University of Kansas

Veteran KU offensive line determined to protect Crist

LThey stated the mission early in fall camp. And they repeated it on Tuesday, 11 days before the season opener against South Dakota State. The KU offensive line has a cause to rally around, and its name is senior quarterback Dayne Crist.

“These guys have really taken it to heart to keep Dayne Crist healthy,” KU offensive line coach Tim Grunhard said.

There are plenty of reasons why this is obvious, of course. Crist is the key component in a new offensive system installed by first-year coach Charlie Weis. If Crist is on his backside more than a few times a game, the offense won’t be at full tilt. And if Crist is on the sideline — battling injuries as he did in 2009 and 2010 at Notre Dame — that will likely mean disaster.

“Having a guy like Dayne back there,” senior tackle Tanner Hawkinson said, “you know what type of player he is, and the plays that he can make. So obviously, the more time we give him… he’s gonna be making plays.”

But there are also reasons why Crist should feel pretty comfortable. This is not an offensive line unit that is simply clinging to hope after last year’s 2-10 finish. This is a unit that features three fifth-year seniors and a left tackle/left guard duo that has started the last 20 games together on the offensive line.

Hawkinson, a captain, will be a mainstay at left tackle, while seniors Duane Zlatnik (left guard) and Trevor Marrongelli (center) offer stability in a program used to transition for the better part of nine months.

Hawkinson, a McPherson native, and Zlatnik, another Kansas boy from Rossville, will spend their third straight season next to each other on the line.

“It’s not that we know what each other are thinking,” Zlatnik said, “but we know a lot what each other are gonna do. It helps a lot.”

Grunhard admires Hawkinson’s leadership credentials and jokes that Zlatnik is so physical that he must have grew up blocking against cattle.

“He’s got some toughness to him…,” Grunhard said. “He’s wrestling them cows and everything else out there. But the great thing about Duane is, he’s got that toughness, and he’s got that drive. And all three of those fifth-year seniors, they just want to win.”

For now, Hawkinson and Zlatnik are simply trying to make the most of their time in Lawrence. Four years ago, when both were true freshmen, and Mark Mangino was still lumbering around the sidelines, Hawkinson and Zlatnik were roommates at the Jayhawker Towers. Upperclassmen were noticing Hawkinson’s vague resemblance to Will Ferrell, calling him “Jackie Moon” after Ferrell’s washed-up character in the basketball movie “Semi-pro”, and Zlatnik was getting his first round of blank stares when he mentioned his hometown of Rossville.

KU was one season removed from an Orange Bowl victory, and the program would finish off that 2008 season in the Insight Bowl. Four years and three coaches later, Hawkinson and Zlatnik would like to feel what they felt in 2008 — even if they were just contributing on scout team.

This is part of the mind-set that attracted Crist to Lawrence. When Crist made his official campus visit, one of the first things he did was find time to feel out the offensive line unit. If he was going to come to Kansas, he wanted to make sure that he’d be surrounded by protectors that would allow him to do his thing. After a day or so of bonding, Crist came away satisfied.

“Those are my guys,” Crist said. “I can’t do anything without those guys.”

Still, experience doesn’t always translate to success. Last season, the KU line allowed 2.58 sacks per game, a mark that tied with Indiana for 96th in the country. It’s an alarming stat, but perhaps a misleading one. Not every sack can be pinned on the offensive line, and quarterback decision-making can play a part as well.

Doesn’t matter, Zlatnik says. Sacks are sacks. And every time Crist hits the turf, that means one thing.

“We take it as no matter what, it’s our fault,” Zlatnik said. “It’s our job to make sure the quarterback has time to get the ball to the receivers.”

INTO THE FUTURE: Kansas football coach Charlie Weis is generally a man with a plan. And for Weis, this means the Jayhawks’ season-opening game against South Dakota State could take on a little extra significance. The game, Weis says, could set the tone for a program that needs some momentum. “I think we’d better get off to a fast start or we’re going to have a long year,” Weis said. “And I think everyone else wants to look at the 12-game schedule. I want to look at one. I have a one-game schedule, and it’s South Dakota State. It’s been a little while here since we came, and in the first game of the year, we had a very convincing performance, and that’s what my intent is in the opening game.”

COX, CUMMINGS LEADING: Weis said Tuesday that nearly 90 percent of the Jayhawks’ position battles are settled. He won’t release an updated depth chart until next week, but he did say that juco transfer Taylor Cox continues to lead sophomore Brandon Bourbon in the race to be the next running back behind starter Tony Pierson. He also said Michael Cummings is ahead of juco transfer Turner Baty in the backup QB battle. The right side of the offensive line, however, is a little more open. It appears that junior Gavin Howard will likely start at right guard or right tackle, depending on the progress of Riley Spencer or Aslam Sterling at right tackle. If Howard starts at right tackle, junior Randall Dent could slide in at right guard.

INJURY UPDATE: Spencer was back at practice on Tuesday after missing part of fall camp because of a knee injury. Senior transfer linebacker Anthony McDonald was back on the exercise bike during practice as he recovers from an injury. Weis said the staff was taking it slow with McDonald because of his track record of injuries while at Notre Dame. “We want to make sure that when he’s going, he’s a full-go, ready to go, because he only knows one way to play,” Weis said. “He’s one of those guys, tackle to tackle, hit you as hard as (he) could possibly hit you.”

SCHOLARSHIP UPDATE: Weis disclosed Tuesday that he has awarded scholarships to walk-on long snapper Justin Carnes and special-teams contributor Shane Smith. In addition, Weis gave scholarships to walk-ons Ryan Burton and Brandon Hawks after both posted 4.0 GPAs last semester.

MCKINNEY STILL ABSENT: Weis said Tuesday that the program was continuing to wait for juco defensive lineman Ty McKinney to report to campus. For the second straight week, Weis said McKinney was waiting for some class material to be graded at his junior college so he could take his last final. Once he took the final, Weis said, he could report directly to KU.

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