Don't take this as me being a Montell Cozart or Kansas University football apologist looking for a silver lining during a few dark days.
It's not. Overall, the Jayhawks — and specifically Cozart — have been pretty awful for seven of the eight quarters they've played during this barely begun 2014 season. And there's no apologizing for that.
The Duke debacle was as bad as it's been since head coach Charlie Weis arrived and the more and more you look back at the opener, the more and more you start to realize that the Jayhawks may very well have been lucky to get out of that one alive. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the sluggish finish to the SEMO victory probably should have been viewed as a sign of things to come.
Many people saw that heading into the season. I didn't. In fact, I saw pretty much the exact opposite. I saw a fast start. I saw Cozart sprinting out of the gates with the kind of play that would energize and invigorate the fan base and I expected that on Sept. 16, Jayhawks everywhere would be talking more about the excitement of what's happening instead of dwelling on the uncertainty of what may come and what to do now.
Before we worry too much about the future, be that Central Michigan this weekend, Texas the weekend after that or what the program will look like on Dec. 1, I think it's important to gain a little perspective.
Cozart has been getting killed in the days since the Duke game and, when you're the quarterback, pretty much at any level, that's how it goes. You get the glory in the good days and you're the goat in the bad. That's nothing new and even casual sports fan know that's the way it goes.
So don't hold back on tossing blame at Cozart for the way the KU offense played against Duke. They were bad. He was awful. And Kansas, as we now know, stood no chance.
But do pull back on letting the Duke outing define Cozart as a college quarterback. He's 19 years old. He has started exactly five college football games in his life and barely played in enough to make up half a season. He deserves the chance to redeem himself. He deserves time to grow. He deserves to prove he is both willing to and can get better. Maybe he has it, maybe he doesn't, but a handful of games hardly seems like enough time to make a decision, for better or worse. If nothing else, the hard work and sacrifice he put in during the past 12 months should earn him a fair shake for a few more weeks.
All of this to a point, of course. If his Saturdays continue to look like last week, then the coaches owe it to the rest of the Jayhawks and the program in general to find a better option, perhaps even during the games. But we're not there yet.
If I know Montell at all, I know this is killing him. Weis said Monday morning that Cozart needed a little TLC on Sunday to help get past his poor performance and I've talked to enough people who saw him after the Duke game to know that he took it pretty hard. He's a confident kid. He's had success his entire life. And most of that success has come pretty easy and in pretty exciting fashion. Days like Saturday were not in Cozart's vocabulary.
Maybe that's part of the problem here. During the handful of interviews we did with Cozart throughout the spring and summer, we encountered a confident guy who believed in himself a great deal and believed he was going to hit the ground running and enjoy a solid season. He still might. But too many times his reasoning behind his confidence was that the whole thing reminded him of his path to QB prominence at Bishop Miege High. There's nothing wrong with drawing on past experiences to create confidence, calm the nerves or even fire you up to rise to a challenge. But maybe we should've seen such comments as a little bit of a warning sign that the young man might not quite be ready.
Cozart has all the physical tools you could want. He's fast, long, strong and blessed with incredible quickness and good vision. And he's a likable guy, too, which is important not only for the fan base but also for his teammates. Guys want to follow guys they like.
But simply having the right mind, body and soul for the job does not mean it'll be all aces when you get out there and face a team that's trying to knock your head off. Cozart still has to get used to that. And the only way to do it is by playing more games and succeeding or failing.
This is not high school. The path to him becoming KU's starting quarterback might mirror the path he took to taking the snaps at Miege, but that's where the similarities end. Now's the time for Cozart to pound out a new path, one fraught with potential pitfalls and mirages, good moments and bad.
Senior wide receiver Nick Harwell said after Saturday's game that outings like the one Cozart endured against Duke are part of the deal. “This was one of those games he's gonna have to get under his belt,” was how Harwell put it.
Everybody has 'em. Harwell did at Miami (Ohio). Ben Heeney did during his freshman year. Heck, even KU legend Todd Reesing was sent back to the bench after saving the Jayhawks against Colorado in his first ever appearance in 2006.
The question is, will Cozart learn from his early experiences the way those guys learned from theirs? The only way to find out is to give him time and to remember along the way that the young man is doing all of this for the first time.
We've already covered The Day After so now here's a quick look back at a few grades from Saturday's 41-3 loss at Duke....
• BEN HEENEY — B+
What can you say about an accomplished, all-Big 12 guy who ties his career-high for tackles, with 15, and, once again, seemed to be in on every single play? Heeney was shaken up in the first half but only missed a snap or two and got right back out there to do his job. One of the guys on this team who really shows how much it means to him by how hard he plays.
• CB DEXTER MCDONALD — C+
Picked on by Duke QB Anthony Boone early, McDonald had a very rough first quarter and that helped Duke set the tone and establish control. Gave up all four completions to Duke receiver Issac Blakeney in the game's first eight minutes and then settled in and started to play the kind of football we've come to expect from him. McDonald said the adjustment to matching up with Blakeney was difficult early because of the receiver's 6-foot-6 frame and physical style and because he expected to be on the smaller, quicker, 5-9 Jamison Crowder. Once he adjusted, he looked like the McDonald we all know. But that was a rough start and it set the tone and forced KU's safeties to think about cheating his way, which allowed slot receiver Max McCaffrey (7 catches, 79 yards, 2 TDs) more room to operate over the middle.
• RB COREY AVERY — B
Avery, a true freshman remember, ran hard for 87 yards on 16 carries and proved, yet again, that he's ready for whatever role the coaching staff wants to give him. Still has some things to learn/improve upon — most notably his route running and pass blocking — but he's young and he's way ahead of where most freshmen would be in thrown into his position. Hard to believe that even with the departure of James Sims and the loss of Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox to injury, the KU rushing attack just keeps humming along. If anything, KU should have run it way more than the 47 times they did on Saturday.
• CB MATTHEW BOATENG — C
Credit the freshman for going out there and proving he belongs and is able to hang with the big boys. Now he just needs to get more comfortable and polished. Beat deep a handful of times by just a step or two, but he didn't pay for it because the balls were overthrown. If the throws were on the money, he would've had a rough day, as he showed that he's still a few games away from combining his athleticism with his ever-improving understanding of what it takes to cover quality receivers at this level.
• QB MONTELL COZART — D-
Never looked comfortable all afternoon and, worse, looked indecisive and unable to make quick reads. Left plenty of opportunities for completions on the field by not picking up open receivers early, which allowed Duke's defense to get close to him and forced him to scramble or throw it away. One interception was tipped at the line but the ball was late coming out and, on the other, he missed a wide open Tony Pierson sitting in the soft spot of the Duke defense by firing it 7 yards over Pierson's head. Cozart did deliver a couple of nice runs but even those were frustrating because they showed what he should be doing and emphasized what he wasn't.
• TE JIMMAY MUNDINE — C
Caught three balls for 17 yards one week after being held without a catch, but still did not do enough to impact the game. Dropped one of the few catchable balls Cozart threw all day and did very little to help spark KU's struggling offense. The issues of the offense in this one certainly went well beyond what Mundine did or did not do, but as a veteran and a leader, you have to think there's something he could have done.
• UNIT GRADES --- In 10 words or less
Pass Offense: F Receivers got open, Cozart struggled to find or hit them.
Run Offense: C+ Avery, Mann solid; would've been better if Cozart ran more.
Pass Defense: C+ Rough opening drive but shut down top two Duke options.
Run Defense: D- Wilson gained 182 of his 245 yards on three carries.
Special Teams: B- Pardula good again, rest not noteworthy, good or bad.
Most Impressive Unit: Running Backs. For just their second games at the Div. I level, freshman Corey Avery and junior De'Andre Mann sure looked like seasoned veterans. The two combined for 196 of KU's 297 yards of offense and when you throw freshman Joe Dineen's late-but-meaningless 28 yards on top of it, it's clear that you're looking at one of the few position groups that showed up.
Least Impressive Unit: Defensive Line. No sacks. Huge holes for Duke freshman Shaun Wilson to run through en route to breaking a 20-year-old school record for single-game rushing yards. And minimal pressure on Duke quarterback Anthony Boone.
MVP: CB JaCorey Shepherd. After a so-so game in the opener, Shepherd bounced back in a big way in this one. He did not give up a single significant completion, and every time the Blue Devils challenged him deep, he was right on the hip of the man he was covering. All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder caught just two balls for 14 yards.
Hidden Hero: DL T.J. Semke. The former walk-on turned scholarship and starting defensive lineman was one of the few guys consistently around the ball during this one. He finished with a career-best six tackles and proved, once again, that he's not afraid to tangle with anyone.
Better Luck Next Time: QB Montell Cozart. After starting the season with so much promise, Cozart struggled mightily in this one. He missed guys when they were open, had trouble deciding when to take off and run and looked overwhelmed and lost throughout much of the game. He's still young. So these kinds of growing pains are bound to happen.
The road losing streak hit 28, the final score left Kansas 38 points shy and an unknown number of KU fans were up in arms about it.
It was that kind of day for the KU football team in Durham, North Carolina on Saturday, a time and place that many believed would be a heck of a lot different than the same old, bad blowouts we've seen in the past.
Instead, it was a lot of the same frustrating football that has plagued Kansas for the past five seasons — big plays and easy scores for the opponent, an offense that struggled to get anything going and a room full of players and coaches who had trouble finding answers when it was all over.
The Jayhawks' 41-3 loss to Duke may have merely dropped them to 1-1 on the season, but if ever a 1-1 team felt like 0-10, this is it.
It should be very interesting to see where things go from here with all aspects of the program.
For the first time in the Charlie Weis era, it seems like people have had enough. The KU fan base, as a whole, has not been entirely supportive of Weis and this team throughout his time, but there always had been enough people who backed the program to cancel out those who didn't. Saturday night, though, even the optimists kept quiet and some turned to the dark side. The Jayhawks were not out-talented by Duke, but they were out-played, out-coached and out-manned. This one, to me, seems like the first undeniable step in the wrong direction since Weis took over, and the future of the program, from top to bottom, all of a sudden, has landed in a very dicey position.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Let's be honest; after a game like that, there just aren't many. I thought senior linebacker Ben Heeney was Heeney (but was anyone surprised by that?); I thought senior cornerback JaCorey Shepherd showed he's every bit on the same level as Dexter McDonald and I thought Michael Reynolds played his butt off, particularly in the first half, when he just kept getting close off the right edge but never quite got to Duke QB Anthony Boone. Other than that, there were serious concerns pretty much everywhere else on the field and the Jayhawks left Durham in need of some serious soul-searching just two weeks into the 2014 season.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – Other than the obvious drawbacks of the lopsided final score and the aftermath that followed, there were a few specific aspects of this latest loss that were concerning. The biggest, obviously, was the play of Montell Cozart, who looked incredibly sharp and in control during the opening quarter of the season but has looked anything but that during the seven quarters since. Cozart has the physical tools, but he's young and he's still learning and for every 3-touchdown-no-interception game (like he had vs. SEMO in the opener) there are going to be days like Saturday. The question now just becomes, “How quickly can he pick things up and improve?”
2 – KU's option game was atrocious in this one. I like the option for this offense because it puts Cozart in a position to attack and put pressure on the defense with his best asset. When it's blocked the way it was on Saturday, though, it looks like something you'd see at a Pop Warner game. Because of Duke's penetration on the edge — read: KU's blocking breakdowns up front — Cozart and the KU running backs just had to keep stringing it out and stringing it out all the way down the line until they reached the sideline. At that point, Cozart usually pitched it, but with the sideline so close and so many Blue Devils in pursuit, it looked like Duke had two players there for every one Jayhawk in the area. The option game is as much an attitude as it is about being assignment sound and the Jayhawks failed in both categories against Duke.
3 – The Jayhawks ran more plays (76-71) and won the time of possession battle (32:34-27:26) but had just three points to show for it? That begs the question, “What the heck were they doing when they had the ball?” The answer? Not much. Just five of KU's 14 possessions ended as a three-and-out but only one went over the 4-minute mark and that was the second-to-last drive of the game, when KU drove 72 yards in nine plays and 4:12 but turned it over on downs after doing most of that work against Duke's reserves. Five of KU's drives included seven plays or more — including the 10-play, 58-yard drive that produced the team's only points — but KU found itself facing third-and-long a lot of the time and often failed to take or see the shorter gains that would have set up more manageable third-down scenarios.
One thought for the road
KU's latest lopsided loss...
• Moved the Jayhawks to 577-591-58 all-time.
• Tied the all-time series between the two basketball-blueblood schools at 1 win apiece.
• Was the 28th consecutive loss away from home. KU's next chance to snap its road losing skid comes Oct. 4 at West Virginia, the team the Jayhawks beat last season to snap a 27-game Big 12 Conference losing streak.
• Featured points in the first quarter for the second game in a row. Kansas scored in the first quarter just four times in 12 tries last season.
KU returns home to face Central Michigan, which, two weeks ago popped Purdue, but, last week, was rocked by Syracuse, 40-3. The Chippewas were a bowl team a year ago and certainly will not be an easy out for this struggling KU squad. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to tonight's main event.
In the red corner, standing at 5 feet, 11 inches and weighing in at 195 pounds.... He hails from Mesquite, Texas, and is a senior in his final season at Kansas.... The receiver of the secondary, the king of kindness, the DB with the sweet J, JaCorey "The Protector" Shepherd.
In the blue corner, standing 6 feet, 6 inches and weighing in at 225 pounds.... He hails from Monroe, North Carolina, and is a senior in his fifth season at Duke... The overlooked man, the two-sport standout, Sir Issac Blakeney.
OK, so maybe that won't be exactly the way it's billed on Saturday when we get down to Durham for KU's Week 2 match-up with Duke. But it sure has felt that way in the days leading up to the game.
Shepherd, a Kansas cornerback, and Blakeney, a Duke wide receiver who also ran with the Duke track team last spring, could play huge roles in determining whether their teams win or lose when the Jayhawks and Blue Devils lock horns on Saturday, and Shepherd, a defensive-back who started his career as a wide receiver, could not be more pumped for the showdown.
At 6-6, Blakeney stands seven full inches taller than Shepherd, which not only gives him a huge advantage in terms of reach but also gives him an advantage in terms of his stride while running to the ball.
Shepherd said he's never covered a player as tall as Blakeney and he's worked overtime this week to make sure he's ready with a few tricks, some of which date back to his days as a high school basketball player.
“That's one of the first things my dad said,” Shepherd joked. “'Back to basketball when you had to play (power forward).' That's gonna be a challenge for me, and I'm looking forward to it. I've never had to go up against somebody that big.”
So what's the secret?
“I just feel like I have to be more aware of body control,” Shepherd said. “He definitely can get me in a situation where he can shield me from the ball. And obviously the jump balls. If they throw it up there, I've gotta know where I'm at on the field and know where he's at and feel him out.”
With a receiver who stands 6-6, jump balls are inevitable. If nothing else, they're a great last resort for a quarterback who finds himself in trouble and sees no one else open. That's especially true in the red zone.
Shepherd has a strategy for the high lobs when they come his way and it focuses more on what not to do than what he should do.
“I can't jump too early,” he said. “If anything, I'd rather jump later so he's coming down while I'm going up.”
Shepherd figures to draw a lot of action in this one because of last weekend's standout performance from his partner-in-crime, Dexter McDonald, who swiped two interceptions and broke up two more passes in KU's victory over Southeast Missouri State.
The theory goes that teams may shy away from McDonald after seeing a performance like that — it happened to some degree last season — and be more willing to try their luck with Shepherd. The mere thought brings a smile to Shepherd's face and a sparkle to his eyes.
“I actually like that,” he said. “That's me. Dex did me a favor.”
Of course, Shepherd is also smart enough to know that McDonald's presence on the field will not be enough to keep Duke from using its top weapon in the passing game, senior wideout Jamison Crowder, who stands 5-9, 175.
“He's still gonna get tested,” Shepherd said of McDonald. “They have good receivers. The guy Dex is matched up with, he's a legit receiver. They're not gonna shy away from him. He's one of their best receivers.”
Regardless of who checks who or even how often KU sprinkles in different zone coverage looks to try to match up, both Shepherd and McDonald figure to find themselves in several make-or-break, one-on-one situations on Saturday and it could become a situation where the last man standing brings home a victory for his team.
As famed ring announcer Michael Buffer might say.... Let's get ready to ruuuuummmmmmmmbbbbblllllllllllllle...
• Kansas Jayhawks (1-0) at Duke (2-0)
2:30 p.m. (central) Saturday, Sept. 13, Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, North Carolina
Three and out, with the Duke Blue Devils...
Duke enters this week’s game vs. Kansas with an 18-11 non-conference record under current coach David Cutcliffe. One of those 11 losses came to Kansas in 2009, when the Jayhawks drubbed Cutcliffe's club, 44-16, in Lawrence.
KU coaches Clint Bowen and John Reagan, both on the Jayhawks' staff in 2009, said they would not be able to take much from that game that will help them this week, other than the knowledge and memory of how disciplined, detailed and prepared Cutcliffe's club was that day. Bowen remembered specifically the first couple of plays from scrimmage catching the Kansas defense off-guard.
In the last 12 regular season non-league games, Cutcliffe has guided the Blue Devils to an 11-1 mark, including eight straight regular season non-conference victories.
Did you know that KU coach Charlie Weis once hired Duke coach David Cutcliffe to be his quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame? Weis has long been a fan of Cutcliffe's mastery of offense and play-calling and Weis said earlier this week that he picked Cutcliffe to join him at Notre Dame back in 2005 with the idea of eventually handing over the offense to him.
It never happened and neither did Weis and Cutcliffe working together. Cutcliffe resigned from the post before really getting started after suffering a heart attack and having triple-bypass surgery.
Cutcliffe was out of football for all of 2005 and he rejoined the Tennessee coaching staff in 2006 and 2007 (he previously worked at Tennessee from 1982-98 and helped develop Peyton Manning into one of college and professional football's greats). In 2008, the former Ole Miss head coach took the head job at Duke, where he has racked up a 33-44 record and is now in his seventh season.
“I was looking for somebody I could turn the offense over to and I thought David was one of the best minds out there,” Weis said this week. “Not only was he well-schooled with the quarterback position, which is his reputation, but I thought he'd be a perfect person to hand over the offense to because of his mind and his ability as a play caller. What he's done there is what I would expect him to do anywhere. Just about anywhere he's gone, in an ample amount of time, he's been able to get things going in the right way, especially offensively. He's a very, very good coach.”
Although they wound up losing 34-17 to the Blue Devils last week, Troy proved one thing early on: Duke is vulnerable to a strong running attack.
On its first two drives of the game, Troy gained 100 yards on 16 carries — and 166 yards in all — and jumped out to a 14-3 lead. Duke's D tightened up after that giving up just 58 more rushing yards and limiting Troy to a 3.7 yards-per-rush total.
But the two successful drives that opened the game each were 83-yard drives, with one taking 11 plays and another a whopping 13.
The Blue Devils lost All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown to a season-ending knee injury in August and that left senior David Helton (6-4, 240) as one of the few experienced linebackers on the roster. In the first two weeks alone, Duke has relied upon a red-shirt freshman and a true freshman to play a significant number of snaps in the middle of the defense.
Duke's first two opponents of 2014 recorded 152 and 158 yards on the ground in losses to the Blue Devils.
While last year's 10-win team was one of the best in Duke history, the 2014 version is hardly the same club. In addition to losing two of the team's top returners in Brown and fellow-all-ACC tight end Braxton Deaver to preseason injuries, the Blue Devils saw 21 players make their collegiate debuts in the season opener, with five true freshmen and 13 red-shirt freshmen playing in a college game for the first time.
However, despite that fresh blood, Duke still features an experienced roster. In all, the Blue Devils field 21 seniors on their roster, 17 of whom are listed on the two-deep depth chart.
Saturday's match-up between 1-0 Kansas and 2-0 Duke no doubt would grab much more attention if it were played in Allen Fieldhouse or Cameroon Indoor Stadium instead of outside on the turf at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.
Let's face it: Duke and Kansas are both basketball schools and there's not a person on the planet who doesn't think that.
That includes KU football coach Charlie Weis, who, on Tuesday, talked about the challenges — and advantages — of coaching the football team, which, in many opinions and at most schools is the king of college athletics, at a school where basketball rules.
"I don't know what (Duke coach) David (Cutcliffe) thinks," Weis said. "He's got Coach K and I've got Bill Self. Does it get any better than that? I mean, you're talking about arguably the two best, two of the best coaches in America. So from my standpoint, I hope basketball wins every game every year regardless of how we do. I appreciate the support I get from Coach Self and our basketball team, but most importantly, I can utilize their success to help use that as something to shoot for and definitely use as a recruiting tool.
"You can do one of two things: You can feel like a second‑class citizen or you can play into it, and I totally play into it. Totally. I don't look at it like that at all. I'm more than content with our basketball team competing for a national championship every year. I just want to get our team to where we're winning more than we're losing on an annual basis. That's what I want to do. I want to be winning more than we're losing on an annual basis. When we get to that point, you can ship me out of here. I don't want to do it once. I want to make sure we've got that set. Once we get that set, you can pack me up and send me out if that's what you want to do."
That last part was said with no bitterness or poor-me mentality. It merely was Weis re-emphasizing what he came to Kansas to accomplish, which was to get the KU football program to the point where it's considered a perennial winner.
The general rule of thumb used to be that new coaches would — or at least should — get five years to make that happen. Weis' contract with Kansas was for five years. And although he just started Year 3, he pointed to Cutcliffe's path at Duke as proof positive that, if given time, such a transformation is possible — even at a basketball school like Duke or Kansas.
"I know that Years 3 and 4 they won three games," Weis said of Cutcliffe at Duke. "So was he lighting the world on fire at that time? I mean, what he did was he put in a plan, he recruited, recruited, recruited, got guys he can get into Duke, which is not the easiest thing to do, OK, stuck to the plan, had support from the administration, OK, didn't waver. When people were saying, well, where is this heading, and all of a sudden Year 6 they go and win 10. That's the way it happens a lot of times when you walk into a program that just hasn't done too well recently. I have a lot of respect for the job they've done, and hopefully we cannot only emulate that, but hopefully we can speed up that timetable just a tad."
KU and Duke will square off, in football, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Duke's home stadium.
With the usual Monday Rewind blog being overtaken by our our Day After blog, which went up Sunday afternoon, I figured something else needed to fill its place.
With that, the Monday Report Card was born.
Unlike most report cards, which typically provide a detailed look at everything a student does during a given quarter or semester, this report card will be a little more random and will highlight a few of the good and bad individual performances while trying to mix in a few young guys and a few veterans along with quick-hit grades for each unit.
It may differ from week to week and just because one guy's name appears in the report card one week does not necessarily mean he'll be on the next one the following Monday. As I said, it's more of a snapshot of the good and the bad rather than a complete analysis.
Let's start with the offense.
• QB MONTELL COZART — B+
Cozart himself even admitted to misreading a couple of things and going the wrong way on one play, but, all things considered, I thought he played well. He threw a bunch of good balls, did not turn the ball over and kept several plays alive with his feet while also looking good throwing on the run. Cozart is clearly confident in his abilities and it does not look like the rest of the offense has any problem letting a young guy lead them. A solid B is good for a guy making his fourth career start in a season opener, but if the Jayhawks want to win more than a couple of games this year, Cozart's going to have to elevate his play to the A-range.
• WR NICK HARWELL — B
The senior transfer who sat out all of last season got open a lot and snagged a couple of touchdowns on 4 receptions for 46 yards. All good numbers. And his ability to repeatedly get open and sure hands were a welcome sight for a Kansas wide receiver. But I'd like to see Harwell be even more involved. And I bet he will be from here on out. There's no way that OC John Reagan wanted to show too much of what Harwell can do on film. Three of his four receptions came in the Jayhawks' first four possessions. In the final 11, he caught just one ball and received one carry (a reverse) while being targeted four more times. That's four catches and one carry in eight targets and one rushing attempt. Not bad. But the guy is so smooth, so dynamic and so reliable that it's obvious he can do a lot more. If some of those incompletions were dropped in an inch or two softer, he turns in a monster stat line. Cozart may have missed the throws but Harwell took the blame, so I'll take his word for it. All in all, a pretty solid KU debut.
• RB DE'ANDRE MANN — A-
Mann put the ball on the ground one time, but other than that had a pretty flawless night. He ran hard, inside and outside, racked up 121 yards on just 15 carries and brought a power-running dynamic that this team is going to need as it tries to control clock and keep opposing offenses at bay. The only negatives were the fumble and Mann's inability to pick up a yard on a fourth-and-one with KU leading 31-7. But his coming up short there had as much to do with the O-Line as anything. Overall, the juco transfer ran hard, showed a nice mix of running styles and served as a solid complement to freshman Corey Avery, who got a lot of work early and then gave way to the veteran. Mann said after the game that the only thing missing from his KU debut was a touchdown. Avery got that and the two seem to have a healthy competition between each other for yards, carries and scores. That can only help.
• CB DEXTER MCDONALD — A
Other than giving up a completion that delivered SEMO's first first down of the game (it was bound to happen sometime), McDonald was sensational. His two interceptions and subsequent returns showed why teams prefer not to throw his way. And his two pass break-ups might have been even more impressive than the INTs.
• S ISAIAH JOHNSON — C
I thought Johnson looked a little off throughout the game. Could've been him shaking off some rust, but he finished with just two tackles (both assists) and didn't record another defensive stat. In addition, he was a part of a KU secondary that inexplicably gave up three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, one of them a 26-yard score on fourth-and-seven, no less, and another, late in the game, in which Johnson seemed to read and react well but simply ran with the receiver to the back of the end zone instead of trying to play the ball or deliver a hit. Johnson was a pleasant surprise last season and took home Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year honors. Because of that, the bar has been raised for him a little bit and the expectations go up. Look for Johnson to have a strong bounce-back game against Duke.
• BUCK MICHAEL REYNOLDS — B-
Reynolds was active (4 tackes, 1.5 for loss) and played with great effort but never found it all that easy to get much pressure on SEMO QB Kyle Snyder. He was in the ballpark for a couple of hurries but Snyder seemed a little too comfortable throughout the game and was able to kind of play backyard football and chuck it around out there knowing he had nothing to lose. That had as much as anything to do with SEMO's three-touchdown fourth quarter. Not every team KU faces will feel as free and loose to chuck the ball around the yard and Reynolds will have to be a big reason for that.
• UNIT GRADES... in 10 words or less
Pass Offense: B- WRs are legit; Cozart was efficient early but misfired late.
Run Offense: A- Thanks to Avery and Mann, run game still a strength.
Pass Defense: C+ Performed better than you think. Oh, that fourth quarter.
Run Defense: C+ QB run-game effective at times; 3.4 ypc against pretty good.
Special Teams: B- Pardula solid, blocked FG a breakdown, return game gave little.
Most Impressive Unit: Had to be the WRs. Harwell, Pierson, McCay and King all looked sharp.
Least Impressive Unit: O-Line, which held up well in pass protection, committed half of KU's penalties (including three false starts) and struggled to get a push in short yardage situations.
MVP: I'll go with senior receiver Tony Pierson. Pierson racked up 139 yards of total offense — 44 rushing, 95 receiving — and added a highlight touchdown catch and run that was as pretty as any he's had. Pierson is a game changer and he was sensational in his long-awaited return from a head injury that cost him most of the second half of last season.
Hidden Hero: Safety Fish Smithson. Tied for second on the team with five tackles and played fast, physical and aggressive every time he was out there.
Better Luck Next Time: Tight end Jimmay Mundine. Not utlizing the tight end may have been by design, but Mundine went without a catch in this one and was targeted just once while also being whistled for a holding penalty. He was involved in other elements of the passing game and helped get receivers open, but he's widely regarded as a bona fide weapon who, with his size, speed and athleticism, can create mismatches in KU's favor. Perhaps they'll show up more against Duke.
If you just watched the first quarter of KU's season-opening football victory over Southeast Missouri State, you probably came away pretty impressed.
And with good reason. That quarter, in which KU built a 24-0 lead by scoring on four straight possessions and not giving up a single first down, was without question one of the best quarters we've seen from a Kansas team in the past five years.
After that, however, things weren't as pretty and, if you're judging this team by how it finished the game instead of how it started, you probably came away a little worried. That, too, is understandable.
Regardless of which camp you're in, both sides have solid points and, after a game like that, in which the home team wins by six and is outscored 28-10 after such a blazing start, any and all questions are valid.
However you look at it, KU, which mixed a lot of young guys and newcomers in with a healthy dose of veterans, held on for the victory, improved to 1-0 and has another week of work and preparation in front of it before having to prove what it learned from the opener.
Put another way: Now's when the fun starts.
It wasn't all pretty, but a win's a win and that's the approach the Kansas University football team is taking into next week as it begins preparations for a huge game at Duke. Sophomore QB Montell Cozart turned in a solid debut as the team's starter. The wide receivers he threw to were equally as impressive. And newcomers De'Andre Mann and Corey Avery showed the running game is still in good hands. Surprisingly — especially after a stellar start — it was the KU pass defense that left me scratching my head. No way did I expect to emerge from the opener with a bunch of answers on offense and questions on defense, especially not from the secondary, which turned in a better-than-solid season in 2013 and returned all four starters. It wasn't the ideal opener the way it looked like it might be after the first quarter. Far from it, in fact. But now the Jayhawks know where the issues are and now the rest of us get to see how they go about addressing them.
Three reasons to smile:
1 – The Jayhawks are 1-0. As KU coach Charlie Weis said in his postgame comments, it's not like KU's had a hundred victories in the past few years. It's OK to enjoy them when they come. And that goes for the fans too. You can't get to 2-0 without being 1-0 first and that's where this team stands. Perhaps the best part about that is the reminder it provides that they are still just one week into the season. Plenty of time for improvement, plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles. A bunch of coaches believe teams make their biggest jump from Week 1 to Week 2. If that's the case with this team, that bodes well for KU's chances at Duke next weekend.
2 – Montell Cozart is a real, live college quarterback. KU coach Charlie Weis said it best after the game when he said that Montell bailed out the KU offense with his legs and ability to move out of the pocket and throw on the run. What's more, he looked good doing it. Cozart wasn't perfect, but it was a pretty solid start. He looked confident, spread the ball around well and made some really nice throws. Like everybody except maybe for Dexter McDonald and Trevor Pardula, he'll need to improve on that performance in the coming weeks if KU wants to be competitive with tougher opponents, but, all things considered, you have to feel pretty good about what Cozart showed in Week 1.
3 – These Jayhawks have legit wide receivers. Nick Harwell is as good as advertised. Tony Pierson still has it. And Nigel King and Justin McCay are a couple of big targets who bring a lot in the passing game and running game. It's been a while since KU has had such a good looking crop of receivers and it was wildly entertaining to watch them deliver in the opener. If Cozart and company can tighten things up by an inch or two on those deep balls, this passing attack stands to be pretty explosive all season.
Three reasons to sigh:
1 – What happened in the second half? Things looked so positive in the first quarter. The offense scored on all four possessions. The defense gave up just 42 yards and no first downs. And Kansas led 24-0. For a while, both at the game and on the Internet, the KU fan base actually was impressed by the product on the field. But then KU hit the brakes and managed just 10 points the rest of the way while somehow giving up 28. The crowd thinned out as it always does and several players said that disappointed them. It should. But they should also realize that the only guaranteed way they're going to bring the energy they need to compete is to find it within themselves and then make that the norm regardless if they're under the lights in front of 50,000 or in a driving rain on a dark day in front of 500. There were elements of the late stumble that could be chalked up to Week 1 rust. But there were others that qualify as major concerns if they don't take care of them quickly.
2 – Why does KU let QBs like Snyder get, look and feel comfortable? I've seen it the past couple of seasons and I've never understood it. I realize that these other teams have good athletes, tough kids and competitors, but there's no way that an opposing quarterback at an FCS school should ever get to the point where he's comfortable and controlling the game. SEMO's Kyle Snyder had that look in the fourth quarter and it wasn't good for Kansas. Snyder threw for 269 yards and 3 TDs and was sacked just once. Bottom line: KU has to find a way to get more pressure on these guys so the DBs don't have to cover for as long. Weis said SEMO's unbalanced sets made it tough to bring pressure. And I'm sure that's true. But at some point, pressure can still come from a guy in blue deciding he's going to beat the man standing in front of him on his way to making a play. There were a few of those moments. But not nearly enough.
3 – After going 3-of-4 on third down in the first quarter, KU picked up first downs in just two more such situations in 11 tries. Cozart and the offense looked much improved. But there were still too many times when the offense stalled and forced the defense to go back onto the field. Time of possession was about dead even (29:59-29:58 in favor of KU) but, in a game like this against an opponent like that, KU should have won the TOP battle by a much larger margin and, if they had, SEMO would never have come close to scoring 28 points.
One for the road:
KU's six-point survival against SEMO on Saturday:
• improved the program to 577-589-58 all-time.
• bumped KU's record to 71-47-7 in season openers.
• was the Jayhawks' fourth-straight season-opening win, giving head coach Charlie Weis a 3-0 record in the first week of a season while at Kansas.
• made KU 9-1 in its last 10 home openers.
• gave Kansas win No. 27 in 30 tries against non-conference foes at home dating back to the start of the 2003 season.
Kansas (1-0) will travel to Durham, North Carolina, to take on the Duke Blue Devils (2-0), in the return game of a home-and-home series that started with KU knocking off Duke 44-16 in September of 2009. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m., Central time.
I like this Kansas football team. And I'm not afraid to say it.
I like that it's made up of tough, talented, hungry football players who have a good blend of experience and disappointment driving them, and that, after two seasons of disappointment and misery, it's a team that truly believes the 2014 season will be different than anything we've seen in the past five seasons.
I happen to agree. And throughout the next few scrolls through cyberspace I'll explain why.
Despite its upgrades at several key positions and all that fire to find a way to win, KU is facing another ultra-tough schedule. That makes it hard to see hope on the horizon, but also lends itself to an automatic dose of confidence should things go well early for the Jayhawks.
That's what I'm banking on, and that's why I'm picking the Jayhawks to become bowl eligible and finish the regular season with a 6-6 record.
I could have said four wins to avoid embarrassment. Or I could have gone with the, well-they've-been-so-bad-these-past-few-years approach and picked two or three victories. But doing so would have caused me to go against what I think and I'm not in the habit of doing that. For better or worse, I always jump on here and try to tell you what I think. Sometimes it's flat wrong and my take or optimism is misguided. Other times, it's right and, instead of celebrating that, I simply look at it as a job well done.
In the end, though, it doesn't really matter whether I'm wrong or right. All that matters is that I stay on top of the beat and bring you guys the best information I can about the teams you pull for. The prediction stuff — both yours and mine — is just for fun.
All summer, I was asked, almost daily, how many games KU would win. All summer, I said they'd be better. Any time I did, the automatic question that followed was this: Where are the wins going to come from? Well, here's one scenario and I'm fully aware that it could be woefully wrong. Again, I'm OK with that.
But, crazy or not, I think if you squint hard enough you can see how six wins could be possible.
Here's a look:
• Sept. 6 vs. Southeast Missouri State — Win — I think KU rolls in its opener and sets the stage for a season of good things to come. Montell Cozart gets the offense going and they continue to take steps forward both in terms of confidence and production each week. Be sure to check out our Pick-6 blog for my exact score as well as the predictions of the rest of our staff. (1-0)
• Sept. 13 at Duke — Win — Duke's a good team that had a great season a year ago and offers a stiff challenge for the Jayhawks or any team it faces this year. But this is not 2013 and the Blue Devils will not sneak up on anybody this time around, least of all Kansas. This, to me, is the make-or-break game of the schedule for KU. If they can go win this one — and I can't see any reason why they can't; not won't but can't — then confidence soars and they return home with a chance to improve to 3-0 and really get some momentum going. (2-0)
• Sept. 20 vs. Central Michigan — Win — This is another quality team and the Jayhawks will have to do much more than just show up. But buoyed by the sudden-and-surprising support of the home crowd and their 2-0 start, I've got KU handling CMU to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2009 and just the sixth time since 1993. (3-0)
• Sept. 27 vs. Texas — Win — It might sound crazy, but if you remember the last time the Jayhawks got the Longhorns at home, they took them down to the wire and should have won. This KU team is better than that version and I'm not sure any of us knows what Texas is yet. The time to play UT is early, while first-year coach Charlie Strong is still settling in. KU gets Strong at home for his first ever Big 12 game and, if the Jayhawks really are 3-0 at that point, this town will be buzzing and I think the Jayhawks will make the Big 12 debut miserable for someone else for a change. (4-0)
• Oct. 4 at West Virginia — Loss — The Mountaineers sure held their own against Alabama during the opening week of the college football season and they certainly won't be surprised by Kansas or Cozart this year. In fact, it's a safe bet that WVU will be gunning for payback for last year's 31-19 loss to the Jayhawks in Lawrence. With the game in Morgantown this year, I think they'll get it. (4-1)
• Oct. 11 vs. Oklahoma State — Loss — Oklahoma State is young and there's not a lot of known commodities on the roster as things stand today. That could change in time and, with quarterback J.W. Walsh running the show, I think the Cowboys will rise up around him and be a tough out for anybody this season. It certainly looked that way in their opener as they hung right there with Florida State and nearly knocked off the nation's No. 1 team. (4-2)
• Oct. 18 at Texas Tech — Loss — After a 4-0 start, you have to figure that KU will come back down to Earth and things will start to even out a little bit. That's what this game is and I give the nod to the Red Raiders simply because they'll be playing at home. If you don't like the UT pick earlier, this could be a decent game to sub in as a victory because I can't see the Jayhawks being intimidated to go play in Lubbock. (4-3)
• Oct. 25 — BYE —
• Nov. 1 at Baylor — Loss — The week off helps but not enough, as the Jayhawks go down to Baylor's new home stadium and experience first-hand why BU coach Art Briles thinks it's as good an environment as any in the nation. The Bears are crazy talented, still, and they'll be in the Big 12 race to the end. KU never has fared that well in Waco and it doesn't look like this is the year that's going to change (4-4)
• Nov. 8 vs. Iowa State — Win — Every year, people say the Jayhawks could or even should beat the Cyclones yet every season for the past four years, the Cyclones have walked away from this match-up with a victory. That streak ends at four, as the Jayhawks and all of those seniors who are still eyeing their first bowl berth, find a way to put a complete game together against ISU and ride their defense to victory. (5-4)
• Nov. 15 vs. TCU — Win — With three cracks at becoming bowl eligible remaining, the Jayhawks don't leave anything to chance or drama and pick up win No. 6 at home on senior day in convincing fashion. Worse KU teams have been right there with TCU since the Horned Frogs joined the Big 12 and this is the season they finally kick the door in and come away with the sweetest football victory Lawrence has seen since the 2008 Orange Bowl. (6-4)
• Nov. 22 at Oklahoma — Loss — The Sooners are damn good and they're even tougher at home. If KU does in fact go into Norman on the heels of gaining a sixth win and bowl eligibility, expect a letdown against a team that outmans Kansas and is still right there in the thick of the national title hunt. (6-5)
• Nov. 29 at Kansas State — Loss — The talent gap has started to close and the rivalry has started to heat up oh so slightly, but the Wildcats still have Bill Snyder and Bill Snyder still refuses to lose to Kansas. I think this could be the best Sunflower Showdown game we've seen in a while, but K-State prevails in a wild one. (6-6).
So there it is. Call me crazy. I'm fine with that. But I also believe that this team and this season really can be different. It's also worth noting that I won't be shocked for a second if it's not.
I made these picks by counting on a few things happening for the Jayhawks this fall: I think quarterback Montell Cozart will be good; I think the players around him will be better than that; I think the defense again will be solid and, more importantly, on the field less; and I think first-year offensive coordinator John Reagan is both sharp enough to call games that put KU in position to succeed and skilled enough to run an offense that masks KU's biggest question mark and that's the offensive line.
If any one of those things breaks down, the Jayhawks and these picks are in trouble. But if all of those factors hold up and KU stays healthy, I don't think it's crazy to say that six wins is within reach.
After all, stranger things have happened.
“If you would have asked me before the 2007 season if I thought we were going to be 12-1 and going to the Orange Bowl, that would have been a tough prediction,” Reagan said earlier this week. “I do think this – I think the first time I talked to Coach Weis about the job and the first time I talked to (DC) Clint (Bowen) about it when the opportunity came up, I think the foundation was set and I think that is what is important. I think our players are willing to work hard and put in the time, they believe in the direction we are headed. When you have that you at least have what you need to get started and hopefully we are going to be a better football team because of that.”
Time will tell. I'm just glad it's here so we can find out.
Enjoy the season. Win, lose or draw, I do think this will be one of the more fun KU football seasons we've seen in a while.
Oh, and in case you haven't seen it yet, check out our debut episode of "KU Sports Extra," our new weekly video show with Tom Keegan and me talking all things KU with a few other wrinkles thrown in.
• KANSAS JAYHAWKS (0-0) vs. SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE REDHAWKS (1-0) •
— 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6, Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, KS —
Three and out, with SEMO...
Before moving on to the match-up with Kansas, let's look back at a couple of the more notable accomplishments from SEMO's 77-0 season-opening victory over Missouri Baptist last week.
• With 77 points, the Redhawks posted their highest total in franchise history since joining Division I in 1991.
• Southeast notched its first shutout over a non-conference opponent in the program’s Division I era. The last shutout overall was at Austin Peay on Nov. 1, 1997 and tonight’s effort marked the third shutout Southeast has registered since joining the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).
• The Redhawks racked up 516 yards of total offense, the most since totaling 537 yards at Murray State in 2012. Southeast rushed for 304 yards and posted eight rushing TDs. They averaged 7.6 yards per rush.
• Southeast set a team record by holding Missouri Baptist to 81 total yards of offense, shattering the previous low of 137 yards allowed vs. Sam Houston State (9/11/93).
The Jayhawks aren't the only ones interested in wild and new uniform combinations. First-year SEMO coach Tom Matukewicz, the former defensive coordinator at Toledo, recently unveiled a brand new helmet that it plans to wear for Saturday's game against the Jayhawks.
Off white with the heavy red outline of the school's mascot and red facemask, the helmet is basically the inverse of what the Redhawks wore in the season opener, black helmet with red and black Redhawk mascot.
There's no doubt that these things tend to fire up the players. That's certainly been the case at Kansas, dating all the way back to the red jerseys worn during the Orange Bowl seasons, the all-black look they wore against Iowa State a couple of years ago and the newly unveiled Crimson Chrome uniform that will be worn at some point this season.
Here's a look at SEMO's new helmet.
Southeast Missouri State is 1-18 all-time vs. FBS opponents, with the lone victory coming via a 24-14 triumph over Middle Tennessee in 2002. Of those 19 games, just one came against a Big 12 foe, with Missouri rocking the Redhawks, 52-3, in 2008. Other notable names on SEMO's FBS list include: Hawaii, Marshall, Ohio, Central Michigan, Arkansas, Cincinnati twice, Purdue and Ole Miss last season.
You can look at this two ways: 1. SEMO struggles with upper-level talent. 2. Because they've played FBS foes every year since 2000, they're used to it and won't be intimidated by this week's Big 12 opponent.
While SEMO quarterback Kyle Snyder returns to give the Redhawks a steady, veteran presence, it's the players around him that make the SEMO offense dangerous.
Surrounded by weapons, Snyder has plenty of options in the offense, many of whom can turn innocent plays into big gains in a hurry. Snyder in the opener, showed he could make some plays, as well, running for two touchdowns and throwing for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
• Running back DeMichael Jackson (No. 20) had a huge game last week, accounting for 148 total yards, including a 66-yard touchdown on a screen pass and a 25-yard TD run.
• Paul McRoberts and Spencer Davis are the two biggest weapons at wide receiver, with KU coach Charlie Weis calling the 5-foot-7, 182-pound Davis “their big play guy.” Davis ripped off a career-best 61-yard punt return early in the victory.
• The Redhawks have a two-headed monster at tight end, with Logan Larson being your more typical tight end and Ron Coleman being a wildcard. Coleman is a converted running back and he lines up all over the field, at fullback, tight end, H-Back and others.