On Saturday afternoon, yours truly made the enjoyable hour drive from the east side of Kansas City, Mo. into the far greater state of Kansas and to the best city in the world - Lawrence, Ks. That afternoon new head coach Turner Gill and the University of Kansas football team hosted their annual spring game and gave everyone their first glimpse into what the team may look like in 2010.
By this time, if you're one that's interested in Kansas football, you've read numerous game reports, browsed the boxscores and probably seen highlights. Therefore, I'll refrain from giving a game recap and lean more towards opinions and my personal thoughts and ramblings.
First of all, as you can see above, the new videoboard in the south end of the stadium is a serious upgrade and very, very nice. Coming into the stadium from the southwest gate, you notice it right away. The picture, even when zoomed in extremely tight, is incredible and crystal clear. Money well spent, if you ask me. Also, the sound system in the stadium sounded much better, too. Perhaps it had more to do with being a lot closer to the main speakers than the student section at the opposite end of the stadium. Regardless, Memorial Stadium is up to date in the audio and video aspects in my book. Now, let's just pack it every week...
For all of the conversation and debate about who the 2010 starting QB will be, there doesn't look to be much of a competition at the moment. Perhaps redshirt freshman Jordan Webb or JUCO transfer Quinn Mecham will improve leaps and bounds over the summer months, but at the moment, sophomore Kale Pick looks far and away the favorite to start game one September 4.
In my opinion, former head coach Mark Mangino did Pick, and the Kansas program in general, a big favor last year by picking and choosing spots to get Pick valuable game experience. From the very beginning Pick looked more comfortable and poised in the pocket and under center - a new regularity to be expected in the new offense implemented by new coordinator Chuck Long. At no point that I, myself can recall, did any quarterback have any trouble taking the snap directly from center, or center getting the ball in the quarterback's hands.
Both Webb and Mecham seemed uncomfortable and indecisive. Some of it had to do with the offensive line's lack of protection, (we'll get to that later) but even when given time, neither got rid of the ball quick enough on a consistent basis. Holding the ball and running for their lives was the norm, unfortunately.
Now, while Pick looked the best of the three, in no way did he look to be an All-American. He had much the same trouble with the offensive line, but managed to make the most of times when well protected. The big question on Pick is and has always been throwing accuracy. I recall only once, maybe twice, that accuracy was a problem for him. He looked very comfortable throwing across the middle and to the flats. He throws a great deep ball, which was evident on his 73 yard touchdown pass to Chris Omigie, when he threw the ball easily 50 yards downfield from the left hash to the right sideline, making the throw itself longer and more impressive.
On a sidenote, if the female populus of KU has their say in it, Conner Teahan will be the starter. The basketball reserve turned college QB received a fairly high pitched ovation as he entered the game late. Luckily, the coaches are men.
Depth at the running back position has never been a luxury afforded any coaching staff. That all looks to change this year as sophomore (to be) Toben Opurum, seniors Rell Lewis, Angus Quigley and redshirt freshman Deshaun Sands all return. Not to mention two highly recruited backs in and Brandon Bourbon, who will arrive in the summer. Both are expected to have a chance to contribute early on.
Due to the offensive line struggles, Opurum didn't have a true opportunity to shine and it showed in being held to just 16 yards. While Toben will make no excuse, I will and say that it wasn't his fault. It's far tougher for a bigger back to succeed than a faster back without proper blocking because the smaller, quicker back can outrun linebackers and make more happen. That's what Sands did. He's a very exciting player to watch. On multiple occasions he was dead for loss in the backfield, but managed to stay upright and work to open space and avoid a loss or gain respectable yardage.
The highlight for the running backs came on the last play of the game when Sands was boxed in to the left of the line of scrimmage, planted and stopped - a la Barry Sanders - and cut across the field to the right sideline for 18 yards. If there's a running back in Lawrence right now that will exceed expectations this year, it's Sands.
While the depth is great, the thing, at least to me, that is troubling about the backs is there doesn't really seem to be anybody that can do it all. The way I see it, every back participating in the spring tends to be a "one trick pony." Opurum is a big, phsyical bruiser that's tough to bring down. When he's in the backfield, you know any run is likely to be inside. Sands doesn't have the size to run inside, so you know he's trying to break outside. Lewis is a very good receiver and when he's not catching a pass, he's trying to get outside, too.
When it comes down to it, someone is going to have to pick up a new ability to become a more complete back to keep defenses off balance and honest. It's unlikely Opurum will gain 4.3 40-yard speed overnight, so I'd say Sands needs to get bigger, stronger and more physical to run inside. (Who would have ever thought we'd be talking about running inside being such a big part of a Kansas offense?)
Wide Receiver/ Tight End
First of all, Tim Biere is an excellent pass catching tight end. Let's get that out of the way now. And, it's obvious that getting him the ball is much more of a focal point this year. He was extremely effective in underneath crossing routes when matched up against a linebacker. The first play of the game saw him drag through the linebacker zone and into open space for an easy dump off from Pick. Webb found him as a safe outlet while scrambling for a 20 yard touchdown to open the scoring.
The two starting receivers (again, so weird to think only two receivers) were Johnathon Wilson and Bradley McDougald. Neither were given much opportunity to perform. With the move back to the offensive side of the ball, Daymond Patterson seems the likely choice to fill in the slot position. Personally, DJ Beshears gets my vote. And, it's no indictment on Patterson.
If you remember, Beshears is another re-convert to received. He is electric. Just like Biere, getting the ball in the hands of Beshears was a focal point Saturday. On three consecutive plays, Beshears caught a receiver screen right, receiver screen left and a quick slant in succession. The first screen picked up nearly a first down, the second was stopped behind the line and the slant went for a first down, as well. He will also handle punt returning duties.
As discussed above, Omigie was the recipient of the day's longest play, the long touchdown pass. He's just as long in person as he looks on the internet. He catches the ball away from his body very well and does a nice job of positioning himself to shield defensive backs from making a play on the ball. I noticed this on a couple of occasions. Omigie will be a big time target this year. Eric McGriff, son of former major leaguer Fred, will also be a reliable pass catcher, but probably not until next year. If you could combine Omigie's length with McGriff's thicker build, which Omigie lacks, you'd have the perfect receiver.
It would be entirley unfair to say that the offensive line sucks, which is what it looked line on Saturday, given the fact that they're a month into learning a new offense and all new blocking scheme. But, they offered little to no protection for the quarterbacks on Saturday. Thankfully, the defense couldn't hit the quarterbacks, or we may be down to Teahan as the only one left.
And, the most worrisome thing about the line was that the starting unit struggled just as much as the second team. But, you do have to take into consideration the new scheme and the fact that this is probably the best line in recent times and they have a familiarity from playing together much of last year. Given a full summer or workouts, film sessions and work with the new coaches and (hopefully) we'll see a totally different level of protection this fall.
Overall, the offense was about what you could expect after limited time in the new scheme, a new quarterback and the typical blandness of a spring game. It's the most understated thing to say in football, but the offense will go as far as the quaterback can take them. Unquestionably there's the pieces and the talent around him to be successful. It all depends on the allocation of said talent.
We'll talk defense tomorrow...