter Sara McClinton – squeaky, baby giraffe
Senior defensive specialist Jaime Mathieu – miniature ginger
Freshman defensive specialist Cassie Wait – buff, apologetic
As you can see, most of those responses came off the cuff and were shared with an eye toward this team's comedic nature. But as the pressure of following up last season — which, until now, had been the best season in KU volleyball history, statistically speaking — landed on their shoulders from Day 1 of the 2013 season, this team's ability to stay loose and laugh helped allow them to dig in when it mattered most and lighten up when needed.
“Over the summer, we were all thinking, 'Can we do it twice,'” Riley admitted. “Can we figure it out and put all the work in and execute to do it a second time?'”
The answer to that question has been a resounding yes, as the Jayhawks are playing deep into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever and competing with a keen and hard-to-corral mindset that is equal parts relaxed and driven.
“I think we're really good at focusing on the now,” McNorton said. “Coach B always says the next game is the most important game of the year.”
Never has that been more true than today.
In the coming days, various media organizations that cover college football will be releasing their all-conference teams and a year's worth of hard work, sweat and sacrifice will pay off for a whole bunch of college athletes.
For some, landing on this all-conference team or that one will represent just another accolade in a long list that has been growing since they first started playing the game as teenagers.
For others, the honor will go down as the highlight of their career, the one memory they'll keep talking about until they're old and gray.
Often times, the teams that turn in the best seasons also produce the most all-conference players and that seems logical given the fact that the best players typically produce the best teams. But it's not always the case. And it's a shame when top-tier talent gets overlooked because it plays for a team that struggled to win games.
That's the story with Kansas football, which finished 2013 with a 3-8 record, 1-8 in Big 12 Conference play. Despite those low win totals, the Jayhawks had at least a handful of guys worthy of being placed on the all-Big 12 teams, be it the first, second, third team or honorable mention.
Here's a quick look at the most worthy candidates in order of most likely to least.
• Junior punter Trevor Pardula •
For much of the 2013 season, the first-year punter from De Anza College in California was among the best in the country. His net averages soared well into the 42-44-yard range and his ability to flip the field and pin opponents deep was a bona fide weapon. While Pardula was penalized by the national awards committees because he did not land enough punts inside the 20, it's worth pointing out that the struggles of the KU offense often forced Pardula to punt from deep in his own end, making the task of dropping kicks inside the 20 next to impossible even for NFL punters. By season's end, Pardula finished with a 43.7-yard average. He has a strong case for first-team all-Big 12 honors.
• Sophomore safety Isaiah Johnson •
It's entirely possible that I'm overlooking someone on another Big 12 team, but I think Johnson has as good a case as anyone for the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year award. The former Iowa Western safety started all 12 games during his first season of Div. I football and finished second in the Big 12 in interceptions (5), 21st in tackles (73) and also added three tackles for loss. Johnson was definitely one of the bright spots for the Jayhawks' defense this season, a game-changer, who still has two years of eligibility remaining and should become one of those guys that opponents can't quite believe is "still around."
• Senior running back James Sims •
Although he did not rattle off 100-yard game after 100-yard game during his final season as a Jayhawk, James Sims was every bit as productive as he had ever been, despite running behind an offensive line that experienced its share of growing pains and in an offense that struggled to throw the ball. Sims' 1,110 yards ranked first in the Big 12 and represented a career-high for the fourth consecutive season. In topping the 1,000-yard mark in 2012 and 2013, he became the first running back in KU history to rush for quadruple-digit rushing yards in back-to-back seasons and came within a couple hundred yards of eclipsing June Henley for the top spot on KU's career rushing list. As was the case throughout his career, Sims gained most of his yards against defenses that knew what was coming. The fact that he still was able to churn out productive games and finish with 7 touchdowns and a 4.8 yards-per-carry average speaks to his skill and desire. A strong case could be made for Sims to land on the all-Big 12 first team. I know I'd put him there, but because of KU's win total he could be a second-teamer.
• Junior linebacker Ben Heeney •
If not for a midseason injury that forced him to miss two games, Heeney no doubt would've racked up triple-digit tackles for the second year in a row and kept his spot near the top of the Big 12 tackle list. As it turned out, Heeney still enjoyed a monster season, finishing with 87 tackles in 10 games and 11.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and three interceptions. But it's more than Heeney's stats that make him a virtual lock for inclusion on one of the all-Big 12 teams. Anyone who watches him play, whether it's opposing coaches, media members or even his own teammates, easily can recognize that Heeney is one of the top players in the Big 12 and plays harder than nearly everybody.
• Junior cornerback Dexter McDonald •
McDonald was one of the top cover corners in the Big 12, especially early in the season. There were several games where opposing quarterbacks chose not even to test the junior-college transfer who returned to KU for a second go-around this season. And his size, speed and physicality made him a tough match-up for opposing wide receivers. McDonald finished with two interceptions and 10 pass break-ups (7th in the Big 12) and also should be given credit for helping JaCorey Shepherd — KU's starter on the other side of the field — develop his corner skills, both from a perspective of showing him the ropes and also from encouraging opponents to attack Shepherd instead.
• Junior cornerback JaCorey Shepherd •
The former wide receiver's 13 pass break-ups and two interceptions put him third in the Big 12 in passes defended, no small feat for a guy who entered fall camp still adjusting to his new position. Last season, Shepherd showed he had the raw skills to hang in the secondary and this season he showed he could play cornerback. Tested on a weekly basis, Shepherd always seemed to be up for the challenge. He may not land on any of the teams but I think he deserves at least honorable mention. Another area he could make an appearance is at kick returner, where he finished fifth in the conference with an average of 22.8 yards per kick return.
• Junior punt returner Connor Embree •
Three guys finished ahead of him in the Big 12 Conference punt return rankings and he wasn't nearly as good late in the season as he was early on, but the former walk-on at least deserves mention as a possible honorable mention candidate for his 11.4-yard average in 16 attempts.
Before we close this one down, here's a little deeper look at the job McDonald and Shepherd did this season at the cornerback position, which, in my eyes, merits both of them spots on the all-conference teams.
The following is a look at the Big 12's top pass catchers, their season averages and how each performed against Kansas:
Player (Receptions-Per-Game, Yards-Per-Game) — vs. Kansas
• Antwan Goodley, Baylor (5.4, 109.5) — 2 catches for 43 yards
• Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (6.5, 104.2) — 3 catches for 43 yards
• Jace Amaro, Texas Tech (8.2, 103.3) — 9 catches for 96 yards
• Mike Davis, Texas (4.6, 70.1) — 1 catch for 5 yards
• Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma (4.6, 55.9) — 4 catches for 47 yards
• Josh Stewart (4.5, 55.5) — 0 catches (left with injury)
• Eric Ward, Texas Tech (6.7, 75.3) — 7 catches for 122 yards and 1 TD
• Jaxon Shipley, Texas (4.7, 51.8) — 6 catches for 77 yards
• Quenton Bundrage, Iowa State (4.0, 56.3) — 3 catches for 63 yards
• Tevin Reese, Baylor (4.1, 103.0) — 4 catches for 110 yards
• Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech (5.4, 64.3) — 7 catches for 92 yards
We already know that offensive line coach Tim Grunhard is leaving the Kansas University football staff, so that's at least one change that KU coach Charlie Weis will make to his coaching staff.
But will there be any more?
Weis was asked that very question following KU's loss to Kansas State in the season finale and he said nothing would be done — if anything at all — until the end of the December recruiting period, which arrives Dec. 14.
Dec. 18 is mid-year transfer signing day and although the Jayhawks won't have a crazy haul of mid-year juco guys signing this year like they had last year, there figure to be at least a couple of guys who make their commitments official on that day.
Getting back to the coaching staff, Weis likely gave the answer he did for two reasons. 1. Recruiting time is precious and it would be a bad move to make a change during that period because it could cost KU valuable time and resources on the recruiting trail. 2. Even if Weis has no plans to make a change himself, you never know which members of his staff could be looking around for other opportunities or which schools might be interested in some of Weis' guys.
We've already seen a report that wide receivers coach Rob Ianello has thrown his name into the hat for the open head coaching gig at the University of North Dakota. And it seems logical to think that whether Ianello gets that job or not, he could be coaching elsewhere in 2014.
As for the rest of the staff, I don't anticipate anyone else leaving. It's difficult, because after a losing season you always assume that at least a couple of guys could be in jeopardy of losing their jobs, but with Grunhard already out and Ianello potentially on the move, those departures would represent change at KU's two weakest positions last season.
Here's a quick look at a few other coaching staff items of business that are worth keeping an eye on:
• If Ianello leaves, by his choosing or otherwise, not only would KU have to find a wide receivers coach, but it also would need to find a recruiting coordinator since Ianello handles both roles. Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell has done that job before and he would be a likely candidate to inherit that role again, provided he wanted it. If not, Weis could always find a receivers coach who could handle both roles like Ianello, who has been recruiting on KU's behalf during the past several days. The recruiting coordinator role is serious business, though, so if there's a need to fill that position, it won't be taken lightly.
• We learned this season that linebackers coach Clint Bowen had transitioned into the role of acting defensive coordinator, with Dave Campo focusing on his job of coaching the defensive backs. Campo and defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt worked closely with Bowen to put together the game plan each week and the move seemed to work well. The title never changed hands, though, so it'll be interesting to see if that is addressed in the offseason.
• Finally, by now you've probably read our report from last week about Rice offensive coordinator John Reagan being Weis' target to come in to replace Grunhard and become KU's offensive coordinator. The move likely would have already taken place had Rice lost to Tulane last week. But since the Owls won and advanced to the Conference USA title game, Reagan stuck around to coach in that game agaisnt Marshall, which will be played at 11 a.m. Saturday. Reagan to KU could become official any time Saturday after the game or Sunday, so keep an ear out for the confirmation.
Like Kansas, Keegan and I laid an egg last week. Maybe it's because we both picked the Jayhawks.
So here we head into the final week of the 2013 season, all tied up with five — yep, a season-high FIVE — games different between us.
Can't build the drama any more than that. Here's a look.
Tait: 4-6 in Week 11; 79-31 overall
Keegan: 4-6 in Week 11; 79-31 overall
WEEK 12 GAMES
Kansas State at Kansas
Iowa State at West Viriginia
Baylor at TCU
Notre Dame at Stanford
Ohio State at Michigan
Duke at North Carolina
Alabama at Auburn
Clemson at South Carolina
Texas A&M at Missouri
UCLA at USC
Question: What, when and where was the first concert you attended and do you remember the warm-up act?
Kansas State 31, Kansas 21
Iowa State 23, West Virginia 20
Baylor 61, TCU 17
Stanford 34, Notre Dame 23
Ohio State 34, Michigan 23
Duke 33, North Carolina 20
Auburn 28, Alabama 27
Clemson 30, South Carolina 28
Missouri 31, Texas A&M 21
USC 35, UCLA 33
Answer: If you don't count the hundreds of times I had a front row seat to see my dad's band play throughout the Rocky Mountain region during my childhood, my first official concert was a doozy. Pink Floyd at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado, during the summer of 1994. My dad, sister and stepmom were on the floor, about 20 rows back, and me and a buddy were two rows from the top of Mile High. Even though the set list was the same and the chords, lyrics and harmonies all identical, we saw two completely different shows. At age 16, I was just a newbie Floyd fan, and I remember thinking that the beginning of about half of the songs was the beginning of “Money.” I've learned a lot more about the band since then and realize more and more each day what a wild treat it was for that to have been my first true concert. I don't remember an opening act and, if I recall correctly, that's because there wasn't one.
Kansas State 31, Kansas 17
West Virginia 24, Iowa State 14
Baylor 42, TCU 21
Stanford 31, Notre Dame 21
Ohio State 27, Michigan 21
Duke 28, North Carolina 24
Alabama 31, Auburn 21
South Carolina 31, Clemson 28
Texas A&M 31, Missouri 28
UCLA 34, USC 31
Answer: I saw Neil Young and Stephen Stills July 5, 1976, one day after bicentennial celebration. It was the Stills and Young "Long May You Run" tour. Aztec Two Step was the warm-up act. I had been to the War Memorial many times, to see the Rochester Amerks, the Bruins' top farm club, many, many times, and St. Bonaventure once or twice. I had seen the Harlem Globetrotters, the Rochester Zeniths of what now is known as the D-League, I even had seen my brother play in the Sectionals for our high school, Bishop Kearney. But never had the War Memorial smelled the way it did that night. We stopped for pizza on the way home.
Late Wednesday evening, Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis and offensive line coach Tim Grunhard released a joint statement confirming what we reported earlier in the day.
Grunhard is stepping down after Saturday's game against Kansas State following two seasons in Lawrence as the O-Line coach. Below are the statements from Weis and Grunhard, whom sources told the Journal-World will be replaced by Rice offensive coordinator John Reagan in the near future.
According to the source, Reagan will join the Jayhawks as the O-Line coach and offensive coordinator. Read the link above for more, if you haven't already.
Just wanted to make sure you didn't miss these statements.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
“Tim Grunhard and I had prepared a joint statement concerning his future that we intended to release on Sunday after the Kansas State game. We were trying to avoid being any distraction. Tonight we are releasing the statement.”
“Sunday, Tim Grunhard is stepping down as offensive line coach so he can spend more quality time with his family. We began talking about this a month ago. Next year, all four of his kids will be in the same high school at the same time. Tim and his wife, Sarah, are great parents, but Tim felt it wasn’t fair to put that all on her. We started as friends and that friendship has only grown stronger. I wish Tim and the entire Grunhard family happiness and success.”
“As of Sunday I will be leaving my position as offensive line coach at the University of Kansas. With the time commitment and challenges of major college football, I felt I was being delinquent in my responsibilities to my family. With three kids at Bishop Miege and one more attending next year, the burden was too great for my wife, Sarah, to handle on her own. I would like to thank Coach Weis and the rest of the Kansas football staff for teaching me the valuable lessons of loyalty and due diligence. I plan on continuing my relationship with the KU community that I have grown to love and respect.”
“We have already hired a replacement for Tim. When that coach becomes available we will provide more details.”
KU football coach just wrapped up his final Tuesday press conference of the 2013 season and, as expected, he spent a lot of time hyping up the fact that "It's K-State week!"
Beyond this week's match-up and what he's learned about the rivalry, Weis talked a little about the immediate future beyond Saturday, which, to no one's surprise, will include a heavy dose of time on the road recruiting reinforcements for the returning roster.
Here's a quick look at most of the topics he discussed:
• The updated depth chart lists Montell Cozart as this week's starting quarterback. Weis said it would've been easy to put Jake Heaps on top but he didn't want to risk Cozart going into the tank heading into the offseason and still likes the different dynamic the freshman brings to the field.
• Weis says Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday because of the significance it holds for being a holiday that allows you to reflect on all of the things you're thankful for and all of the blessings you have in your life. He'll encourage his players to really think about that and is doing that himself, too. Even took time to thank the media for doing jobs and covering the team. Genuine moment.
• Weis said this game — 11 a.m. Saturday vs. K-State — is all that matters right now because it gives KU a chance to end the season with a bang and some momentum heading into the offseason. There is no bowl game. This is it for KU. And that's how they're treating this week.
• Big reason K-State is so important: You're not playing just for football team and football program. Playing for fan base and Kansans and would love nothing more than to give fans a chance to go into work or grocery store on Monday in the position to get the last jba.
• Weis says he was never a part of Mizzou rivalry so he doesn't get that one. All his focus goes toward KSU. Says Notre Dame wanted to treat every game like it was the biggest but there it was always USC.
• Weis on K-State taking in walk-ons: I think that's always a mentality that can work and one he likes to do. He's always liked it and he's trying to get it going here at KU, too. Says the approach works well in Kansas... Having guys in state wanting to go to the state university is a great thing.
• As he's said in the past many times, Weis reiterates that he's tried to emulate, not steal, things from what Bill Snyder has done at Kansas State. Looking at how K-State had done it was one of first things he did and one of the biggest things he noticed was the heavy juco influence on Snyder's rosters. Snyder's been able to fill out his roster/lineup with juco guys — sort of picking his spots — as well as anyone in college football.
• Weis says Snyder does not get enough credit for being a brilliant offensive mind. One of best things he does is mess with O-Line splits. One play it'll be a few inches, the next it could be a few feet. Makes it hard on the defensive linemen and also on coaches to find tendencies in K-State offense. Also says Snyder is as good as anyone at power running game with quarterbacks. Not just zone read type guys who try to get to the edge, more like true running backs.
• With a young guy like Montell Cozart, you love 'em up at the end of a bad game, then you hammer 'em in the next day or two and then you love 'em up again. Weis said they're at the start of the second round of loving him up. Weis says Cozart's bad game at Iowa State would be a learning experience but he'd never
• Weis said Tedarian Johnson has been a pleasant surprise and added that Johnson juco teammate Andrew Bolton, who has red-shirted this year to rehab a knee injury also has made great progress academically. Both are equally important and Weis is encouraged by both.
• When asked about previous teams' success running the ball against K-State, Weis said: I just know we're gonna have to play a heck of a lot better than we have recently to have a chance to win the game. Weis also said the loss of safety Ty Zimmerman is significant for KSU. Said KSU has given up fewer points with Zimmerman in there and more points when he's sat out.
• Weis said he'll head out on the road to recruit first thing Sunday following K-State game and he'll be out there until Friday hitting it hard for Class of 2014 commitments.
• Weis said he'll go after some high profile guys and highly ranked guys (mostly juco) at positions of greatest need. Said that should be obvious, which, most likely, puts wide receiver at the top of the list.
• Weis said Nick Harwell has been as good as could be, both as a wide receiver and also as a teammate and member of the community. Even went as far as to say that he's reached the point where he's stopped worrying about him. Seems very pleased about the maturity Harwell has shown.
Despite having four picks different last week, Keegan and I wound up tied after missing two different games each.
Seeing how I correctly picked the KU game and he did not, I lobbied with the ethics board for a bonus game, but to no avail.
So that brings us to our second-to-last week of picks, still all knotted up. If things remain that way after Week 12 (or maybe even if they don't) we may have to break the tie via bowl-game picks, but, for now, we'll move forward as is.
Both of us are feeling a KU victory this week in Ames, Iowa, where the 3-7 Jayhawks take on the 1-9 Cyclones in an environment that figures to seem more fitting of two bowl teams than the ninth and 10th place squads in the Big 12 Conference.
Should be interesting to see what happens. While we wait for kickoff – 7 p.m. tonight at Jack Trice Stadium — here's a look at all of our picks.
Tait: 7-3 in Week 10; 75-25 overall
Keegan: 7-3 in Week 10; 75-25 overall
WEEK 11 GAMES
Kansas at Iowa State
Baylor at Oklahoma State
Oklahoma at Kansas State
Missouri at Mississippi
Texas A&M at LSU
Nebraska at Penn State
Arizona State at UCLA
Wisconsin at Minnesota
Michigan at Iowa
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Question: Now that Montell Cozart has taken over as KU's starting QB, it seems like a good time to ask which mobile, dual-threat-type quarterback is your favorite of all-time?
Kansas 24, Iowa State 16
Baylor 55, Oklahoma State 35
Oklahoma 31, Kansas State 27
Missouri 27, Mississippi 24
Texas A&M 41, LSU 31
Nebraska 28, Penn State 21
UCLA 33, Arizona State 26
Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 20
Iowa 26, Michigan 24
Tennessee 31, Vanderbilt 20
Answer: Because of the very nature of the position, I pretty much love all of these guys. From Michael Vick and Kordell Stewart to Vince Young and Robert Griffin III, I've always been fascinated by these guys' abilities to get something out of nothing, make throws that no one expects or thinks they can make and fill up highlight reels with mind-blowing runs and big-time plays. But of them all, one guy stands out above all others and it's a name I'd bet none of you are thinking of: Bradlee Van Pelt, Colorado State. During his days at CSU from 2001-03, Van Pelt was so talented, so dynamic and, best yet, so confident. Never one to shy away from sticking his head into trouble, Van Pelt always was the first guy to come up barking whether he had just had his bell rung or not. Those CSU teams were pretty good and Van Pelt was a big reason for it. His senior season, he came within a couple hundred yards of becoming the first college player to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in the same season. In 2005, Texas' Vince Young achieved the feat, rushing for 1,050 and throwing for 3,036.
Kansas 21, Iowa State 17
Baylor 41, Oklahoma State 28
Oklahoma 28, Kansas State 24
Missouri 31, Mississippi 28
Texas A&M 35, LSU 31
Nebraska 24, Penn State 21
UCLA 31, Arizona State 28
Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 20
Iowa 24, Michigan 21
Tennessee 28, Vanderbilt 24
Answer: Built like a tight end, he ran like a wide receiver and it was so cold at his home games that you could see his breath every fast step of the way. As a minor league pitcher, he was wild but threw nearly 100 mph. After his minor-league manager was promoted to the majors, guy by the name of Tony LaRussa, the big lefty said nobody else believed in his baseball potential as much as LaRussa did. So Bobby Douglass stuck to football and stiff-armed his way to big runs. He threw the long ball well, but didn't know how to take anything off it, which led to some drops on short passes. I don't remember watching Douglass during his KU days, but he was one entertaining guy to watch playing for the Bears.
They were torn apart when things were not going well, so now that the tables have turned a little bit, it's time to praise them.
We're talking about the Kansas University offensive line, of course, a group that, anchored by center Gavin Howard and buoyed by head coach Charlie Weis' willingness to keep tinkering until he found the right combination, has hit its stride during recent weeks and has allowed KU to return to an impressive identity of power football that, last week, led to the program's first Big 12 victory in three years.
There are plenty of people in the program who deserve credit for the line's resurgence. But the five guys who are out there playing most of the snaps and blowing open most of the holes deserve the most credit. So here's a quick, player-by-player breakdown of who they are and what makes them tick.
LEFT TACKLE — Riley Spencer —
6-foot-6, 305-pound senior from Hesston, Kan.
Spencer is one of those program players who has been in Lawrence for five years and suffered through repeated injuries while trying to find his place on the KU line. He missed 2009 to red-shirt and all but one game last season because of injury and played mostly as a back-up during the seasons in between.
Spencer also played basketball in high school, where he was an all-state selection on the offensive line. He earned Academic All-Big 12 first team honors in 2010 and is majoring in exercise science. He plans to be a firefighter after graduating from KU.
Future fireman Spencer fights off defenders, injuries to make impact for KU:
Will Riley Spencer and Damon Martin make a difference for KU's offense?
LEFT GUARD — Ngalu Fusimalohi —
6-foot-2, 310-pound junior from Daly City, Calif.
Weis recently called Fusimalohi the most consistent KU offensive lineman this season, from start to finish. Thrust into a first-string role during his first season after transfering from City College of San Francisco, the man who resembles a road grader is physical and nasty at the point of attack and seems to have been born to run block.
Rated the 90th best junior college prospect in the country last season, Fusimalohi was a part of the 2011 NJCAA national champions and earned first team all-Nor Cal Conference honors last season.
He's majoring in history.
Juco offensive lineman picks Kansas:
CENTER — Gavin Howard —
6-foot-4, 300-pound senior from Owasso, Okla.
Howard is another one of those program guys who has been around Lawrence for a long time and played a lot of snaps, mostly in a back-up role. Thrust into the starting center spot after KU had exhausted all other options, Howard has done a fantastic job of settling the line down and helping provide an identity of physicality, toughness and intelligence.
A gifted athlete who starred in basketball and football in high school, Howard is one of the smartest players on the roster and has spent a lot of time tutoring his teammates during the academic portion of their lives as KU football players.
Howard recently landed a job with Conoco-Phillips and will get his post-football career started on Jan. 13, making the next 10 days his final days as a football player, which, he said Wednesday, inspired him to give all he's got to the finish.
Center Gavin Howard completes cycle:
Kansas center Gavin Howard not approaching new position gingerly:
Howard helps KU reduce snap snafus:
RIGHT GUARD — Damon Martin —
6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore from Arlington, Texas.
Widely regarded as one of the strongest players in the program, Martin, like Spencer, has helped bring back the physicality to KU's offensive line that has led to some strong rushing performances during recent weeks.
A third-year sophomore who red-shirted in 2011, Martin made such a rapid rise during 2012 that he wound up starting a game late in the season before falling off as quickly as he climbed up. Weis has said throughout his two years in town that consistency has been Martin's biggest issue and earlier this week Weis said he believed Martin had turned the corner.
A quiet guy during interviews, Martin is majoring in sociology.
August crucial for these five football players:
Will Riley Spencer and Damon Martin make a difference for KU's offense?:
Offensive lineman commits to Kansas:
RIGHT TACKLE — Aslam Sterling —
6-foot-5, 315-pound senior from Springfield Gardens, N.Y.
After being moved into the all-important left tackle spot following an offseason body makeover, Sterling struggled in his new role early and quickly was moved back to the right tackle spot he held down during his first season in Lawrence in 2012.
Big, strong, athletic and with his best days still ahead of him, Sterling provided a much needed dose of experience for KU's offensive line early in the season and, lately, has merely been able to return to a more anonymous role and focus on nothing more than getting the job done.
Arrived from Nassau Community College with a big frame and big expectations, Sterling has been solid during his time at Kansas and likely will get a shot at pro football next fall.
Majoring in liberal arts and sciences.
KU offensive tackle Sterling a changed man:
Lineman Aslam Sterling has huge potential:
Don't count out KU's new-look offensive line yet:
As the season slipped by and his offense continued to encounter road blocks, Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis did everything he could think of to try to find a spark.
From changing personnel to tweaking schemes and everything in between, Weis spent countless hours — often late into the night on Saturdays following losses — trying to find a magic formula that would lead to more points and better efficiency.
While the second-year KU coach tried just about everything that crossed his mind before turning to true freshman quarterback Montell Cozart and watching the offense explode for 31 points in a victory over West Virginia last week, there also were a couple of things Weis didn't try.
Tuesday, he detailed one of them and explained why.
“I was thinking about going up and calling the game from the press box,” Weis said of calling the offensive plays from the bird's eye view enjoyed by most offensive coordinators. “Because every week I've been trying to figure out what can I do different to try to get the offense going. And I thought long and hard about it. But the real reason I didn't go up there was because I thought that people would say I'm just bringing attention to myself.”
As you surely know by now, Weis is one of those guys who attracts attention from all corners of the country for even the smallest things. It's been that way since he was the head coach at Notre Dame and even was true to a smaller extent while he was coordinating in the NFL prior to leading the Irish.
Contrary to popular belief, Weis does not prefer it this way. He'd rather the focus be on his players and his program and the young men who work their butts off because he tells them it will work. But because of his big personality, his honest nature and the spotlight that some of his previous jobs have put him under, Weis is a popular attraction, even at Kansas and even while battling through a hefty rebuilding project.
Earlier this season, I asked Weis if he had considered calling plays from the coaches box upstairs. The reason I asked was because I remembered him talking fondly about how much easier the job of an offensive coordinator was up there, away from the distractions of the sideline and in a setting controlled by you and only you, which included every detail from the temperature in the booth to the amount of light shining down and the bodies around you.
In addition to the more favorable environment, it's obvious that it's easier to see what opposing defenses are doing from high above the field as opposed to down the line of scrimmage.
At the time, Weis said the fact that his offense included so many new and inexperienced players was the reason for staying on the sideline.
“That's when you need to be on the field,” he said. “The time when it's easier to call the game from upstairs is when you have a more veteran team. You know, because now you're just relaying information to them. When there's a lot of moving parts, that's where you're better off being on the field.”
Weis continued to back up his point with an example from his days with the New England Patriots.
“Hey look, I was in the box for a good portion of my career and (New England quarterback Drew) Bledsoe got hurt, and (back up) Tommy (Brady) had to go in,” Weis said. “He wasn't really ready to go yet and I went down there (to the sideline). At the end of the year, we ended up winning it all, and (Patriots coach Bill) Belichick said you're staying on the field. There's different pros of being on the field now, but one of them is we have a bunch of guys going in and out (and) you get a better feel for what you can do and what you can't do.”
The other element that factors into the equation now that he's the head coach at Kansas is the fact that he's more than just the offensive coordinator. Instead of solely focusing in on calling the plays every other series and looking for ways to exploit the opposing defense, Weis is in charge of several other tasks on game days, from conversing with officials and disciplining his players to looking into the eyes of his quarterback and assistant coaches to get a feel for what's going on and who's capable of what. Weis likes that part of it as much as anything and, beyond that, he doesn't want to do anything out of the ordinary that might give the appearance that he's trying to do it just to be different or just for attention.
“I've called the game from the field, I've called the game from the sideline,” he said. “You're the head coach, you're supposed to be on the sideline. Why would you go up there unless you couldn't walk. Even when I couldn't walk, when I got wiped out (by a collision on the sideline in) 2007 or whatever it was, I still went on the field.”
And it looks like that's where he'll be staying.
In an all orange auditorium tucked between Boone Pickens Stadium and Gallagher-Iba Arena a couple of weeks ago in Stillwater, Okla., Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis uttered a few words that hinted at the fact that he might be leaning toward changing his offense.
“I think we know where we'd like to go,” Weis said in reference to his offense, just moments after his team lost 42-6 to Oklahoma State and did so with true freshman quarterback Montell Cozart playing the entire second half.
Exactly one week later, Weis and the Jayhawks went there and the result was the program's first Big 12 victory since November 2010, a 31-19 whipping of West Virginia at happy-once-again Memorial Stadium.
The direction Weis has taken this offense — is less than two years in charge, remember — is about much more than just changing quarterbacks. It's about changing an old-school, ultra-successful, wildly accomplished ball coach's thought methodology altogether and making him squirm a little in the process.
When Weis arrived at Kansas, he brought with him years worth of success in the pro-style offense that features and makes stars out of drop-back passers like Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps and has put countless players in the NFL and worked wonders for many who already were there when Weis worked with them.
Because of that success and his confidence in his own ability, Weis spent the better part of two seasons believing that it could work at Kansas. But the Jayhawks do not have the offensive line nor the skill position players to make such a system work and, in the Big 12 Conference, where virtually every other team is throwing hay-makers week in and week out, Weis' inability to put points on the board put the Jayhawks in a hole.
Instead of being stubborn to the bitter end, Weis elected to change. If we've learned anything about the guy during his first two years in town it's that he's not afraid to check under every rock to see if he might find something, anything, that could help his team or heal his offense — all in the name of winning.
After tweaking the depth chart, moving players in and out of the lineup and replacing precious hours of sleep with more film breakdown, Weis reached the classic conclusion that states, “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,” and then went on to have a heck of a good time last Saturday, one that several Jayhawks and Jayhawk fans won't soon forget.
Cozart was a big part of it; and his ability and maturity beyond his years seem to have KU well positioned to take this idea and run with it (no pun intended) into the future.
But, to me, the biggest tip of the cap here goes to Weis. Yes, the players made the plays — the O-Linemen blocked their tails off, Cozart was nearly flawless and James Sims once again looked like one of the best backs in the Big 12. But executing the game plan the coaches come up with is what these guys do, and, for most of them, it's easy — even if it's a total overhaul in a short time — because they're so hungry for something good to happen.
Swallowing your pride, discarding 30-plus years of offensive wisdom with a proven track record and joining the masses in the wild and crazy spread movement is not as easy. But Weis did it. And the Jayhawks won.
More important than that, it looks like he's willing to do it for a long time.