LAWRENCE — Jake Heaps uses words like speed and pressure. Montell Cozart is talking about tempo. They say the Kansas offense won’t huddle any more, because that would make things easier on the defense.
You hear that a lot, too: The KU quarterbacks want to make life hard on the opposing defense for a change.
Kansas offensive coordinator John Reagan, in his first year on the job, is sitting inside the Anderson Family Football Complex on a March afternoon. Reagan is in the midst of installing his own version of the no-huddle, spread offense at KU this spring, and for now, the process is ongoing. When the Jayhawks take the field this fall, their offense should have a totally different look, feel and shape than it did during head coach Charlie Weis’ first two seasons. But for now, Reagan is sketching the blueprints, testing his materials and piecing together a vision.
It’s his job to make life hard on the defense.
“The biggest thing right now is not to know what the system is going to be exactly (or) what the picture is going to be exactly,” Reagan says. “But really (it’s to) evaluate who can give us the best opportunity to score points, and then build it around those people.”
For Reagan and Weis, the specifics of scheme and strategy are not as important as ensuring improvement and more success. And really, there’s nowhere to go but up.
In 2013, Kansas ranked last in the Big 12 in passing offense, passing efficiency, total offense and scoring. The unit ranked 118th in the country in points. And for the second straight year, it was the same story. The receivers struggled to get open, the offensive line struggled to protect the quarterback, and the offense struggled to run Weis’ pro-style system.
Weis tinkered with various schemes, changing things week to week, hoping to catch opponents off-balance. But in the end, the Jayhawks had a points problem. You can’t win without scoring points, and KU couldn’t score.
These numbers, and the frustration that set in because of them, caused Weis to make a fairly drastic decision after the season. He terminated himself as offensive coordinator. His words.
“I fired the offensive coordinator,” Weis says, smiling.
Enter Reagan, a former KU offensive line coach under Mark Mangino who had spent the previous three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Rice. If Kansas featured the most anemic attack in the Big 12 offense the last two seasons, it’s now Reagan’s job to clean up the mess.
Weis, a long-time NFL offensive coordinator, admits now that the spread-centric world of the Big 12 caught him by surprise. He’s is hopeful now tat Reagan’s spread attack will help KU even the playing field against a cadre of high-powered offenses across the league.
From a distance, the new offensive scheme appears to be a return to the no-huddle, spread offense engineered by offensive coordinator Ed Warinner during Kansas’ back-to-back bowl victories in the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
But Reagan’s offensive influences are a little more eclectic and varied. He played at Syracuse under Paul Pasqualoni in the early 1990s, running an offensive system that featured bits of option, a power running game and a drop-back attack. He was also an assistant coach at Air Force in the early 2000s, working in long-time coach Fisher DeBerry’s triple-option attack.
“I think there’s influences in all those things in what we’re doing,” Reagan said. “And the other part is, I’m not going to tell you too much, because I don’t want it out of the bag.”
For now, specifics have been scarce. Spring practices have been closed to reporters, and Reagan says he’s still sorting through his players’ strengths. But through conversations with players and coaches, a few things have become clear:
Kansas will continue to lean heavily on the running game. Even after the departure of 1,000-yard rusher James Sims, KU returns senior Brandon Bourbon and will add juco running back De’Andre Mann this fall.
The Jayhawks will almost never huddle, and they will rely on their quarterback to make plays with his feet — whether in the option or designed runs.
“We’re not Oregon by any stretch,” says sophomore quarterback T.J. Millweard, who is battling Heaps, a senior, and Cozart, another sophomore, for the starting job. “But we want to keep the defense out there (and) get after them a little bit.”
So if you are into general labels, and you believe that Weis’ scheme, at its base, was a pro-style system. Then you might call this new system, in plain terms, a “college-style” offense.
No-huddle. Spread. Quarterback runs. Quick tempos and simplicity.
“We have like five different tempos,” says Cozart, who saw time at quarterback as a true freshman. “We can speed it up and go 100 miles per hour if we need to, or we can slow it down and still be able to put pressure on the defense.”
The tempo — and the look of the offense — could depend on which quarterback emerges from the three-man competition. Heaps, of course, struggled last season while not getting much protection up front or help from his receivers. But his experience and accuracy appear to have given him an early edge over Cozart and Millweard, who each bring a different skill-set. Cozart is the most explosive athlete of the three, while Millweard — 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds — has a more physical, dual-threat style.
“I think there’s plenty of talent at that position,” Reagan says. “I think that it’s interesting that maybe every one of them brings a different set of talents and a different set up characteristics to it.”
For now, all three are still learning the system. But more than two weeks into spring practice, it’s starting to feel more familiar. The Jayhawks have a new offensive identity, and this one is a lot more spread out.
“This is something, where: This is the system. This is what we do,” Heaps says. “This is how it’s done. So I think it will be a lot more efficient, a lot more fluid. And it allows us to really put pressure on the defense.”