Published August 12, 2010
LAWRENCE, Kan. – In appearance, temperament and approach, Kansas coach Turner Gill appears to be the polar opposite of the man who left the job amid strife and turmoil.
Unlike the non-athletic Mark Mangino, Gill was a topflight quarterback at the highest level of collegiate football, starring at Nebraska during a time when the Huskers dominated.
Also in contrast to his sometimes-contentious predecessor, Gill seems pleasant, approachable and warm, much less prone to confrontation. Mangino was loathe to make personal appearances on behalf of the school. Since he was hired last winter, Gill has seemed to enjoy them.
Mangino was also fired last fall at the end of a seven-game losing streak, amid a messy investigation into alleged verbal and physical abuse of his players. But before condemning him and elevating Gill, bear in mind Mangino discovered and developed Todd Reesing, the most productive passer in school history.
Mangino also led the Jayhawks to their greatest season ever. Those ugly allegations were never proven in a public forum, and vehemently denied by many players who stood loyal to the 2007 consensus national coach of the year.
Whether the 47-year-old Gill ever matches Mangino's 12-1 campaign of 2007 may be irrelevant for now: There are happier faces in Lawrence these days as the new coaching staff gets its first fall practices under way.
"When we met with coach Gill individually, I knew he was going to be a great fit for us," said quarterback Jordan Webb. "He doesn't want anybody who's going to be a bad-character guy on the team. He's really a high-character guy."
Before Gill could even make much headway in his most important personnel decision — picking a replacement for Reesing — injury struck down one of his most important players. The linebacker corps, already lacking depth, will operate this year without sophomore Huldon Tharp, lost for the season with a foot injury.
The 6-foot, 220 pounder started seven games last season and had 59 tackles.
"We're obviously going to miss Tharp. He was definitely a guy who was going to play," said Gill.
Webb, a redshirt freshman, is vying with sophomore Kale Pick for the right to start at quarterback and almost certainly face unfavorable comparisons to Reesing. A three-year starter, Reesing began his career with an 11-game winning streak and erased virtually every passing record the Jayhawks ever compiled. Also hard to replace will be Reesing's leadership.
Gill says Pick and Webb are close in the race to start.
"I want to go through at least two weeks of practice and then see where we stand. I like where we are at and I can see that they have improved," he said.
Even if Reesing were back this year, the passing game would almost surely fall off because the two most productive wide receivers in school history are also gone. Kerry Meier ran out of eligibility and Dezmon Briscoe skipped his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
Taking away Reesing, Briscoe and Meier, the Jayhawks must replace 3,616 yards passing and 2,322 yards receiving.
"We know we're trying to replace a legend," said Pick, who backed up Reesing last season. "Todd taught me so much. We still keep in touch. But I'm a competitor. I love to compete and I'm excited for the challenge."
Even without Meier and Briscoe, the receiver corps will still offer much more experience than the quarterback position. Several pass-catchers who were on the receiving end of Reesing passes are back, including Jonathan Wilson, who had 35 catches for 449 yards, Bradley McDougald (33, 318) and Tim Biere (14, 183).
"We have six or seven different guys we feel very good about," Gill said. "We have some guys that can make some plays. Jon Wilson has done some great things. He isn't the fastest guy, but he has run some great routes. He has done an excellent job at catching the football. We have a solid receiving corps."
Also back is sophomore running back Toben Opurum, who rushed for 554 yards and 13 touchdowns last year before injuries hobbled him in the final couple of weeks of the season. He was hampered throughout spring practice as well and did not have much opportunity to get acquainted with the new staff.
"What I did last year, that's gone with everybody else," Opurum said. "So I gotta show this new staff what I can do."
Tharp's loss will be a blow to a defense which could be lacking speed.
"I want to have a faster defense with more speed," Gill said. "I am going to recruit more speed in all positions. We have some speed, but I want 14 or 15 guys that I can put on the football field that I know can run. I am not trying to knock my own football players or anything in the past, but ideally, I would like to see more speed."
Kansas opens the season Sept. 4 at home against North Dakota State, followed by tough matchups against Georgia Tech and Southern Miss.