University of Kansas

Rustin Dodd breaks down the Jayhawks

Before the first spring practice — back in the final week of March — Kansas football coach Charlie Weis boiled down the Jayhawks’ 2012 season to two essential questions.

Can the defense stop anybody? And how good is senior transfer quarterback Dayne Crist?

Nearly five months later, as Weis and the Jayhawks begin their first season together, it’s really no secret: Weis was on to something. Even in retrospect, the numbers from Turner Gill’s two-season tenure are startling.

The Jayhawks finished 5-19 over the last two years — 2-10 in 2011 — and haven’t won a Big 12 game since completing an improbable comeback against Colorado on Nov. 6, 2010.

So that was the bad. Now the ugly: Kansas ranked dead last in total defense among Bowl Subdivision teams in 2011, surrendering more than 516 yards per game.

Put it this way: There’s plenty of room for growth. The program facelift began with Crist, the transfer from Notre Dame who assumed a role as captain just a few months after arriving on campus. For the first time since QB Todd Reesing was a senior in 2009, the Jayhawks will have an unquestioned leader under center — and a quarterback that has a mastery of the offensive system.

Crist should have a capable veteran group of receivers to throw to — senior Daymond Patterson is back after missing last season with injury — and sophomore running back Tony Pierson is a big-play threat on a team that has a scarcity of elite speed. And don’t forget about junior running back James Sims, who will miss the first three games while serving a suspension.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, should be dramatically more stable on the defensive line; transfers Josh Williams, Jordan Tavai and Keon Stowers provide size and athleticism, and juniors John Williams and Keba Agostinho have both put on weight while cutting body fat during the offseason. An improved front four (or three) could provide a positive trickle-down effect to the linebackers and secondary.

But what will it mean on the field?

KU would do well to build some momentum in early September with victories over South Dakota State and Rice in the first two weeks, because it will not get any easier after that. TCU travels to Lawrence on Sept. 15 for its inaugural Big 12 game, and the Jayhawks head on the road to face a dangerous Northern Illinois program on Sept. 22. If KU can find a way to split those two games, the Jayhawks will be 3-1 and Weis will have an open week to prepare for K-State in Manhattan on Oct. 6. And then? A three-week stretch of (gulp) Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas.

This, of course, is life in the Big 12. And it will make Weis’ rebuilding job even tougher. For now, Weis says he may not measure KU’s improvement this season in wins and losses. But he does have a goal for victories — a number that he’s keeping to himself.

For Weis, one of the most discouraging trends from 2011 was the number of blowouts. And this will be Weis’ first mission: Make the Jayhawks competitive. Based on early indications, it appears the Jayhawks are on the right path. But will that path include more than three or four victories? Even Weis must be wondering that.