If you’re boiling down the Kansas football team into a brief synopsis, the whole thing feels awfully familiar. After a disastrous season, Charlie Weis is counting on a transfer quarterback — a former top recruit at that — and a defense built around a core of junior-college transfers.
Yes, its’ déjà vu all over again for Weis and Kansas, which is attempting to dust itself off after finishing 1-11 overall and 0-9 in the Big 12 last season. Year 1 of the Weis turnaround, featuring transfer Dayne Crist, was largely a flop. But if you go beyond the Cliff’s Notes version for 2013, there are a few reasons for hope.
While quarterback Jake Heaps, the latest marquee transfer, will get plenty of attention in the early season, KU’s most dependable offensive weapon will likely be senior running back James Sims, who ran for more than 1,000 yards in nine games last season. Yes, the Jayhawks will need to field a competent passing attack to make progress in the Big 12, but Sims is the kind of talent that could lead the conference in rushing and climb the career rushing yards list at Kansas. (He currently sits eighth with 2,482 yards.)
In the passing game, Heaps will have to find some reliable targets. The Jayhawks’ receivers infamously recorded zero touchdown catches in 2012, and it wasn’t all on the sub-par quarterback play. Junior Justin McCay, a transfer from Oklahoma, is eligible after sitting out last season, and Weis appears high on senior wideout Christian Matthews and Garden City transfer Rodriguez Coleman, a potential big-play threat.
Beyond the receivers, the Jayhawks are attempting to turn junior speedster Tony Pierson into a dual threat in the run-game and passing attack. Pierson is slight — and can be injury-prone — but his speed can be a difference-maker in games.
On the defensive side, the starting unit is something like an abstract idea. Last year, the KU defense improved (well, sort of) from dead last in Division I (120th) to 113th. Defensive coordinator Dave Campo lost his entire secondary, and many holes have been filed by junior-college players. Three juco transfers, defensive end Marquel Combs, cornerback Kevin Short and nickel back Cassius Sendish, are expected to play major roles, and the Jayhawks are banking on the promise of a bulk of unproven players. Can the defense make major strides? For now, that appears to be a definite maybe.
From a schematic standpoint, the Jayhawks will play a base defense with five defensive backs and attempt to counter the Big 12’s spread-out, tempo-driven offenses.
In the end, significant progress probably rests on the right arm of Heaps. The Jayhawks haven’t had an average Big 12 quarterback under center since Todd Reesing’s final season (that was 2009), and Weis is counting on a major upgrade at the game’s most important position.
Add a decent passing attack to a productive running game, and KU is at least starting somewhere. But can the Jayhawks take a major step forward and snap a 21-game conference losing streak? (Yes, we’d consider that a major step.) The Jayhawks’ Week 2 matchup against Rice could be pivotal. A victory could serve as a springboard, building confidence for the conference season, while a loss could leave KU fans looking to the schedule to find wins.