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.
When it became clear during the offseason that junior-college transfer Chris Martin would not be around this fall to intimidate offenses, wreak havoc off the edge of the defensive line and give the Kansas University football team its first true pass rushing threat with double-digit sack potential, the focus shifted to fellow juco transfer Andrew Bolton.
No one really talked about Michael Reynolds.
And maybe that was a good thing. See, for years, we've talked about Reynolds as a natural pass rusher and called him one of the Jayhawks with the most potential, but during his first three seasons in Lawrence — the Wichita native red-shirted in 2010 — he didn't show much more than potential.
That isn't the case any more. With Martin gone and Bolton red-shirting while overcoming an injury, Reynolds has stepped into an important role for the Kansas defense and currently finds himself leading the team in sacks with 5.5.
The number is not one that will set the college football world on fire, but it's significant around here. And it's significant for a couple of reasons. For one, Kansas, as a team, managed just 12 sacks all of 2012. For two, it validates all of that talk about Reynolds being the kind of guy who could make a difference for a defense.
The pass-rush specialist did just that during KU's 42-6 loss at Oklahoma State last Saturday. His effort did not do much to keep KU in the game, but it did allow a pretty solid season to keep rolling. And it's indicative of what this whole defense is about right now — great effort, legitimate improvement, not much to show for it.
Reynolds' sack of OSU quarterback Clint Chelf in the third quarter gave him a sack in four of KU's past five games. During the rest of the game, Reynolds added another tackle, recorded a career-high two pass break-ups and consistently got close enough to Chelf to make him get rid of the ball just a tick earlier than he probably would have liked. That was reflected in his 19-of-37 passing numbers, which included several balls thrown prematurely that either missed the mark or were dropped by wide receivers not quite ready for them.
Like Ben Heeney finishing third in the Big 12 in tackles in 2012, Reynolds' strong season likely will be overlooked, perhaps even forgotten, because of all of the losing. And there's no doubt that Reynolds and the rest of the guys in that KU locker room would trade any and all of their individual statistics for a couple more tallies in the win column.
Until those start to come, though, efforts like the most recent one from the emerging Reynolds are all the Jayhawks have to celebrate.
Three games left to change that.
Say what you want about Kansas University quarterback Jake Heaps' season, skills and struggles as KU's quarterback. But don't question the guy's toughness.
Playing — or is it praying? — behind on offensive that has struggled to keep Heaps' uniform clean all season and given up free paths to pound town, Heaps has stood in there and taken some monster hits. More important than his ability to take them, though, has been his ability to keep getting up.
With each week and each bone-crushing hit, Heaps has taken a little longer and a little longer to get back to his feet. Never was that more evident than during last weekend's 35-13 loss to Texas in Austin, when Heaps saw some of the biggest smacks sent his way all season.
The two that come to mind first were the game-changer in which Heaps, swallowed up by a sea of Texas defenders, coughed up the football and watched UT turn the fumble into seven points, and an all-out blitz in which Texas sent one more pass rusher than KU could block and made Heaps pay for it.
“The strip-sack wasn't as bad as the one he took off the right side,” KU coach Charlie Weis said of the two hits. “Their Sam linebacker was hitting him straight in the face as he was getting ready to throw the ball. That hurt me and I was watching. I wasn't even the one taking the hit.”
Heaps admitted after the loss that he was as sore as he could remember being after a game, and who could blame him? It's surely not just the physical pain that hurts. KU's inability to block defenders — be it in the running game or pass protection — has crippled this offense throughout the season and led to as much mental and emotional pain as any of the beatings Heaps has taken.
Don't get me wrong; Heaps has struggled, too. His celebrated accuracy has taken a turn south, his lack of feel in the pocket — which I think may be a result of him hoping so badly that plays will develop that he does not get the heck out of there when he should — has led to far too many sacks and stalled drives and the offense, to which he holds the keys, has averaged just 17 points per game and scored in the teens for seven consecutive weeks.
If there's one positive sign in all of the ugliness, it's that Heaps' past two games have been two of his best. I thought he was solid in the opener, decent in the Rice game and then bad in the games that followed. But against Baylor and Texas, despite the lopsided scores, Heaps looked better.
“For the most part, when the game was under control, I thought the passing game was fairly efficient,” he said after Saturday's loss.
Heaps finished the UT game 11-of-21 for 160 yards but, for the second game in a row did not throw an interception, and also showed improving chemistry with and confidence in junior Rodriguez Coleman down the field. In his last two games, Heaps is 18-of-40 for 245 yards, one touchdown and no picks. Now, I admit that those were the types of numbers I expected to see from Heaps and Weis' offense each game, but, hey, since we have to deal in reality, those numbers do represent progress, even if that doesn't mean much.
I know KU fans aren't interested in moral victories any longer. And who could blame them? But saying that Heaps deserves some love instead of the hate or that the guy should be given credit for battling week after week, series after series despite getting battered play after play does not sound, to me, like moral-victory chatter. It sounds like the humane thing to do.
Heaps is a big part of this Kansas offense and he will continue to be for the Jayhawks' four remaining games — games, by the way, which he said KU needed to win to become bowl eligible. See. Still fighting. And instead of laughing at the guy for even bringing up the words “bowl game” during a season as woeful as this, I'd think fans would appreciate that the guy has not been knocked out yet. He's still believing, still trying to get things figured out.
Who knows if Jake will be the quarterback next season? That hardly matters right now. What does matter is that the guy is taking a beating every week all in the name of doing all he can to help KU football get out of the mud.
Maybe he's just grinding his gears. Maybe it's a crane and not a quarterback that the team needs to get out of this mess. But give the guy credit for trying. And give him an Advil or two for the pain.
Typically, these Monday Rewinds are spent looking back at a certain aspect of KU's most recent game that either impacted the outcome, added to a trend or simply was eye-opening enough — good or bad — to merit further discussion.
And while last week's loss to Baylor certainly included a few of those things, I thought I'd take a break from examining the Jayhawks' struggling offense or trying to pinpoint how or why things unfolded the way they did against the Bears. The reason? I want to talk about the Bears themselves.
It's not every day you watch one of the best offenses in college football history. It's not every day that you think the team on the other side of the field might be the best in the country. It's not every day (even if it may be every year in the ultra-tough Big 12) that you walk away from a game thinking to yourself that you might have just watched the national champions play.
But I thought all of those things when I watched Baylor and, to be honest, I'll quietly be rooting for it to happen. The Bears are a great story and are a team full of confident and talented individuals who come together to create one heck of a unit. Sure, running back Lache Seastrunk may be a little outspoken and may have caught people off guard when he said last summer that he was going after the Heisman Trophy. But I like it. And can you blame him? He can clearly back it up. The only problem with Seastrunk's bid to win the Heisman is that Baylor has been up so big so often this entire season that he hasn't logged enough snaps to put up truly ridiculous numbers. If that weren't the case, and if the Bears needed him for four quarters each night, I think he'd have a great shot.
Another guy who should have a great shot but isn't getting talked about much in the conversation is quarterback Bryce Petty. I'm not sure what more you want a guy to do to warrant Heisman chatter. He's deadly accurate, throws for a ton of yards and touchdowns and even can run it a little bit himself. Heck, his 12 incompletions vs. Kansas over the weekend were a season high and even with that his completion percentage still hovered around 65%.
It's not like Baylor isn't getting respect nationally. The Bears are ranked 6th in the latest BCS standings and are finding their way onto all kinds of highlight shows for their insanely entertaining offensive performances week in and week out. But because they've played most of their games at home and have yet to do what they do against a ranked opponent, they're not getting the same kind of love as the Florida States, Oregons and Alabamas.
They should be. And I know that now after seeing them at Memorial Stadium with my own eyes.
The reason for saying all of that — aside from sharing my enormous respect for Baylor's program? I think it's important to remember exactly who Kansas faced last weekend when talking about the Jayhawks and their continued quest toward improvement and that elusive conference victory.
There certainly are areas of this KU team that can and should be criticized, and we've covered those plenty so far throughout this season. But if you're looking to pile on because of the Baylor game, I think you're misguided.
I have no doubts that the Jayhawks worked their butts off all week to get ready and entered Saturday with a solid game plan. Sometimes, the other team is just that good. I mean, did you see the socks that Seastrunk wore? They had lightning on them! And, hey, Baylor's done this to everybody, and likely will continue to do it to everybody the rest of the way.
Rather than dwell on it and use it as more fire for the anti-KU football movement that's out there, I think it's best to burn the film, leave it in the past and move on to the next challenge.
Vegas had the Bears as 35-point favors for a reason, and, outside of KU's locker room, where I'm sure they truly believed they had a shot, last Saturday's outcome was not a huge surprise to anybody.
But I think it's more because Baylor's that good, not because KU is that bad.
With five games remaining in 2013 and a schedule that softens just a little, we'll find out.
It's hard to know if it can be trusted given the inconsistency of the offensive line, but it appears that the Kansas University football team has found its running game again.
During last Saturday's loss to 18th-ranked Oklahoma the Jayhawks came out on fire in the first quarter, with senior James Sims leading the way with 11 carries for 85 yards. Those numbers included Sims carrying the ball on seven of KU's first eight plays from scrimmage and eight of the first 10 en route to the 13th 100-yard rushing day of his career.
One of the great parts about getting Sims going again — sophomore Darrian Miller also looked sharp with 67 yards on 9 carries — is that this latest effort came against a legitimate defense. The 6-1 Sooners rank at or near the top of the Big 12 in almost every major defensive category and, for a quarter, the Jayhawks had their way with them, opening up huge holes, getting a great push from the offensive line and picking up double-digit clips of yardage over and over on the ground.
While that was beneficial for this team's chances in that game, the best part overall is that it likely restored this team's confidence in itself and its ability to run the ball again. You know the old theory, 'Hey, if we can do it against a team like OU, we can do it against anybody.'
While that may be true and certainly was the case in 2012, the key from here on out will be to keep the hunger and desperation that delivered the performance in the first place. This is no time to get complacent or feel too good about the job they did on the ground vs. Oklahoma. It still came in a losing effort and it was slowed down significantly from the first quarter on.
A couple of people I talked to about the game said that OU's coaches were very impressed with how KU came out and ran the ball. For one, they did not expect the Jayhawks' to be able to dominate up front like they did and, for two, a lot of the looks the Jayhawks showed in that first quarter rushing attack were new to the OU coaches and players. Credit KU coach Charlie Weis and his staff, once again, for coming up with clever ways to disguise the basics of what they do. Now, the key is to either figure out a way to do it for longer periods of time or make the necessary adjustments to prevent the offense from hitting the wall.
While last Saturday's effort was encouraging, it was much more about heart and being questioned as football players, men and competitors than anything else.
After Saturday's loss to the Sooners, which, like the Texas Tech loss before it, started out in such promising fashion, Weis was asked to determine how fragile his locker room was at this point in the season. It's one thing to lose games and have no chance in them, but it's another to come out of the gates firing on all cylinders and feeling sky high only to see that hot start turn into a sluggish finish and another loss. Such an up-and-down pattern can really mess with the mind, and these guys deserve credit for hanging in there, whether that includes this year, last year or their entire careers.
Weis has said time and time again that there are enough quality leaders and people who care in that locker room to keep the fragile mindset out of the equation. But the Jayhawks are not in this to keep from being too fragile; they're in it to win games and, even if it does make for a good soundbite, they really don't care about moral victories.
“That was the whole conversation I had after the game,” Weis said. “That was my whole message, about how you really have one of two ways to go when things don't go well. Especially half way through the year, you're sitting at 2-4, you could say, 'Ah, the hell with it, we're 2-4, that's just the way it's gonna go.' Or you could fight to do everything you can to be part of the answer.”
“That was basically the challenge to them,” he continued. “And this was an individual challenge, not a team challenge. It wasn't, 'What's the team gonna do?' it was, 'What are you gonna do?' Because, really the only one that you can control is you. So that was the question I posed to all of them.”
With high-powered Baylor on deck, things may get worse before they get better. But if the Jayhawks can hang in there in that one and continue to put forth the Oklahoma- and TCU-type efforts, things could start to look up down the stretch, when the schedule softens just a bit, believe it or not.
I've spent a lot of time these past three or four weeks asking various members of the Kansas University football team to explain what exactly is causing so many problems for the Jayhawks' offense.
From the head coach and quarterback to the pass catchers and starting and back-up offensive linemen, nearly a dozen different players have had an opportunity to pinpoint why the KU offense has struggled so badly.
Small problem: It doesn't seem like any of them can do it.
OK, so maybe that's actually more like a HUGE problem, but the one thing that keeps coming up no matter who I talk to is the word execution.
“We need to do a better job of executing,” one player will say.
“We're just not executing,” another will say in a somber tone.
“We have to execute the small things so we can get on a roll,” says yet another.
Yes, yes and yes.
So do it. I know that's a simple way of looking at things, but it's really the only thing you can say at this point. If it truly is just a matter of taking the right step here, picking up the right block there or making the right read at the right time elsewhere, do that. Don't just say you need to and then continue to go out there and misfire.
I'm not trying to make light of the situation, nor do I think going out there and executing while the defensive players are trying to kill you is easy. But it's time for KU's offensive players, many of whom have talent and ability, to get on the same page and stay there. Think about it. For two games, the quarterback was sharp, made good throws and ran the offense the way it's supposed to be run. And his receivers dropped balls. And here lately, just when the receivers (a few of them, at least) have figured out how to hang onto the ball, the quarterback has started to lose a little of his accuracy, which was supposed to be by far his biggest strength.
Trying to figure out plays that work with an offensive line that's struggling is hard enough. But doing it without knowing whether your quarterback and receivers will be on the same page from play to play is a nightmare. And that's a huge reason for the Jayhawks' offensive struggles of late.
To demonstrate this, let's look at back-to-back plays in the third quarter of Saturday's game.
On first-and-10 from the TCU 27 yard line, one play after the Horned Frogs gave KU life by muffing a punt, the Jayhawks, who trailed 24-10, took to the air for one of the day's few throws that traveled down the field and looked bad in doing it. As tight end Jimmay Mundine cut to the inside down the seam, quarterback Jake Heaps threw behind him, low and to the outside.
When I asked Heaps about the throw after the game, he said it was 100 percent on him and then went on to talk about working as hard as he could to make every play succeed and get this offense going. On the very next play, he proved that was possible, as he lobbed a nice ball to Mundine on a corner route near the 5 yard line and Mundine rose up, snatched it out of the air like a man possessed and then stomped into the end zone. It was as good a ball as Heaps had thrown all day and maybe as good as the Jayhawks had looked in their down-the-field passing game all year.
The point is this: On one play, they looked awful, out of sync and in complete disarray. On the very next, they looked like a competent offense, like the Jake Heaps and Jimmay Mundine many expected to see all season.
So, what gives?
The players and coaches have said that inexperience is not an excuse. By now, they say, these guys have all been out there enough to be able to step up when their numbers are called. In addition, they insist that they do execute all the time during practice and they believe if they can do it in practice they should be able to and expected to do it during games on Saturdays. They're right.
Frustrated fans have tossed out all kinds of solutions for this offensive mess, some of which make sense and some of which are just not possible, at least not during the middle of the season.
I've spent my fair share of time trying to analyze what's happening here, too, and the only thing I can think of that can actually happen is that these guys can step up and become gamers.
Sounds easy, but it's really not. Either you are or you aren't. James Sims is a gamer. Justin McCay may not be. The rest are probably somewhere in between. But it's time to find out who falls where.
With seven games left and the defense and special teams playing at a high level, this season is not a lost cause. KU's not going bowling, but only a small percentage of KU fans actually thought that was a possibility before the season began anyway, so that's not breaking news. There is time, though, to win a couple more games, pick up some momentum heading into Year 3 of the Charlie Weis era and give these fans something worth watching when the KU offense is on the field. Todd Reesing to Dezmon Briscoe it will not be. But it doesn't have to be the 2005 KU offense either. Remember them? The group that struggled to score and sustain drives week after week while the defense played out of its mind and plenty well enough to win. (I'm specifically thinking of that 19-3 loss to Oklahoma at Arrowhead Stadium right now). That's kind of what we have going right now and the only guys that can do anything about it know who they are.
This is the roster for 2013. There is no free agency, there are no out-of-work veterans waiting for a phone call at home. This is it. So this is the group that has to get it done.
If that means they need to execute more or better or more consistently, then do it.
The natives certainly became restless after Saturday's 54-16 slamming by 20th-ranked Texas Tech, and who could blame them?
What started in fantastic fashion and, at least for a bit, looked like it could bring an end to KU's 21-game Big 12 losing skid, quickly began to look a lot more like the embarrassments of the Turner Gill era than the handful of encouraging efforts Weis and the Jayhawks showed in 2012.
When thinking back about this game and, really, the entire season thus far, there are plenty of things that pop up in the suddenly stacked column of issues plaguing the Jayhawks.
But for my money, the one area of weakness that stands out above all others — and I don't think it's even close — is the sub-par play of the offensive line, which not only has struggled with to knock people off the ball but also can't seem to find any consistency both in terms of who's in the lineup and the performances they deliver from game to game, quarter to quarter, even play to play.
While talking to tight end Jimmay Mundine after Saturday's loss, I asked him if he thought we were all guilty of taking for granted just how good last year's line was. It's been well documented by now just how much experience Tanner Hawkinson, Duane Zlatnik and Trevor Marrongelli had logged in their KU careers. But maybe we focused too much on their years of service and overlooked their ability.
I know I'm guilty of that. I thought, with the size of attitude of these new guys the Jayhawks had brought in, it was merely a matter of them learning the offense and getting comfortable with one another and then the KU ground game could pick up where it left off, perhaps even be better.
Oops. Way off.
Not only has the play of the O-Line dropped off from last year, but the ground game has suffered, too. And worse than KU no longer having complete confidence that it can run the ball against anybody is the fact that the Jayhawks' opponents now think they can't at the same time. Yikes.
So here's the million-dollar question: What can the Jayhawks do about their O-Line issue? The answer will not be easy to find, but somebody has to find it, and quick, or else the next eight Saturdays are going to look awfully similar to the last one.
I've had plenty of conversations with people about this since Saturday's game — even threw out a few thoughts on Twitter — and I stand by my theory: If the line can't perform any better than it has, the play-calling hardly matters. I mean, what plays can you call that work when the line doesn't block?
The only ones I can think of are the ones we saw early in Saturday's loss to Texas Tech and late in the victory over Louisiana Tech. The ones where quarterback Jake Heaps was throwing a pass just milliseconds after receiving the snap. That takes the pressure off of the line, which is good, but it puts the pressure on Heaps and his receivers to be perfect and in sync, which hasn't exactly gone swimmingly so far this season either. Still, if it's me making the decisions, I'd rather have the onus on Heaps to make plays than ask the line to hold up.
Weis said on this morning's Big 12 football coaches teleconference that some serious changes were coming to the depth chart this week — we'll get a copy Tuesday — and he also indicated that the O-Line could look drastically different.
From what I could gather, it sounds like IQ and understanding the looks from opposing defenses has as much to do with the line's struggles as anything. Therefore, it stands to reason that, at least for this week, Weis will be plugging in the smartest guys he has up front to see if that helps.
Of course, the possibility exists that these guys can and will improve. Guards Mike Smithburg and Ngalu Fusimalohi are new to the Big 12 and have had several good moments so far. Plus, they've got the mindset you're looking for — the kind that says, 'Yeah, I want to kick your butt and I don't care if I break my nose doing it.' KU needs more of that. KU needs more of that at every position, but the Jayhawks could especially use more of it in the trenches.
The opportunity is there for someone or some guys to step up. I don't care if your name is Gavin Howard or Riley Spencer and you're a senior who's been around a while and fallen down the depth chart, or if you're a true freshman like Joey Bloomfield, who ranks near the top of the roster on the list of guys who are excited to be here and would probably do anything for this program. The opportunity is there for guys to prove they can play mean, nasty, tough football. Heck, if I'm a defensive lineman who isn't playing much, I'd ask for a meeting with the coaches to see if I could switch positions. That worked out OK for Hawkinson.
Oops. There I go again, assuming anybody can do what Tanner did. That's my bad. I now know it's not that easy.
But getting angry, having some pride and playing a little pissed off is something anybody can do.
The question is, will they?
Lost in the craziness of Saturday's 52-yard game-winning field goal by KU sophomore Matthew Wyman and the wild celebration that followed it was an important aspect of the game that was just as critical to the win as Wyman's kick.
No, it wasn't junior tailback Tony Pierson's 29-yard catch that set up the field goal or the back-to-back passes that junior quarterback Jake Heaps put right on the money that covered the final 37 yards of the drive. Heck, it wasn't even senior running back James Sims going into beast mode and running like the James Sims of 2012 that kick-started the drive in the first place. All of those plays — each of which were huge — got the credit they deserved from the Jayhawks, the coaching staff, the media and even the fans following the victory.
The one that did not was one that rarely does — the snap and the hold.
Forget about the stakes for a minute. We all know what was on the line when KU coach Charlie Weis called timeout with 2 seconds left and sent the field goal team onto the field to try to win it. The situation itself obviously added pressure to everyone on the field, not just Wyman. And because of that, the kick would have been tough enough even from 20 yards closer.
But when you're talking about a 52-yarder, the margin for error on every aspect of the play shrinks dramatically. Had the snap not been perfect and the hold not impeccable, Wyman would have had a much tougher time becoming the hero. So give credit to long snapper Reilly Jeffers and holder Blake Jablonski for doing their jobs to perfection.
I'm sure there are those out there who would say that these guys shouldn't be celebrated just for doing their jobs and I understand that. But these are not professionals. They're still kids. Former walk-ons, no less. And they did their jobs in damn fine fashion and that led to something that KU has not had the chance to enjoy much of during the past four or five years.
I'll admit it. I barely even thought about these two guys during the few hours following the game. There were too many other guys to talk to and too many things to write about. Here's a quick recap: Jayhawks move to 2-1; Streak of 22 straight losses to FBS opponents is snapped; KU finishes non-conference schedule with winning record; Defense comes up huge again; Smiles return to team's postgame; Kansas victorious for just the 8th time since Mark Mangino left town. I could go on and on, but I think you get it.
The reason for bringing all of this up is to tell you that I had to go back and watch the film of the snap and hold myself just to see it. Obviously, since Wyman drilled the kick, I figured things went well, but I wanted to see how well. It was better than I expected.
It's clear that Jeffers was trying to be perfect with the snap because the ball did not set any speed records on its way back to Jablonski. But it was right on the money and it almost looked as if Jeffers snapped it in a way that made the snap and hold become one motion — I'm guessing that's what you want. Jablonski did not have to move left or right to catch the snap and it was soft enough that he had no trouble handling it. He simply leaned forward, put it down and then joined the celebration.
These plays get taken for granted so often and this was such a big moment for this KU team that I thought the efforts made by Jeffers and Jablonski were worthy of a little extra attention.
I realize the Jayhawks did not win the Big 12 with this kick and, based on what unfolded during the four quarters that came before it, it's quite evident this team still has a lot of work to do if it wants to reach the point of being consistently competitive in the conference. But having guys like this deliver in moments like that, to me, is just more proof of the discipline and attention to detail that are starting to become staples of the KU football program again.
At some point, just like they did on Saturday, those little details are going to start mattering more and more.
By now, those who follow Kansas University football know that dropped passes have plagued the KU offense during the first two weeks of the 2013 season.
But instead of using the Monday Rewind to look back at which players dropped the most passes and who is struggling the most in that department (You can find that here), I figured it might be a good idea to check out the opposite side of things and see if some kind of fix can't be pulled from that.
What the F, right?
No. Stick with me. I'm not talking about that F, I'm talking about KU's F position, which currently is manned by Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon, two players who have been Jake Heaps' most reliable targets through the first two games of the season.
A week ago, when KU football coach Charlie Weis was asked on his weekly radio show which player had the best hands, his answer revealed something that might be worth trying for the struggling Kansas offense.
“I'd say Pierson has the best hands,” Weis said. “And Bourbon's next. The guys playing the same position might be the two guys with the best hands.”
So why not put them out there at the same time a little more often?
Because I don't have a playbook nor a helmet and shoulder pads, I don't fully understand Weis' offense and all of the intricacies that go along with it. But I do understand the idea of first-string and second-string players, and maybe it's time to promote Bourbon to first-string along with Pierson.
Both have looked sure-handed catching the ball this season. Both have the ability to line up anywhere on the field. And both have the speed and toughness to run good routes and get open. From where I sit, that means both should play as much as possible.
Unlike many of you, I don't quite see this as a sky-is-falling situation. Not yet, anyway. It's still early, I think this team is made up of several tough-minded individuals and maybe doing something this drastic with the offense is not what needs to happen right now.
KU's strength remains its running game and finding ways to get James Sims, Darrian Miller, Taylor Cox and especially Pierson some more quality carries seems like a good place to start — at least until Heaps and the passing game get fully comfortable and the offensive line becomes more solid.
But if drops continue to be a problem and KU's pass catchers fail to step up, letting Pierson and Bourbon carry more of the load might be the answer — offensively, at least.
The defense is a different story altogether. Not only is that unit playing better and improving by leaps and bounds each week, but the KU defense darn near won the Jayhawks last weekend's game. How long has it been since you could say that?
With six minutes left in Saturday's 31-14 victory over South Dakota and my mind starting to spin toward the upcoming deadline and all of the work that begins after the final horn sounds, I hit Twitter with a quick assessment of KU's season opener.
The exercise was simple and took about 10 seconds. After all, there was still live action to cover. So, without giving it too much thought, I handed out the following school-style letter grades for the KU football performance in six categories: Run Game (A), Pass Game (B), Run Defense (C+), Pass Defense (C), Special Teams (A+) and Overall (B-).
After looking back at the facts and stats and thinking more critically about how KU's opener unfolded, I decided I would tweak those grades a little. I also concluded that I would stick with most of them. And, as I waded through all of the “What game were you watching” comments I received on Twitter in the 12-20 hours following the game, the one thing that I kept asking myself was this: What were these people expecting?
I understand that South Dakota was an FCS team that the Jayhawks should have and could have beaten by more than 17 points. I also understand that there were plenty of elements of the opener that downright stunk. But there were also quite a few good signs, too. And to focus only on the negatives while disregarding the positives seems, at least to me, a little short-sighted and unrealistic. USD may have been an FCS team that most FBS schools would've handled with ease, but the Jayhawks were just a few months removed from a 1-11 season and, in their own right, are still very much a work in progress. Those grades (along with the ones I settled on, which you'll see a little farther down the page) were given out with a curve that took into account improvement from a season ago and reality.
With that in mind, here's a quick recap of how I saw it and what my grades meant.
Note: Please realize that what you're about to read is the reasoning behind my initial grades followed by a slightly modified version of a couple of them. I know some people just like to skim the bold print and then comment.
Run Game: A — No doubt in my mind that I'm sticking with this one. KU's offense line was physical all night and opened up solid running lanes for KU's stable of backs, which pounded away for 289 yards on 43 carries. If anything, the running game was not used enough and if they had leaned on it a little more, the spread might have been larger.
Pass Game: B — This one I'd change. I stand behind my belief that junior quarterback Jake Heaps deserved a B for his opening night performance. Heaps looked confident, in control, put his passes on the money and played smart throughout the night. What I failed to account for at the time of my Tweet was the fact that there's more to grading a passing game than just how the QB played. The wide receivers and tight ends also have to factor in and, for the most part, they left quite a bit to be desired. I thought the pass protection was OK, but it, too, can get better. I'd probably go C- in my revised grading of the passing game as a whole.
Run D: C+ – This is another one I'd lower. I thought USD quarterback Josh Vander Maten found far too much running room and the Coyotes' two-headed monster of tailbacks also ran well. Thinking back, KU coach Charlie Weis said last Tuesday that the offensive line was one of USD's strengths and, with nearly all five starters having solid experience and standing 6-5, 300 or better, I don't think the run defense was much worse than expected. I'd change this one to a C- as well.
Pass D: C – I'm not sure I'd change this a whole lot, if at all. Vander Maten completed just eight passes for 67 yards and faced a lot of pressure off both off the edge and up the middle, some of which led to a chunk of his rushing total. Beyond that, I thought KU defensive backs Victor Simmons, Dexter McDonald and Dexter Linton were among KU's best performers all night. The only bad play I can think of came on that third-and-19 early in the fourth quarter, when a USD wide receiver crept behind the secondary for a 37-yard gain and a first down. Get off the field there and the Jayhawks probably win 31-7, a margin that, no doubt, would've made several Jayhawk fans a lot happier today.
Special Teams: A+ – Not touching this one. Remember, my grades were based on a curve that took into account improvement from a season ago and reality. By that standard, every special teams unit was vastly improved and both the team and KU fans should be thrilled by what they saw.
Overall: B- – I think a straight C is probably a better overall assessment of the Jayhawks' opening-night performance and I'm sure if I had just said that on Twitter, most people would not have bothered to respond. I get that now. Next time, I'll wait until the game's over and I can better digest the total picture to pass out my grades. But, as you can, I didn't change them that much.
Like it or hate it, this is just one guy's opinion. But I do believe that first-game jitters/nerves and rust are both valid reasons for some of last Saturday's miscues. So now it's time to see what kind of improvement last Saturday's Jayhawks can make in time for this Saturday's huge match-up at Rice.