LAWRENCE — When former Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins hired Turner Gill in Dec. 2009, one of Gill's top selling points was the staff he'd put together, starting with experienced coordinators like Chuck Long on offense and Carl Torbush on defense.
Torbush is no longer a part of the program, having retired in May to fight low-grade prostate cancer. That leaves Long, who coordinated the prolific Oklahoma offense during 2002-05 but has struggled to recreate that success as the head coach at San Diego State during 2006-08 and last season at KU. At San Diego State, Long's offenses finished 108th, 73rd and 99th nationally in total yards, while the Jayhawks came in at 113th in a frustrating 2010 campaign.
There were plenty of reasons for the falloff at Kansas. Long inherited new starters at quarterback and running back, and KU lost the two most productive wide receivers in school history in Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier. Offensive tackle Jeff Spikes, a two-year starter, missed the season with an ACL injury. Throw in a new coaching staff, and last year was destined to be a learning experience for everyone.
Long says he's more comfortable with his offense entering year two.
"Much more," Long said. "We just didn't know anybody, what they could do. We had to actually get into games to find out. This year with some games under our belt and more practice, we have a better idea going into the season. Right now, it's night and day really as far as what we know about them."
During fall camp, Long has preached balance. He wants Kansas to run the ball 60 percent of the time, and, when KU elects to pass, he wants the quarterback — likely redshirt sophomore Jordan Webb — to use all of his targets.
"If you study offensive football over time, good running games and spreading the ball around in the passing game is what wins for you," Long said. "That's what we want."
Long says that the KU offense's performance in last year's thrilling comeback victory over Colorado would be the closest thing to a blueprint for how he wants the Jayhawks to look this season.
"We stuck to our guns in that game," Long said. "We got down fast. We got down in other games but tried to have to throw to come back. That alters your game plan. In that game, we stayed with it. It wasn't a 50(-pass)-attempt game. We managed to run the ball very well even when behind."
Against the Buffaloes, KU ran 44 times for 201 yards and passed 28 times for 252. KU running back James Sims, then a freshman, had 20 carries for 123 yards and four touchdowns.
If the Jayhawks are going to be a run-oriented team in 2011, it's looking more and more likely that Sims will be doing much of the work. Long is quick to use the word committee when talking about his backs, but it's clear he likes Sims' total package.
"He's not a burner, but he has very deceptive, powerful speed," Long said. "He stays on the field because he can pass protect. He's one of those guys, he's going to be tough to beat out."
Long also likes the range of options he has at receiver, where Kale Pick and D.J. Besmears have stood out in camp. Like at most positions, freshmen — JaCorey Shepherd and Marquis Jackson — are pushing the upperclassmen.
That competition is the main reason Long foresees improvement.
"We're getting there," Long said. "We think we're gonna get there. Obviously, quick. We have a good group there to spread it around with."