LAWRENCE — Late on Saturday night, after Kansas’ 23-14 loss to Rice, Charlie Weis ambled to the back of the team plane to check on quarterback Jake Heaps. It was a rare move for the veteran coach, who prefers to let players sulk in isolation after tough defeats. But this loss — the Jayhawks’ 20th straight on the road — felt different, so Weis felt compelled to deliver an in-flight message of resiliency.
“This was different than any loss we’ve had here because the guys went there expecting to win,” Weis said. “It was definitely different.”
This was compassionate Charlie. And it lasted about as long as the flight back to Lawrence.
By Tuesday afternoon, Weis was back to his blunt self, shaking up the KU offense with a wide overhaul of the receiving corps. After averaging 140 passing yards in two games and scoring 14 points against Rice, Weis is trying to reinvigorate an air attack that has been afflicted by an outbreak of dropped passes by nearly every starting receiver.
Rodriguez Coleman, a junior-college transfer, replaced Justin McCay at one starting spot, while sophomore Tre’ Parmalee moved ahead of senior Josh Ford at the other. Meantime, junior tight end Trent Smiley will start over junior Jimmay Mundine. The changes, Weis said, had just as much to do with the receivers’ ability to get open as the drops.
After two games, it’s not exactly a panic-driven shuffle. But it was clearly time to look for more reliable targets for Heaps — even if that meant going with newcomers who are still learning the ropes.
“Rodriguez is probably getting force-fed before he’s really ready to be No. 1,” Weis said. “(But) we need to get better. And we can’t win games scoring 14 points. That’s just not going to be good enough.”
The offensive changes, which also included senior Riley Spencer taking over for junior Zach Fondal at right tackle, come as the Jayhawks hope to rebound against Louisiana Tech (1-2) on Saturday in Lawrence.
Louisiana Tech, led by first-year coach Skip Holtz, is coming off a home loss against Tulane — a program that finished 2-10 last season. For a KU team that hasn’t beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in 22 games, dating back to a victory over Northern Illinois in September 2010, it’s certainly an attractive matchup. Like Kansas, Louisiana Tech is in the midst of rebuilding job under a new coach who once graduated from Notre Dame.
“They are probably in a very similar situation as us,” Holtz said of KU during his weekly news conference on Monday. “They are trying to all get on the same page, and get it all to gel and become a big melting pot and come together.”
For Kansas, that melting pot included eight new starters on defense and nearly 20 junior-college newcomers. Junior-college recruits, of course, have a history of being a mixed bag. And that’s been the case for KU. In the secondary, junior-college transfers Isaiah Johnson, Cassius Sendish and cornerback Dexter McDonald have sparked a resurgent pass defense.
In other areas, the junior-college impact has been limited. On Tuesday, Weis announced that defensive tackle Marquel Combs probably would redshirt this season, joining a list of transfers who will sit out this year. Weis said the redshirts were part of the plan, stating that it’s easier on recruiting if you begin to balance out the classes.
Aside from some standout defensive performers, it’s been difficult to find positives after a 1-1 start. The offense has been plagued by drops, and nothing has felt smooth. But on Tuesday, as Weis sorted through a list of fixes, he offered one that encapsulated the issues with KU’s offense.
“(Last year) I couldn’t sit there and identify dropped balls as a problem, because a lot of the balls weren’t close enough to be caught,” Weis said. “But now the ball is getting to the right spot most of the time. We just need to do a better job throwing and catching, because we’ll always be able to run the ball. The thing is, we need to be able to throw to score.”
Combs likely to redshirt — Defensive tackle Marquel Combs, one of the prized assets of Weis’ deep junior-college recruiting class, will likely redshirt this season, Weis said Tuesday.
Combs, who didn’t play in KU’s first two games, arrived on campus this summer as the top-rated junior-college player in the country, according to ESPN’s rankings. Outfitted with a gregarious and charming personality, Combs spent most of the last year touting KU’s “Dream Team” junior-college class on Twitter and other social media. He began fall camp atop the depth chart at defensive end, but was soon passed by incumbent Kevin Young and switched to defensive tackle.
Combs then slipped below fellow juco transfers Ty McKinney and Tedarian Johnson in the defensive line pecking order. Weis, meanwhile, said he’d always planned on redshirting close to a third of his junior-college class. Andrew Bolton, another junior-college lineman, is already redshirting, a move designed to give him more time to recover from a knee injury suffered last season.
McKinney and Johnson, while not as highly rated as Combs, arrived in the spring and had the opportunity to participate in spring ball.
“Everyone was more enamored with the names and we’re more enamored with what’s best for the program,” Weis said. “And in our case, I think McKinney and Tedarian being here a semester earlier has them way ahead, whereas we think Combs and Bolton have huge upsides.”
Cox also a redshirt candidate — It’s looking more and more likely that senior running back Taylor Cox will take a medical redshirt after battling a nagging hamstring and groin injury during the first two weeks. Cox didn’t play Saturday after missing part of the week because of a death in the family, but the hamstring injury continues to be a concern.
From a numbers perspective, the redshirt would make sense. Cox is currently behind senior starter James Sims on the depth chart, and sophomore running back Darrian Miller looked solid in KU’s opener against South Dakota. Cox, meanwhile, is the only one of KU’s top five running backs with a redshirt year remaining. He played against South Dakota in the Jayhawks’ opener but would still qualify as a medical redshirt.
“If it doesn’t get better, we’re gonna look to medical-redshirt Taylor,” Weis said, adding: “That’s the direction we’re heading right now.”