by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

On September 3 of last year, Kansas lost 6-3 in Lawrence to the FCS North Dakota State Bison in head coach Turner Gill’s first game. Not what the Jayhawk fans had in mind to start a new era. It was an indication of hard times to follow during Gill’s first season at Kansas, which came after the end of the controversial regime of “ample” head coach Mark Mangino, who had guided KU to bowl victories in 2007 (KU finishing 12-1) and 2008. Things did get a little better, with an upset of Georgia Tech the ensuing week, followed by later victories over very weak New Mexico State and fading Colorado, but Gill had quickly found himself under fire. The former title-winning Nebraska QB, who had rather amazingly elevated the moribund program at the University of Buffalo to the MAC title game and a 2008 bowl, was being assailed as overwhelmed in the “big leagues” of the deep and high-scoring Big XII.

The 2010 final numbers weren’t pretty. The 3-9 Jayhawks stood 113th in total offense, 111th in points (only 17.1 ppg), 98th in total defense, 103rd in scoring (34.4). In this current era of wide-open offense, KU had only one run longer than 28 yards and no pass longer than 43 yards! Gill has admitted to insiders that his 2010 team was too slow, too small, and too thin to compete effectively in the Big XII vs. its numerous pass-happy opponents. The question at hand in 2011 is whether the former Cornhusker star can do anything about it. While there might not be a bowl at the end of the upcoming season, Gill does seem to have the program on track toward improvement through a combination of greater experience, effective recruiting, added speed, and position changes. Here’s a look at some of the things 2011 will hold.

First of all, there will be more talent and experience at QB. Jordan Webb (56.5%, 7 TDs, 8 ints.), who had seven starts LY (mostly under duress) as a RS freshman, now has a year under his belt. Sr. Quinn Mecham (59.8%, 4 TDs, 5 ints.), recruited as a passer from junior college, had four starts. It was thought that hotshot QB recruit Brock Berglund (check status) would join the competition in August camp, but he’s run into some personal issues in his home state of Colorado. Even if Berglund never makes it to Lawrence in the fall (he was briefly on campus earlier TY), Webb and Mecham should be aided by a stronger running game. Quick soph James Sims (749 YR in 2010) will be supported by even quicker true frosh Darrian Miller, who flashed his potential in spring. True frosh Anthony Pierson is another RB who might make an impression, as might burly 6-2, 246 fullback Nick Sizemore, who transferred from Buffalo to play for Gill and who sat out last season.

There appears to be a reasonable facsimile of a receiving corps in place if offensive coordinator Chuck Long can get the ground game going and provide some protection for his QBs. Daymond Patterson snagged 60 balls LY, but for only 487 yards, as opponents effectively “squeezed” the Jayhawk attack. WR/KR D.J. Beshears has quickness. Sr. Tim Biere (19 recs.) is a reliable TE. And jr. Kale Pick, who started LY’s opener at QB, has made a Kerry Meier-like switch to WR in the spring, displaying good hands and an uncanny ability to find the holes in defenses. [And isn’t it just obviously better to have a kid with the surname of “Pick” at WR than at QB?] The Kansas OL (37 sacks LY) is still not up to Big XII standards, but three starters return, in addition to would-be starter jr. LT Jeff Spikes, who missed LY due to an Achilles injury, and jr. G Trevor Marrongelli, who missed eight games with a leg problem.

The defense lost veteran coordinator Carl Torbush, who retired in May to deal with a “low-grade” cancer issue. Vic Shealy (CBs) and Buddy Wyatt (DL) are the new co-defensive coordinators, who vow—despite much prime-time talent—that KU will generate more pass-rush pressure than in 2010, when the defense had a minuscule 14 sacks. While the DL is still too small and too thin to hold up over the long Big XII season, Shealy & Wyatt do have some reasons for their optimism. They like the potential of DE Toben Opurum, who gained 554 YR as a freshman RB, was then shifted to LB last season, and who proved to be a steady study on defense. The LB corps can afford to lose Opurum to DE due to the presence of jr. OLB Steve Johnson (95 Ts LY), the return of soph OLB Huldon Tharp (lost due to a leg injury in camp LY), and the addition of 6-3, 243 MLB transfer Darius Willis, who is now at KU with Gill after playing four games as Buffalo’s highest-rated recruit in 2009 before tearing an arm muscle. Moreover, the secondary demonstrated enough athletes in spring so that soph Prinz Kande could take his safety speed to OLB.

Summary...Knowing that 2010 was going to be a “trying” year, Gill bit the bullet and redshirted virtually all of his recruits LY. This season, the KU recruiting class is nearly twice as big, with several newcomers likely to contribute as true frosh. Add in Gill’s now-eligible transfers, and it’s easy to see there is more talent, speed, depth and competition in Lawrence. But, as with other members of the former Big XII North, the new round-robin league schedule means the Jayhawks must wade through the entire former Big XII South. Even with 13 starters returning, that figures to be pretty tough for a youthful, still-building Kansas program. Coach Gill should have an improved team in 2011, but he will need good injury luck and several of his “kids” to arrive quickly in order to notch enough wins to contend for one of the too-abundant lower-tier bowls. Most likely, he’ll likely need another solid recruiting haul.

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