Four games into the 2008 football season the Kansas Jayhawks sit 3-1 heading into conference play with the only loss coming against a top 20 team on the road. Fans and media alike have been analyzing the struggles on offense and defense all the while expecting this team would be as able to perform similar to its 2007 version that finished 12-1 with an Orange Bowl Championship. At the beginning of the season confidence was high Coach Mangino could replace those lost in the offseason to the NFL and graduation. However with 2008 not looking quite like the next edition of 2007, it begs the question how much have the Jayhawks lost and what has and can be found?
Jump into the post for a breakdown...
First off the defensive All American and first round draft choice Aqib Talib. Talib brought more than great play to the field for the Jayhawks he was the swagger, in his words he was our Deion. The defensive secondary and the entire defense rallied around this guy and he made big plays for them to rally around. He brought size, athleticism and toughness to a position on the field that demands excellence. Most expected we couldn't replace his production on the field but in terms of his leadership candidates seemed primed to pick up the reigns unfortunately it was this leadership that we have lost. Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera, Darrell Stuckey are all defenders the team seemed to look to for leadership and appeared could deliver. The season is young and these three have all the opportunity in the world to live up to the expectation, but to date only Darrell Stuckey has had flashes of dominance and swagger that Talib represented for this team. What we have found is very easy to spot. Chris Harris was a pleasant surprise last year and continues to develop into a solid corner this year. As the overall defense improves, he will be an All Conference corner in some fashion by the end of his career. Harris will help to offset the loss of Aqib Talib not because he is a direct replacement but because in his short time he has shown the ability and consistency to be a major contributor like Talib was.
James McClinton while not drafted to the league was a huge loss for this team. McClinton had a mean streak about him and raised hell on the interior of the defensive line last year. Pass rush has been a major issue this year and it wasn't exactly a strong suit last year but McClinton was big in disrupting the run and creating pressure on the quarterback on a more consistent level than we are seeing. His uncanny ability to do more with less is what we have lost with his departure from the defensive line unit. What we may have found to offset this loss is still sought after. From a pure talent perspective Coach Mangino would appear to have found a deeper and more talented pool of defensive lineman but he hasn't found a way yet to compensate for the want to and experience of one James McClinton.
Moving to the offensive side of the ball there is an obvious loss at the left tackle position with the early departure of Anthony Collins. Comments made in the offseason have indicated Collins may not have been the best teammate, or hardest worker, but he was pretty darn talented and that is lost. The saying goes you don't know what you've got till it's gone and Anthony Collins made it very easy to assume the run game and solid pass protection would live on infinitely in Lawrence. Found stepping into the role is Jeff Spikes. Spikes is no slouch in terms of talent, and by all accounts he is the model of hard work and an excellent teammate, but sometimes you have to crawl before you can walk. The fact of the matter is Spikes just doesn't have the experience yet. He needs time to develop his skills and make mistakes to get through the growing pains so his talent can reach its full potential. Coach Mangino is very high on this kid and trust in the coach that can get Kansas to the Orange Bowl.
Another loss on offense is Marcus Henry and the reason is somewhat of a surprise. No doubt we have an amazing receiving corps, but lost with Marcus Henry was a complete receiver and a team player. Simply put he believed in throwing a block, a concept not every receiver buys into. The loss has been exaggerated a bit by the injury of Dexton Fields but it is clear the trio of Wilson, Briscoe and Patterson haven't exactly blown Coach over with their blocking skills. Found in all this however is that same trio. Throw Kerry Meier the nation’s leading receiver in the mix and you've got an arsenal of weapons at receiver and if they buy into the system and the concept of blocking Kansas will be in a great spot at the receiver position.
Brandon McAnderson represents probably the biggest loss statistically speaking to date. None of the current running backs on the roster have shown anywhere near the knack for finding and hitting the holes in the Jayhawks running offense. Lost here is the patience and experience of five years in a program waiting his turn. Brandon McAnderson was virtually invisible his first four years but the big bruising back busted on to the scene in a big way in year number five. A guy who worked hard and persevered in some dark times at Kansas had the patience and experience to make this a position of strength in 2007. What have the Jayhawks found? Nothing yet. Jake Sharp can't create for himself behind an offensive line struggling to find its way. Crawford is going to need a little more time to adjust to the division one level, and our most promising so far Angus Quigley has seen little action in his first 4 years with the program due to injury. Food for thought with this apparent setback is that every other loss on the offensive side of the ball contributes directly to the success of the Jayhawk running game so with improvement everywhere else this will fall into place.
Finally what could be argued as our biggest loss Derek Fine. What the Jayhawks lost in his departure was a dual threat tight end. Fine was a complete player he could block with the best of them and he could get out and catch a pass. He helped bolster the running game and he kept defenses honest with his ability as a receiver. The tight end position in our offense this year has been relegated primarily to an extra blocker on running plays. Opponents could with reasonable success assume run every time we bring an end in tight. Not many saw this one coming but the Jayhawks lack of depth at the position left them very vulnerable to being hurt by this departure. Found is depth for the future. Derek Fines success at Kansas has afforded the team a better opportunity to sell in recruiting and it has paid off. Tim Biere is already seeing the field and with Tanner Hawkinson and Nick Plato waiting in the wings Kansas has a young talented group that may well develop into as productive a tight end group as Kansas has ever seen. The future looks bright at tight end, but Derek Fine has and will continue to be sorely missed in 2008.
Like many, I felt confident about our ability to replace these six key players in our 2007 success. I knew they were great players but there was a sense because of our success that we would be able to plug in new players and not miss a beat. Clearly we are heading in the right direction, developing talent and depth but it is a process and one that will see setbacks. Through four games we have taken our lumps and learned some lessons, with a bye week Mark Mangino and company have an opportunity to do some serious coaching and continue the charge of sawin' wood.