Kansas: Beyond the Box Score Offensive Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

Heading into the 2007 season, Kansas was a team full of unknown newcomers and players playing key new roles.  An unheralded sophomore took over at quarterback, they had to replace a big-time runner in Jon Cornish at running back, and by the end of the season their three top receivers were a career underachiever (Marcus Henry had 50 career catches his first three seasons), a freshman, and a converted quarterback.  And with Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech off the schedule, they went 12-1.  (Perhaps you remember the one loss?)  I say this not because I'm telling you Kansas is going to make a similar run in 2010; instead, I bring this up simply for those completely writing Kansas off.  They've got as favorable a schedule as anybody in the North, and their recruiting has improved to the point that those taking over key roles in 2010 were more highly-touted than those doing the deed in 2007.  They might not win big in 2010 (in fact, they PROBABLY won't win big), but they can't be completely counted out.

My Football Outsiders projections tabbed them a Top 50 team (I thought this was a bit outlandish, but then the Sporting News went and picked them at No. 30 or something), and while they've got serious questions to answer, the foundation for Kansas football is in much better shape than it was not very long ago.  And if it turns out I am very incorrect in saying this, I will somehow try to live with the disappointment.

2009

Record: 5-7 (1-7)
F/+: 60th
S&P+: 55th
Scoring Margin: +12 (+1.0 per game)
Conference Scoring Margin: -96 (-12.0 per game)
Wins (F/+ Ranking in parentheses): #67 Southern Miss (35-28), #82 Iowa State (41-36), #86 Duke (44-16), #93 UTEP (34-7), Northern Colorado (49-3)
Losses: #5 Texas (20-51), #10 Oklahoma (13-35), #17 Nebraska (17-31), #22 Texas Tech (21-42), #54 Missouri (39-41), #79 Colorado (30-34), #90 Kansas State (10-17)

The 2009 season for Kansas was Mizzou's 2004 season on steroids.  In 2004, Mizzou was given a shot at winning the North (K-State was still the favorite, I believe) but blew a series of opportunities and were denied bowl eligibility by a killer five-game losing streak, one that culminated in an inexcusable home loss to Kansas.  In 2009, Kansas was one of two North teams ranked in the pre-season (they were 25th, Nebraska was 24th).  They began the season 5-0 and reached 14th in the AP Poll.  Cracks were showing (they beat Southern Miss by just 7, Iowa State by 6, both at home), but they were winning.  Then they fell apart.  They lost by 4 at Colorado.  They got drilled at home by Oklahoma (a game that included one of the most egregious pick sixes I've ever seen -- Todd Reesing telegraphed a pass so badly that the OU cornerback wasn't even hardly breaking on the ball when he picked it off, he was standing there waiting for it).  They got lit up by Texas Tech, in more ways than one...

...thought you might enjoy that.  Anyway, the hits kept coming.  The losing streak reached four with a 14-point defeat at the hands of Nebraska on Senior Day in Lawrence.  They went to Austin and got crushed by Texas.  Then, with bowl eligibility on the line at Arrowhead, they blew a late lead, gave up Sod Reesing II, then gave up the game as time expired.  In the final game for Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier, Dezmon Briscoe, etc., Kansas lost to Mizzou, 41-39, and Kansas finished 5-7.  Oh yeah, and then Mark Mangino was fired for player abuse (and, let's face it, on-field underachievement ... that simply had to play at least a small role in the firing).

Twelve months ago, the Kansas football program a coach they were probably keeping for another decade, and they were looking at creating some major fireworks and another historical season.  Now, they are almost starting from scratch.  They will be breaking in a new coaching staff, new quarterback, new receivers, and, as we'll see tomorrow, a mostly new defense as well.  Mark Mangino left Turner Gill a decent amount of talent and athleticism, infinitely more than Terry Allen left him almost a decade ago.  What's Kansas' ceiling under Gill?  And how long will it take him to reach it?

Coaching

Head Coach: Turner Gill
Career Record: 20-30

First things first: Turner Gill is potentially the best 40% winning percentage coach ever.  After serving as an assistant at Nebraska for 13 seasons (QB coach 1992-03, WR coach 2004) and as Director of Player Development for the Green Bay Packers for a year, Gill took over one of the most thankless jobs in the country before the 2006 season.  He began his head coaching career at the University of Buffalo.  The Bulls were as hopeless as any FBS program could be.  Since moving back to the FBS level in 1999, they had gone a ridiculous 10-69.  Their best record: 3-8 in 2001.  They were undermanned, underfunded, and underwhelming.  And to be sure, it took Gill a while to get things going.  It would have taken Vince Lombardi a while to get things going.  (Especially because he's dead ... but I digress.)  Buffalo went just 2-10 in 2006, with a -211 point differential.  Amazingly, that was improvement -- they had gone 1-10 and -217 the year before.  In 2007, the Bulls took a more definitive step forward.  They went 5-7 (-40) and, more importantly, 5-3 in the MAC.

In 2008 came yet another step forward.  The Bulls went 8-6 (+29), not only making the MAC championship game, but pulling an upset of undefeated Ball State and making the International Bowl.  As we covered when discussing Iowa State, they forced more fumbles than anybody in the past eight seasons, and that level of positivity with bouncing balls is unsustainable.  Having to replace quite a bit of the personnel that led them to the MAC title (and not getting nearly as many lucky bounces), Buffalo took a predictable step backwards in 2009.  They went just 5-7 but were still quite competitive. They had a +4 point differential despite a schedule that included six teams with winning records, and lost five games by a touchdown or less.  They were 0-6 against teams with winning records, 5-1 against teams with losing records.  In other words, they were competitive, and they were likely ready to take another step forward in 2010.

Gill's Bulls played like you figure Kansas will under Gill -- poised, under control, and technically sound.  They were not especially talented, even at the MAC level (just like Kansas will have, at best, middle-of-the-road talent in the Big 12), but they did not beat themselves; and if the other team made mistakes, they were ready to capitalize.  As with Paul Rhoads and Iowa State, I see Gill's Kansas teams as a) salty and never an easy out, and b) extremely beatable if you play well.  That's a large assumption to make about a coach who is currently undefeated, but that's my initial guess.

One more note: Gill brought in Chuck Long as offensive coordinator.  It's an interesting hire.  Long was successful as OC at Oklahoma, but a) he was dealing with deep, top-level talent in Norman, and b) his replacement, Kevin Wilson, has done as good or better with the same level of talent.  It's hard to imagine how Long will do in Lawrence, but he's got some level of experience, both with the position itself and with the coaches in the Big 12.

Offense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 42nd

S&P+: 31st
Success Rate+: 26th
PPP+: 37th

Standard Downs S&P+: 20th
Passing Downs S&P+: 22nd

Redzone S&P+: 28th

Q1 S&P+: 55th
Q2 S&P+: 29th
Q3 S&P+: 4th
Q4 S&P+:12th

1st Down S&P+: 17th
2nd Down S&P+: 35th
3rd Down S&P+: 16th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 48th
Rushing SR+: 36th
Rushing PPP+: 64th

Standard Downs: 31st
Passing Downs: 9th

Redzone: 21st

Adj. Line Yards: 65th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 32nd
Passing SR+: 22nd
Passing PPP+: 42nd

Standard Downs: 27th
Passing Downs: 31st

Redzone: 40th

Adj. Sack Rate: 63rd
SD Sack Rate: 47th
PD Sack Rate: 79th


While the Reesing-Briscoe-Meier-Sharp offense was still strong at times (especially against Missouri), they were extremely inconsistent in 2009.  They were hampered by slow starts for the most part, performing at their worst, by far, in the first quarter.  They scored only 61 points in the first quarter all season, compared to 122 in the second quarter, 72 in the third, and 98 in the fourth.  They improved as the game wore on (and thankfully, their first quarter defense was strong), but the poor starts did their share of damage.  A young line that was supposed to be a weakness was ... we'll say it was thoroughly average.  They struggled handling blitzes, something likely not helped by the fact that a freshman was their leading rusher (and therefore not as experienced a pass blocker).  They got quite a few of their rushing yards on passing downs (not a great recipe for success), and as strange as it may seem, their big-play production did not rate not as high as one would think.  In the end, this was a solid offense, but it was not as good as advertised.  Given the new blood, of course, none of this probably matters much.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 64 35 19 42
S&P+ 86 64 39 19 31
Success Rate+ 90 67 40 16 26
PPP+ 82 61 41 28 37
Rushing S&P+ 81 40 35 21 48
Passing S&P+ 77 82 41 25 32
Standard Downs S&P+ 84 46 30 33 20
Passing Downs S&P+ 60 91 54 16 22
Adj. Line Yards 86 54 10 19 65
Adj. Sack Rate 56 70 101 58 63
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

Pretty easy to spot the Reesing Leap in there, isn't it?  Kansas never had a Top 15 offense under Reesing, but the leap they made, from ranking in the 60s-90s in most categories to 10s-30s, was damn impressive.  Not get-your-own-biography-already impressive, but impressive nonetheless.

Quarterback

2009 Unit Ranking: 33rd (5th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Kale Pick (6'1, 208, So., 4-for-5 passing, 22 yards)
Jordan Webb (6'0, 210, RSFr.)
Quinn Mecham (6'2, 207, Jr.)

Really, this was a perfect time for Kansas to change coaches.  So much of the team's identity was going to change anyway this season that changing from Mangino to Gill allows for a clean break with the past.  Things start anew in Lawrence, and nowhere is that more evident than at the quarterback position.  Kale Pick (likely) takes over for Reesing this season.  A three-star signee from Dodge City, Pick has been the most poised and consistent of the quarterback candidates in the spring and so far this fall*, and that appears to be what Turner Gill values most.  (Not that that is a Gill-specific preference, of course.)  Pick's main goal will be to avoid killer mistakes and live to fight another day series of downs.

* I do enjoy that we call early-August "fall" when it pertains to football.  Wishful thinking, of course, but still.  Helmets = autumn, apparently.

It will be interesting to watch the career path of Jordan Webb.  Webb was the No. 9 player in the state of Missouri during the 2009 recruiting year and seemed to wait around for a Mizzou offer for at least a little while (Mizzou was his team growing up), but with Mizzou nabbing Blaine Dalton, Webb went west.

Running Backs

2009 Unit Ranking: 60th (7th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Toben Opurum (6'1, 240, So., 554 rushing yds, 4.2 per carry, 9 TD; 105 receiving yds, 8.1 per catch, 1 TD)
Rell Lewis (5'9, 205, Jr., 72 rushing yds, 5.5 per carry; 40 receiving yds)
Deshaun Sands (5'7, 190, RSFr.)
Brandon Bourbon (6'1, 208, Fr.)

The running back position is a very intriguing one for the Jayhawks.  They have quite a few potential options, coming in all different shapes and sizes.  Toben Opurum is an efficient back, but is the exact opposite of explosive.  He was solid last season, especially for a freshman, but a high number of carries is far from assured.  Behind him are some smaller, quicker options.  Rell Lewis didn't see much playing time last year, but he showed solid burst in taking a dump-off pass for 40 yards against Missouri.  He's more solidly-built than another option, Deshaun Sands.  Recognize that name?  Yeah, he's Tony Sands' son.  I get heartburn just typing the words "Tony" and "Sands" back to back.  Sands has made at least a little noise this offseason and will probably get some carries at some point.

Another option is another young Missourian.  Potosi's Brandon Bourbon was one of two four-star Missourians in Gill's first recruiting class.  He possessed a very nice mix of speed and power at the high school level.

Any number of these players could take the lead in the Kansas backfield this year.  The smart money, I guess, is on the incumbent, but he has his work cut out for him.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

2009 Unit Ranking: 30th (5th in the Big 12)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Johnathan Wilson (6'2, 190, Sr., 449 receiving yds, 12.8 per catch)
Bradley McDougald (6'1, 195, So., 318 receiving yds, 9.6 per catch)
Daymond Patterson (5'9, 173, Jr., 27.5 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PBU)
D.J. Beshears (5'8, 174, So.)
Chris Omigie (6'4, 194, RSFr.)
Tertavian Ingram (5'11, 205, Sr., 27 receiving yds, 1 TD)
Keeston Terry (6'2, 185, Fr.)
Roderick Harris (6'0, 211, Jr.)
Chase Knighton (5'11, 184, So.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Tim Biere (6'4, 260, Jr., 183 receiving yds, 13.1 per catch)
A.J. Steward (6'3, 233, Jr.)
Bradley Dedeaux (6'3, 252, Sr.)

Note to those wanting to write off the Kansas passing game because of the absence of Briscoe and Meier: don't.  Nobody in this receiving corps is likely to win all-conference honors by any means, but there is depth of talent from a recruiting perspective.  John Wilson has served as a very solid third option for a couple of seasons, and he will be joined by a couple of high-potential guys.  Bradley McDougald was one of the stars of KU's 2009 recruiting class, and Daymond Patterson was the same in 2008.  McDougald was mostly a return threat last season, while Patterson was a cornerback.  Both are strong athletes and could add a nice, quick underneath option.

And since we've brought up Missourians at QB and RB, we should probably acknowledge Keeston Terry's presence at WR.  One mid-December rumor had Terry wavering on his Kansas commitment and visiting Mizzou with the intention of committing if they had a spot for him; they did not.  Whether the rumor is true or not, Terry stuck with his Kansas pledge and combines with McDougald to give them two four-star options.  It will obviously be difficult to replicate the Briscoe-Meier combo this year, but Kansas doesn't necessarily have to, at least not with just two guys.  Wilson, McDougald, Patterson, Terry, and one or two others could combine to make for a relatively dangerous unit.  Throw Tim Biere in at tight end, and Kale Pick has some intriguing options.  Make no mistake: long-term, I'd rather have Missouri's receiving corps than Kansas', but this is a solid one.

Offensive Line

2009 Unit Ranking: 48th (7th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
T Tanner Hawkinson (6'6, 293, So., 12 career starts)
T Jeff Spikes (6'6, 325, Jr., 23 career starts)
C Jeremiah Hatch (6'3, 332, Jr., 24 career starts)
G Brad Thorson (6'5, 310, Sr., 12 career starts)
G Sal Capra (6'2, 295, Sr., 12 career starts)
G Trevor Marrongelli (6'2, 293, So., 2 career starts)
T Duane Zlatnick (6'4, 326, So.)
T Riley Spencer (6'7, 300, RSFr.)
C Alex Smith (5'11, 266, Sr.)
G Carl Wilson (6'3, 302, Sr.)

The upside of dealing with a season of youth: the next season is one of experience.  The offensive line was expected to be the biggest weakness on the Kansas offense last year, and depending on how you view the output of the RBs, it quite possibly was.  But in the process of fighting through the inexperience and mistakes, Kansas racked up the career starts.  Now they're returning four starters -- it should have been five, but Jeff Spikes injured his Achilles and will miss the season.  Even without Spikes, though, the Jayhawks return a healthy 60 career starts and should at least marginally improve on last year's mid-60s sack and run-blocking rankings.  Tanner Hawkinson was a Freshman All-American last season, and while that is sometimes a misleading honor (it doesn't necessarily mean you were good, especially on the line -- it just means you were better than whatever other freshmen were starting and probably struggling just like you), it does appear that he is one of the better tackles in the conference, and Jeremiah Hatch is one of the better centers.  Again, give me Elvis Fisher and Tim Barnes instead, but still ... decent unit here.

Summary

Again, with Kansas counting on not only new on-field personnel, but also a new coaching staff, it would be silly to make far-reaching conclusions about this unit in either direction, good or bad.  Instead of saying positive or negative things to summarize Kansas' offense, I'll just say they're interesting.  Just about every skill position of importance (Wilson and maybe Opurum aside) need reps, but guys like Pick, Lewis, (gulp) Sands, Bourbon, McDougald, and Patterson are intriguing. Whether they begin reaching their potential this year, or whether it takes a year, there is no question that Gill and Chuck Long have more to work with than Mangino and staff did when they arrived.

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