A look at the 2011 Kansas Jayhawks
2010 Recap: I apologize in advance to Kansas fans for bringing up the 2010 season, but it simply has to be done. Turner Gill’s first season as head coach in Lawrence was, to put it mildly, disappointing. To put it honestly, it was a complete disaster. The season started with a home loss to FCS member North Dakota State, and ended with a blowout at the hands of the Jayhawks’ fiercest rival, a 35-7 defeat to Missouri. In between, the high points included a rousing victory over then-ranked Georgia Tech, and a 35-point blitzing in the final quarter of play against Colorado to complete a stunning 28-point comeback win. The low points included a 59-7 drubbing at home to in-state rival Kansas State, a 55-7 beat down in Waco by an underrated Baylor squad, and a frightful offensive performance in Lincoln, which saw the Jayhawks gain just 87 yards against the Huskers.
9/3 McNeese State
9/10 Northern Illinois
9/17 at Georgia Tech
9/ 24 OPEN DATE
10/1 Texas Tech
10/8 at Oklahoma State
10/22 Kansas State
10/29 at Texas
11/5 at Iowa State
11/19 at Texas A&M
11/26 Missouri (@ Arrowhead Stadium, KC, MO)
2011 Offense: The theme with the Kansas offense this year will be youth. Coach Gill will be battling on the offensive side of the field with several experienced, but young, players throughout the starting lineup, as evidenced by the potential to have as few as three seniors on the field as starters. Senior TE Tim Biere, WR Daymond Patterson, and C Jeremiah Hatch will be called upon to lead the unit with more composure than last season, which facing a schedule that now includes Texas and Oklahoma, both absent from last season’s schedule. While the unit returns eight starters, they are eight starters that made it through 2010 as one of the worst offenses in the country, and easily the worst offense in the high-scoring Big 12. The running back crew returns with much experience, as sophomore James Sims looks to pick up where he left off last season, and the addition of highly touted true freshman Darrian Miller should give the running game some speed it seemed to lack last year. The wide receiver core welcomes former quarterback Kale Pick to its group full time, and senior Daymond Patterson will try to become the big play threat that the Jayhawks need him to be. If D.J. Beshears can harness his impressive return game skill to the offense, it might open things up for the running game to be more productive. The receivers on this team did not have a whole lot to work with last year, though, as the offensive line was one of the poorest in the country in protecting the quarterback. But the unit now returns players across the line that have starting experience, starting with three-year starting C Jeremiah Hatch and two-year starting OT Tanner Hawkinson. In order for the Kansas offense to become a productive unit, this offensive line must improve upon their pass protection, as they gave up just slightly more than three sacks per game last season (37 sacks in 12 games), near the bottom of the FBS rankings. In that regards, it really made no difference who was behind center last season, because they were usually running for their collective lives. Sophomore Jordan Webb will try his hand at the starting quarterback position when the season kicks off, but backup senior Quinn Mecham proved that he can make some things happen when given the opportunity, as evidenced by his big performance in the comeback victory against Colorado. The X-factor in the Jayhawk QB race will be true freshman Brock Berglund, the highly touted prospect from Colorado. Berglund is the quarterback of the future, but he might push his way to the starting position as he gives the offense a scrambling QB threat that they currently do not have.
Offensive Most Important Thing: The number one thing that Kansas needs to do on offense is to keep their quarterbacks alive. The offense was never able to get things going, through the air or on the ground, due to the porous offensive line. If the Kansas QB’s are given a chance to make plays, this offense should easily be one of the more improved units in the country. Settling for 17 points a game will not be enough, but this unit has a chance to gel during the season before a rough final two games.
2011 Defense: If the Big 12 has shown anything, it is that a struggling defense rarely gets a break. Kansas faced this reality throughout the season, only holding one conference opponent to less than 28 points, giving up an average of more than 41 points per game against Big 12 foes. Simply put, that will not get it done on any level of football, let alone in this high scoring league. Gone is defensive coordinator Carl Torbush to retirement in a effort to fight back colon cancer, so the addition of a new defensive coordinator is another wrinkle to be thrown into the Jayhawks’ 2011 season. Coupling that with a defense that does return eight starters, but only three of those as seniors, and another year of growing pains could be in the forecast. It starts up front for Kansas, and a familiar theme is emerging with this team. It is all about the quarterback. While the offense needs to protect theirs, the defense needs to get to the one on the opposite side of the field. The Kansas defense ended the season with 14 total sacks in 12 games, and 4.5 of those are gone with Jake Laptad moving on. Looking to pick up the slack will be converted former leading running back to defensive end junior Toben Opurum. At only 6-1 and 240 pounds, Opurum will rely on his outstanding quickness to try to continue the late success that he enjoyed last season. Surrounding Opurum up front will be a bevy of players with experience, even if that experience did not always translate to results. Backing up the defensive line should be the strength of the unit, the linebackers. Enter Buffalo transfer Darius Willis, who had a rocket start to his career until a leg injury forced him out of the season after just two games. With Miller lining up in the middle, returning leading tackler Steven Johnson and previously injured, but promising, Huldon Tharp round out what will certainly be the best position group on the field for the Jayhawks. The secondary was a liability last season, ranking near the very bottom in pass efficiency defense and interceptions, with only seven all season. The moving of Bradley McDougald to safety helped provide some depth, while Isiah Barfield returns having started all 12 games last season. Look for sophomore Keeston Terry, the gem of the 2010 recruiting class, to make a bigger impact this season if he stays healthy.
Defensive Most Important Thing: Amongst the glaring weaknesses Kansas displayed all season on defense, the number one issue that needs to be fixed is the absolute lack of quarterback pressure. Most teams had the ability to sit in the pocket and pick apart the defense, and whether it was Carson Coffman, Brandon Weeden, or Blaine Gabbert, the Jayhawks saw a lot of points go on the scoreboard while they were trying to stop such an occurrence from happening. If Opurum, Miller, and company do not bring massive improvements, it could be another long season for the defense.
2011 Special Teams: Replacing your starting kicker and starting punter are always difficult, but when you couple that with the task of trying to improve the entire team at the same time, it becomes even more of a challenge. The special teams were bad across the board, kicking barely over 50 percent on field goals, allowing 14 yards per punt return, 24 yards per kickoff return, and giving up a whopping five blocked kicks on the season. D.J. Beshears showed that he knows how to handle kickoff return duty (he had a lot of experience doing that last season), and should probably take over punt return duties full time, as well.
Special Teams Most Important Thing: Do your job. Making more than 8 of 14 field goals would be a good start, as well as improving coverage on kicks. For this unit to be considered a success, they need to get back to basics of blocking and tackling. Five blocked kicks is an astonishing number, and the return yardage is bad, but doing the job correctly should allow for a recovery of sorts from this unit.
2011 Predictions: I love making predictions, and I am not nearly as down on Kansas as other people around the country. This team will not be challenging for a bowl game this year, but a year of steady improvement could lead to this team being in position to challenge for six wins in 2012. Home victories over McNeese State and a good Northern Illinois team are critical to Coach Turner Gill and staff in order to show the fans and the team that things are headed in the right direction. In order to be more competitive, the Jayhawks need to have better first halves, as they found themselves out of the game nearly every time in 2010. A winnable home game against a completely overhauled Texas Tech team could put the team at 3-9, which would equal last season. There are lots of question marks surrounding this team, and how they address glaring deficiencies from last season will be the key in determining how the Turner Gill era proceeds. Prediction: 2-10 (W: MSU, NIU)