Will Kansas make a bowl this year? It’s been the question since Charlie Weis took over for Turner Gill in 2012. KU chose Weis over then-Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Mahlzan. Apparently they thought a “decided schematic advantage” was better than national championship pedigree. In his two years roaming the infield of Memorial Stadium’s beautiful track facility, Weis has a 4–20 record. By comparison, Gill went 5–19 in his two years. In fairness, three of Weis’ four victories came last season, perhaps a sign of improvement. But if you look under the hood, the picture is a little different.
In Gill’s final season in 2011, the Jayhawks’ offense ranked 100th in the country in points per game, 107th in yards per game and 110th in yards per play1. They also ranked last in most major defensive stats. It couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Well, it has. In 2013, Kansas ranked lower in every category. The defense showed some improvement, but still ranked well below average.
But let’s not cross the Jayhawks off the bowl schedule just yet.
Kansas hired John Reagan as offensive coordinator this offseason to help reverse the trend. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Reagan served as offensive line coach and run game coordinator under Mark Mangino from 2005 to 2009.
That’s right. The dark years.
The year before Reagan arrived for his first stint in Lawrence, the Jayhawks ranked 106th in the nation in yards per rush attempt, averaging just under three. By 2006 he had them up to 18th, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. After averaging 4.7 again in 2007, they fell back to 3.7 in 2008 and averaged just three yards per carry in 2009. The steep drop-off coincided with a drastic decrease in run plays called. In 2006, over 52 percent of KU’s offensive plays were runs. By 2009, it was down to 39 percent.
In 2010, Reagan left Lawrence for Houston where he became the offensive coordinator of the Rice Owls. There, he led the Owls from averaging 3.2 yards per carry in 2009 to 4.6 by 2013. Last season Rice ran the ball over 64 percent of the time. This shouldn’t require much of a play-calling adjustment for a Jayhawk offense that has focused on the run the past few seasons with four-year starter James Sims. Sims averaged 4.8 yards per carry and rushed for 1,110 yards in 2013. That kind of production won’t be easy to replace.
The spring depth chart shows senior Brandon Bourbon listed as the starter, but things might look different by the time the leaves change in Lawrence. Behind Bourbon is senior Taylor Cox who missed all but two games last season due to injury. Joining them in summer are junior college transfer De’Andre Mann and freshmen Traevohn Wrench and Corey Avery. Mann comes to KU after rushing for nearly 1,100 yards and averaging 5.6 per carry last season at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif. Wrench comes in as a four-star recruit from Gardner Edgerton and Avery ranked as a three-star from Carter High in Dallas. If Weis gives Reagan free reign over the offense, the Jayhawks might manage to scrape a reasonable running game from that pile of talent.
To succeed though, the backs will need holes to run through. Like most other position groups on the team, the offensive line is full of questions. As the summer progresses and Reagan has more time to work with the players, the starting five could change considerably. Senior Ngalu Fusimalohi might have the most secure job on the line at left guard. Senior Pat Lewandowski tops the spring depth chart at left tackle with senior Mike Smithburg and sophomore Damon Martin holding down the right side. Junior Keyon Haughton completes the line at center.
The running game could get another boost if Kansas can develop a serviceable passing attack. Over the past few years, the Jayhawks have hinged a lot of their hopes of aerial success on receiver Tony Pierson. For all his promise though, Pierson can’t seem to stay off the injury report. With the addition of former Miami Redhawk Nick Harwell, KU will have some insurance against disaster if Pierson again goes down. Harwell sat out last season after transferring and has one year left to play. Harwell had 229 catches for 3,166 yards in three years with Miami. If Pierson makes it through the whole year, the duo could lead a massive turnaround of a unit considered among the worst in the conference last season.
But neither Pierson or Harwell can do anything if no one gets them the ball. After sophomore Montell Cozart won the starting quarterback job in sping, senior Jake Heaps decided to transfer. Cozart finished last season as the starter, but his numbers were less than spectacular. He completed less than 37 percent of his passes and is yet to record his first career touchdown pass. Reagan’s system should allow for Cozart to create with his legs, but unless he can find a way to get the ball out to his other dynamic playmakers, Kansas will be in for a long season.
For all the questions on offense, the Jayhawk defense looks solid. Senior linebacker Ben Heeney leads the unit and will look to improve from second team All-Big 12 honors last season. Junior Jake Love joins Heeney as a lock to start, holding down the weak side. The buck linebacker seems still up for grabs. The spring depth chart shows senior Michael Reynolds in the slot, but expect there to be some competition through the summer.
The defensive line consists of sophomore Ben Goodman, junior Andrew Bolton and senior Keon Stowers. The lack of depth behind those three is a concern, but if they stay healthy, they could cause problems for Big 12 offensive lines.
Kansas’ biggest potential for defensive improvement lies in their secondary. Led by seniors Dexter McDonald, JaCorey Shepard and Cassius Sendish, the defensive backfield could be the surprise of the Big 12 in 2014. Isaiah Johnson returns as strong safety and nickel corner Kevin Short shined all through the spring. Our good friend Warden11 from Rock Chalk Talk tells me Short is perhaps one of the best athletes on the team. With newly promoted defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, the Jayhawks might just hold their own. It won’t be easy in a conference with some of the most powerful offenses in college football.
Despite the promising defense, all nine BOTC staffers picked the ‘Cats to beat KU in Manhattan on November 29. The offensive questions and the track record of Charlie Weis are just too glaring to overlook. KU might catch some teams off balance with their improved defense, but it’s still a long climb if they hope to go bowling.
1. All rankings come from TeamRankings.com, which includes data ONLY from games involving two FBS schools.