By now, you've surely heard KU football coach Charlie Weis and offensive line coach John Reagan say — on separate occasions — that they have eight offensive linemen that they feel pretty good about at this point in the spring.
With five spots making up an O-line that means the Jayhawks are potentially set with a starter and a back-up at three spots and looking for help at two others.
One of the most important things to remember about KU's new-look offensive line under John Reagan is prototypes need not apply. Sure, Reagan would love to have a 6-foot-6, 340-pound left tackle who moves like a middle linebacker and wreaks havoc like the Incredible Hulk, but that guy is not on the roster. So there's no point in worrying about him.
Reagan's focus is on finding the five best linemen and then finding a way to make them work together up front to protect the quarterback and open holes for the guys in the backfield. If that means they're undersized at one spot or another, Reagan likely won't lose too much sleep over it because his goal is to put the best five guys out there and I can't see him letting anything change that.
With that in mind, let's dive into the math and use a little logic to predict what things might look like as the KU offensive line heads into the final third of spring practice.
Here's a quick guess, in alphabetical order, at the identity of the eight guys Weis and Reagan were talking about followed by how they might fit into the plans:
Brian Beckmann — 6-6, 300-pound Sophomore, Overland Park
Zach Fondal — 6-5, 295-pound Senior, Navarro College
Ngalu Fusimalohi — 6-2, 315-pound Senior, CCSF
Joe Gibson — 6-3, 295-pound RS-Freshman, Rockhurst
Keyon Haughton — 6-2, 300-pound Junior, Georgia Military College
Pat Lewandowski — 6-5, 290-pound Senior, Overland Park
Damon Martin — 6-3, 305-pound Junior, Arlington, Texas
Mike Smithburg — 6-3, 305-pound Senior, Iowa Western
Left Tackle —
This still seems to be a question mark (perhaps the biggest question mark on the team) but it's not necessarily because of a lack of bodies. Fondal and Lewandowski both spent time at left tackle in 2013, but that might not necessarily be a good thing given the struggles KU's O-Line endured last season. It makes sense to suggest and expect that both guys have improved a great deal in the offseason, both in terms of getting stronger and into better physical shape and in terms of their comfort and familiarity with the position. Both were going through things as front-line guys for the first time and although both have good size and athleticism, they definitely need to be more consistent to make a difference at one of the team's most important positions.
Left Guard —
Weis said early this spring that Fusimalohi had emerged as a leader on the line, most likely as one of those lead-by-example-and-raw-energy kind of guys. So it's safe to assume he'll be pencilled into the same spot where he started 12 games a season ago. It seems they may still be searching for Fusimalohi's back-up, but junior Bryan Peters is a name to keep an eye on there. He doesn't have any game experience but he has been in the program for a few years and could be ready to play a role.
In addition to being one of the O-line's most important positions, center is also one of the most intriguing. With two guys with next to no experience battling for playing time, it could come down to whichever guy shows more consistency, even if one of them is a better physical or mental option. The candidates appear to be Gibson, the former walk-on whom former line coach Tim Grunhard and several teammates have talked up quite a bit during the past six months, and juco transfer Haughton, who arrived in January and so impressed Weis early on that the KU coach openly said the young man would play a lot and we'd be writing about him. There might not be two guys on this team who spring ball is more important to.
Right Guard —
Smithburg, who started eight games at right guard in 2013, returns a year old, wiser and stronger and seems to be a likely choice to settle back into this spot for his senior season. Earlier this week I talked to Smithburg about this spring compared to last and although he said it was “just another spring,” he also said it felt weird being considered one of the leaders because of age alone. That's not to say he's not ready for the role. Smithburg's a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn't mind mixing it up and should be much more comfortable in his role now that he has a full year — on the field and in the weight room — under his belt.
Right Tackle —
Martin is one of the more intriguing prospects at this position and he could be a diamond in the rough waiting to be unleashed. Weis said a couple of weeks ago that if Martin was not the team's starting right guard he'd be the team's starting right tackle. Provided the junior from Arlington, Texas, hasn't done anything to back Weis off of that stance, I like him at tackle because of the strength of KU's other guards and Martin's physical strength. Beckmann's young, but he's physical and athletic and might be ready to slide into a back-up role.
Others to remember —
Although they're not here for spring ball, the Jayhawks have a handful of offensive linemen coming this summer who could provide instant depth and seem to have bright futures. They are: Devon Williams — 6-4, 340-pound Junior, Georgia Military College; Apa Visinia — 6-4, 380-pound Freshman, Grandview, Mo.; and Jacob Bragg — 6-4, 305-pound Freshman, Naogdoches, Texas.
Tuesday afternoon marked our second chance this spring to chat with a handful of Kansas University football players and all five offensive position groups were represented.
As the Jayhawks prepared for their ninth practice of the spring, several offensive players discussed the team's progress thus far and the evolution of offensive coordinator John Reagan's new offense.
Here are a few things that caught my ear, while remembering that Saturday morning will be our first chance to actually see some of these players and things in action, so be sure to check the site (or at least this blog) at some point over the weekend for some coverage from that.
• Nothing has been announced and we're probably still a little ways away from a decision, but the confidence that Jake Heaps is carrying himself with these days is impressive. I've been saying that Heaps would win the QB job since December and I still feel that's the case, but hearing him talk about the offense, his confidence, his excitement and the way things have gone this spring make me believe he's the guy. That's not a knock on Montell Cozart, T.J. Millweard or any of the other QBs. More just a read that Heaps has done well this spring and has put himself in a position to enter his senior year as KU's starting quarterback. Time will tell.
• Speaking of Cozart, I got a chance to catch up with him today, too, and the more I talk with the young man, the more I like him. Aside from learning that he's currently going for the Mohawk look at the urging of his mother, Cozart also has become a much more confident quarterback than the guy who stepped onto the field as a wide-eyed freshman in 2013 and had plenty of good moments and a handful of bad ones, as well. Cozart said he's more patient now than ever before and that patience has allowed him to be a better passer. He has more command in the pocket, trusts receivers more and sees the field better.
• If I had to guess today, I'd say Heaps is currently atop the depth chart and Cozart is pencilled in at No. 2. Again, though, that's a guess and that's today. Still lots of time left for the competition to rage on.
• During recent years, the quarterback position at KU has been full of guys who like to have a good time and who have great chemistry and it seems like that's still true. Cozart said he and Heaps have a great relationship and he stressed that all five quarterbacks on KU's roster (Michael Cummings and Jordan Darling included) go out of their way to try to help each other out and push each other, everywhere from the weight room to the practice field. Cozart said the group, including QB coach Ron Powlus, is extremely competitive and during a recent practice they went after each other in a competition that involved throwing 40-yard fade routes into trash cans. It sounds like Powlus had won the competition before that one (an accuracy drill) so the young guys tried to make sure to take care of business in the fade competition. It's that kind of atmosphere that makes guys better and it sounds like these guys are having a lot of fun while pushing each other at the same time.
• It was good to see junior running back Darrian Miller again on Tuesday. He looks good and seems to be in good shape. During the session, Miller was asked if he expected to be able to make it through a full season in 2014 without some sort of off-the-field issue creating problems. His answer was great to hear both from a football standpoint and from the standpoint of hoping the young man is in a good place.
“I know for sure I’ll be here for the whole year," Miller said. "I’m glad I got to leave and go home and take care of that and that was one of the best things. I definitely think I’ll have a good year. I didn’t want to leave the team high and dry, but everyone was understanding and Bourbon did a great job of coming in and taking over and James did a great job of doing what he was doing. So everything worked out”
Asked if it felt like he had been playing catch-up since returning, Miller's response was again rock solid.
“No it didn’t," he said. "Because when we came in coach Reagan came in at the same time and we all just started fresh and hopped on the new offense and we’ve been going from there.”
• Senior offensive lineman Mike Smithburg said it was an odd feeling falling into a leadership role because of his age despite just having been here for one full year now. Smithburg, who likely is one of the eight guys up front that Reagan and KU coach Charlie Weis have said they feel good about, said that role has fallen on the older guys almost by default. That includes him and Ngalu Fusimalohi, whom Weis said had emerged as a leader earlier spring, as well as junior Damon Martin. Smithburg did not divulge which guys were playing where as of this time but said he's been playing inside, which was his expected landing spot. Smithburg said the group has made it a point to make chemistry a priority this spring and they've been doing all kinds of extra things away from the football complex to reach that goal. Not surprisingly, one of their favorite bonding rituals is going out to eat together, most often at 23rd Street Brewery.
• Wide receivers Nick Harwell and Rodriguez Coleman were two of the more popular players available at Tuesday's media session and both said they felt good about the progress KU's receivers have made under first-year WR coach Eric Kiesau. Harwell talked a lot about his path and his progression while at Kansas and had some interesting comments about his role as a leader, both at the position and of the team.
“I guess it came out because of my past performances,” the Miami (Ohio) transfer said. “I didn't go out there with the intent on being a leader. I just wanted to compete with those other guys, try to bring them up with me and basically be a leader off of skill.” Because his career statistics outshine those of all of KU's other receivers combined, Harwell has become a natural front-line guy and does not appear to be shying away from that role.
A few quick thoughts from today's news conference with KU football coach Charlie Weis and a handful of offensive assistant coaches.
The Jayhawks returned to practice for Day No. 5 on Sunday night and are out there for Day No. 6 this afternoon.
We did learn today that we'll get an opportunity to watch practice on April 5, so between that and the spring game on April 12, we'll soon get a lot of live, visual action to go along with what we're hearing.
For now, though, another installment of “What Caught My Ear.”
• Although there remains a long way to go, it seems like the quarterback battle is becoming clear. Weis did not go into detail about who was doing what, but he did say the separation at the position has been easy to spot. The guess here, as it has been all along, is that Jake Heaps, T.J. Millweard and Montell Cozart, in that order, have established themselves as the main contenders in the race.
• Speaking of the offense, I thought it was interesting that Weis pointed out that he is doing his best to stay out of the way during practice and is letting the offense be put in by the offensive coaches. That's not to say he doesn't have input. But his input comes before or after practice, not during. What's more, he said he has spent the better part of his time during practices watching the areas of greatest concern, specifically the offensive line, the wide receivers and the defensive line.
• As is the case with the QB battle, there's a long way to go and a lot of competition still to be had at the RB spot, but Weis said senior Brandon Bourbon has done a nice job of transitioning back into a full-time running back role. Bourbon spent much of last season playing the F position, which primarily was used in the passing game, but he entered the spring as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart and appears to be doing well there.
• Speaking of depth charts, we haven't receive one yet, but Weis said the players are well aware of where they stand.
• Quickly, a few notes about specific players:
--- Weis said sophomore defensive back Greg Allen has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the spring. He's done well behind Kevin Short at nickel back, so well, in fact, that Weis said he would feel comfortable moving Short to cornerback if the need came up.
--- Senior wide receiver Justin McCay is working at the No. 2 spot behind junior Rodriguez Coleman, whom Weis said has been one of the best performers on the offense all spring. A big thing for McCay is learning that he and Coleman are different players and will be asked to do slightly different things. Weis credits wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau for doing a solid job of helping McCay understand that.
--- Senior wide receiver Tony Pierson has taken his first couple of hits this spring in live action and, evidently, responded well. Weis reiterated that he was not going to be careless with Pierson in the spring and that he would have him go through a lot of days with the no-contact rule. But he also said that Pierson getting that first big hit out of the way was good for his mindset and should help him reach a full recovery from his concussion issues much sooner.