The University of Kansas football program does not exactly light the world on fire when attracting elite recruits nationwide to the college town know primarily for its historic basketball program. You will never see them at the top of Rivals’ Big 12 recruiting rankings, and rarely will they grab a spot in the nation’s Top 25. But despite little to offer and fellow Big 12 recruiting behemoths down south, Mark Mangino and the Jayhawks were able to construct a BCS bowl winning team in 2007-08.
The stars of that Orange Bowl squad were little known prep players such as Todd Reesing, Marcus Henry, Brandon McAnderson, and Aqib Talib, all of whom received no more than 3-star ratings from Rivals. Due to that group and their teammates’ respective cohesive units, upper tier recruits across Big 12 country began taking notice, and many were successfully inked by the KU coaching staff.
With a new influx of talent arriving in Lawrence this summer to begin what appears to be a long but optimistic rebuilding process, a group of relatively unknown Jayhawks must lay the groundwork for Coach Charlie Weis in order to return as a household name in high schools across the country. While Turner Gill saw no on-field success in his short-lived stint in Lawrence, he did show impressive recruiting promise as he garnered commitments from a handful of excellent prospects. Due to their second coaching change in less than three years, the long-term commitments from prep players did not appear imminent during the most recent recruiting period.
Charlie Weis might attract a few elite players solely because of name recognition, and immediate success with veteran transfers and upperclassmen might be enough to remain on the radar of youngsters. But the following little known players must compliment those veterans and prove the Jayhawks can produce sustainable success. Please note: Definition of immediate success is 1-2 conference wins and less than a half dozen 40-point blowouts.
Bourbon was a highly sought after recruit in the class of 2010, receiving offers from Kansas, Kansas State, Notre Dame, and Stanford, but opted to play for Turner Gill and the Jayhawks. He, along with fellow running back and now ex-Jayhawk Darrian Miller were expected to bring a powerful running game back to Lawrence.
However, a redshirt year in 2010 and subsequent spring buried on the depth chart led many to believe he would not see significant time at KU, especially with James Sims proving his on-field production. With Miller’s exit and the Sims’ early-season suspension, the dynamic Bourbon will look to further improve on his already remarkable 6.8 yards per carry.
The Mulvane, Kansas native brought some excitement to an otherwise frustrating 2009 season for the Jayhawks. Following five wins to open the season, the team dropped its next seven contests and has never recovered. Quarterback Todd Reesing still carried much of the team’s star power alongside emerging wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe, but it was on the defensive side of the ball that most Kansas fans saw room for optimism.
Stepping in for a trio of departed senior linebackers, Huldon Tharp made an immediate impact as he started the first seven Big 12 games and eventually earned First Team Freshman All-American honors. A severely broken leg during 2010 spring practice caused him to miss the entire season. Spot linebacker duty along with a special teams role in 2011 have led most to forget about the one-time promising 6’0” 200 pound youngster.
A return to a starting spot in 2012 alongside fellow upperclassmen Darius Willis and Tunde Bakare has Tharp back in the spotlight. A leader on defense is the first of numerous steps to improving one of the worst defensive units in college football history.
It is easy to get lost in the crowd amongst Kansas wide receivers, especially considering their top three pass catchers return from 2011. Seniors D.J. Beshears, Kale Pick, and Daymond Patterson have not put up incredible numbers, but they presented the bland Chuck Long-led offensive unit with a decent core of playmakers over the last two seasons.
Along with promising junior wideout Chris Omigie, a player everyone has been waiting to finally turn the corner as an elite athlete, and incoming transfer tight end Mike Ragone, another year buried on the depth chart for sophomore JaCorey Shepherd seems like an impending outcome. However, due to the versatility of Beshears and Patterson as return men and ball carriers, Shepherd might get the opportunity to beat out Omigie as the No. 4 receiver to improve on his 2011 stats of 252 receiving yards and 3 TDs.
It remains to be seen how Beshears and Patterson will be used by Coach Weis and his staff, but considering their electric playmaking abilities, it appears reasonable that Pick, Omigie and Shepherd may assume most pass-catching duties from new pro-style QB Dayne Crist. Look for the speedy 5'11" Texas native Shepherd to take a giant leap forward in his second year as a Jayhawk, as receivers coach Rob Ianello begins to develop younger receivers for QB-in-waiting Jake Heaps.
Ah, the days of Aqib Talib, Darrell Stuckey, and Chris Harris patrolling the Kansas secondary. Those days are long gone and undersized immature defensive backs have graced the heels of Big 12 wide receivers the last few years.
The athleticism of incoming defensive backs has never been questioned, but a lack of pass rush, poor defensive schemes and superior conference foes has been a perfect recipe for disaster. Barring training camp personnel changes, the Jayhawks will enter the season with four upperclassmen in the secondary and the one with the most promise, senior Bradley McDougald, rests comfortably atop sophomore Victor Simmons. Simmons saw spot duty last season, playing in 11 games and recorded a season-high five tackles in a closer than expected loss to Oklahoma.
With the plethora of elite quarterbacks and superstar wide receivers in the Big 12, it is imperative to limit easy downfield throws and prevent quick scoring drives, both of which Kansas failed miserably at last season. For example, in their Oct. 8 loss at Oklahoma State the KU defense yielded 600 total yards and 70 points as the Cowboys only posted a time of possession of 24:46.
The Olathe North product has size, 6'2" 201 pounds, to play either safety position, but it is unlikely that opportunity will come at McDougald's expense at free safety in 2012. Inconsistency and lack of good reads from defensive backs (Greg Brown, Tyler Patmon, and Lubbock Smith) present Simmons with an opportunity to leap ahead of the unproven upperclassmen at strong safety or either corner position.
Tony Pierson might be the most well-known player in this group, especially after his impressive spring game performance in which he rushed for 141 yards on only 7 carries. Pierson, a 4-star recruit, was rated the 8th best athlete in the class of 2011 by Rivals and was yet another solid addition to the backfield by former coach Turner Gill. Due to a horribly lackluster offensive campaign in 2011, the sophomore speedster's overall rushing stats of 396 yards and 5 scores as a freshman weren't enough to turn the pessimistic heads of Kansas fans.
The incumbent James Sims still led the team in rushing and seemed to have a tight grip on the starting job until his April 8 arrest and subsequent suspension. Pierson, along with previously mentioned fellow sophomore running back Brandon Bourbon appear ready to take over split duty in the backfield during the first quarter of the 2012 season, potentially capitalizing on an increasingly open defensive box.
A non-existent passing game during Gill's two-year tenure led teams to happily pack the box with eight to 10 players on a consistent basis. Despite this increased pressure, the running backs managed to post a decent 4.40 yards per carry average in 2011, with Pierson's average of 5.6 yards tipping the scales even further. After a two year absence of a legitimate passing attack, Charlie Weis and new QB Dayne Crist alongside a veteran offensive line should help relieve some pressure up front for Pierson.
After facing light non-conference opponents to open 2012, Pierson's potential coming out party could be Sept 15 as the Jayhawks welcome TCU into the Big 12 conference. A running back such as Tony Pierson, who can run between the tackles and get free outside the numbers would do wonders for Charlie Weis and the Kansas football program in the near future.