Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: It wasn't long ago, that the football team at the University of Kansas was sharing the spotlight with its more publicized basketball brethren. Under Mark Mangino, the Jayhawks became a power in the Big 12, but in the five years since the former coach has been gone, KU football has struggled to be relevant.
Charlie Weis led the Jayhawks to a 3-9 record in his second year at the helm in 2013, although one of those wins just so happened to snap a humiliating 27- game Big 12 losing streak.
Kansas won two of its first three bouts, taking out the likes of FCS foe South Dakota (31-14), as well as Louisiana Tech (13-10). Unfortunately, the positive vibes would come to an end as the start of conference play saw the Jayhawks lose six in a row, all by double digits, before a surprising 31-19 win over West Virginia on Nov. 16 ended the streak and gave the beleaguered squad a shot in the arm.
A 34-0 embarrassment at Iowa State followed, and the team dropped a 31-10 decision to visiting Kansas State to close out another disappointing campaign.
OFFENSE: While Weis is widely considered to be a very good offensive coach, he simply hasn't had the talent in his first two years to run his pro-style attack. This season could be different however, as he has done a nice job of recruiting, and has some veteran players ready to step up and really make a name for themselves.
The team, which ranked a horrid 118th in the nation in scoring last year (15.3 ppg), boasts a few skilled pass catchers in senior receivers Nick Harwell and Tony Pierson, along with senior tight end Jimmy Mundine. Darrian Miller returns as the team's top rusher after amassing 322 yards on 67 carries (4.8 ypc). Pierson (24 receptions, 333 yards, 1 touchdown) has been productive in the past despite limited opportunities, but the wild card is Harwell, who transferred in from Miami-Ohio after serving as one of the top performers in the Mid-American Conference prior to sitting out last season.
The offensive line is a relative unknown at this point, although senior guards Ngalu Fusimalohi and Mike Smithburg should provide a sense of stability at the point of attack.
The key, as it is with most teams, will be the play at quarterback. Sophomore Montell Cozart flashed signs last season in a limited role, and while he certainly possesses an abundance of athletic ability, playing heady ball, and making all the throws on a consistent basis will be paramount to any success he has, and ultimately the team has as well.
Weis believes that to effectively run his offense, having a versatile signal caller is vital.
"In this offense that we're running, I think athleticism at the quarterback position is a critical factor," Weis said. "So besides being able to stand in the pocket and deliver, I think that that added element to either on called runs by quarterback or just scramble ability to bail you out of some trouble situations gives us a better chance to score more points."
DEFENSE: Due in part to the inept offense, the KU defense struggled last season as well, yielding an average of 31.8 points and 432.6 yards per game, both of which ranked the club near the bottom of both the Big 12 and the country.
The hope is another year of seasoning coupled with an influx of talented youngsters will make the unit a bit more formidable this time around. Defensive linemen Keon Stowers and Ben Goodman could have a banner year if healthy, while senior linebacker Ben Heeney (88 tackles in '13) hopes to cement his place among the best to ever play the position in Lawrence.
The secondary is where the Jayhawks will likely be the strongest, as veterans JaCorey Shepherd, Cassius Sendish and Isaiah Johnson lock down on opposing receivers, provided the guys up front apply the pressure. Johnson was named the Big 12's Defensive Newcomer of the Year after logging 5 interceptions last season.
Heeney is the heart and soul of the KU defense, and Weis is quick to point out that his contributions often get overlooked.
"I think that Ben is probably one of the more underappreciated defensive players, if not players in this league. I think that because our team has not been good for the last couple of years people don't notice a guy like Ben Heeney."
SPECIALS TEAMS: With Matthew Wyman hitting only half of his 10 field goal attempts in 2013, it remains to be seen if the kicking game will offer up favorable or negative results this season. Punting however, doesn't appear to be an area of great concern right now, as Trevor Pardula is back for his senior year after averaging just shy of 44 yards per boot last fall, doing so on a school-record 84 punts.
OUTLOOK: Kansas doesn't open the season until hosting FCS foe Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 6, and the team's other two non-conference bouts will be against Duke and Central Michigan. It's imperative that the Jayhawks win at least two of them, as the Big 12 slate promises to be extremely difficult right out of the chute.
While the team will likely be more productive on offense, and perhaps a bit stingier on defense, recording more than a handful of wins will be difficult.
For the most part, the administration and fan base have bought into what Weis is selling. But if there isn't marked improvement across the board, their patience could start to wear thin, prompting the coach to have to loosen his collar a bit.