LAWRENCE — Even four months later, with the Kansas football program basking in the glow of spring optimism, the statistic remains a telling wart from a 1-11 season.
In 2012, Charlie Weis’ first season as coach, the Jayhawks’ receiving corps recorded zero touchdown catches in 12 games. Zero … as in none. As you might expect, Kansas’ passing attack ranked 113th in the country, stumbling to just 147.7 yards per game, and the passing production handcuffed an offense that featured an often-potent rushing attack.
Then came the final day of the season, a 59-10 drubbing at West Virginia. Weis walked slowly back to the locker room after a humbling season, and maybe the idea came to him that day. Or maybe it was a little later. Whatever the case, Weis spent all afternoon watching West Virginia playmaker Tavon Austin carve up the Jayhawks’ defense in the rushing and passing game. Austin, a 5-foot-8 senior, caught four balls for 110 yards and rushed for 77 yards in 12 carries.
And later, when Weis would watch the film, the wheels began to turn. He saw something in Austin, something that reminded him of KU running back Tony Pierson, and he wondered if he’d found his answer to a passing game that could never take flight.
“I think Tony has a lot of similar traits that Tavon does,” Weis said. “Obviously, Tavon is a much more polished receiver at this time, but as I watched that game last year, and watched how he played leading up to that game with him at running back and wide receiver, I said `We have a guy like that, but we don’t utilize him.’ ”
When Kansas took the field for spring practice, Weis put his plan into action. He created a new personnel group that would allow Pierson to play alongside starting running back James Sims, and Pierson has spent the spring getting acclimated to his new hybrid role as a running back and pass-catcher.
“When I’m at the receiver position,” Pierson said, “and I get the ball in my hands, it’s just all vision, and that’s like a running-back role. It’s much easier once the ball gets in my hands.”
Pierson, who arrived on campus as a sinewy speed-demon in 2011, averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season while rushing for 760 yards. On an offense with few explosive athletes, Pierson was a home-run threat whenever he touched the ball. And Weis is hoping that play-making ability translates into the passing game. Pierson finished with 21 receptions for 291 yards last season, but he was mostly limited to catching balls out of the backfield.
This spring, Pierson said that 80 percent of his spring touches were coming in the passing game. And he will get his first chance to showcase his new role during the Jayhawks’ spring game on Saturday.
“I honestly think it’s gonna be like perfect for him,” junior tight end Jimmay Mundine said. “And I’m being dead serious. Because he’s so fast, and you can’t coach speed; you can’t teach speed. Either you got it or you don’t, and he’s got it. So him playing that slot receiver, and putting him up against linebackers, it’s obviously a mismatch.”
Pierson isn’t the only new face in an overhauled passing attack. Junior quarterback Jake Heaps, a transfer from BYU, has taken the reins after sitting out last season. And Heaps has two new options in the passing game. Junior receiver Justin McCay, a Bishop Miege graduate, is eligible after transferring from Oklahoma and sitting out last season. And senior receiver Christian Matthews, who played quarterback in the “Wildcat” formation last season, has spent most of spring running with the first-team offense.
“This year, it’s been up for grabs,” Heaps said. “And you look at a guy like Christian Matthews, I don’t think anybody had him to be projected as the starting guy. I knew what kind of guy he was and how much hard work he put in the offseason.”
Last season, then-senior Kale Pick led the Jayhawks with 26 catches. And the longest passing play of the season was a 51-yard completion to Sims, a running back. It may be obvious to say that those numbers will have to increase in 2013 if the Jayhawks want to make progress. But as the Jayhawks close out spring practice, Heaps is confident he’ll have a reliable target in Pierson.
“He just opens things up so much more,” Heaps said. “When you have a guy who’s so dynamic — he’s scary dynamic. He’s fast, he catches the ball well, and he has the ability … all it takes is for him to catch the ball, make one guy miss, and he’s gone.”