Philadelphia, PA – The Charlie Weis era did not get off to an auspicious start in Lawrence.
Last year the former Notre Dame head coach and New England Patriots offensive coordinator took over a program that has long taken a backseat to the rest of the Big 12 in a sport that has never been as popular in the Sunflower State as basketball.
Expecting Weis to be able to change all that in his first year was too much to ask. Kansas was coming off a 2-10 season and the end of the disastrous two- year run under Turner Gill.
Weis' first season didn't see any improvement. In fact, the Jayhawks were even worse. They managed just a single win, a 31-17 victory over FCS foe South Dakota State, before losing their final 11 contests. There were some close calls along the way. A 25-24 setback to Rice, a 30-23 disappointment against a Northern Illinois team that went to the Orange Bowl and a 21-17 defeat to Texas in which the Jayhawks led 14-7 at halftime. However, close calls don't inflate the numbers in the win column.
Kansas has now suffered through losing seasons in 14 of the last 20 years. The program has never earned a Big 12 title and is more than 40 years removed from its last conference championship. That came in 1968 when it shared the honor with Oklahoma in the Big Eight.
Weis knew the history when he took the job. To an extent it made the job much less of a pressure cooker than his last head coaching gig. Weis was of course the top dog at Notre Dame from 2005-2009 where he started off with a bang (back-to-back BCS bowl bids) but went out with a whimper, as the Irish were 16-17 in his final three seasons.
Coaching at Notre Dame, arguably the most scrutinized position in the sport, is obviously a different beast than at Kansas. However that doesn't mean that Weis won't be expected to start getting his team moving in the right direction sooner rather than later. After a poor 2012, that shouldn't be too much to ask for.
In a first season there is always going to be some carry over from the previous regime. As a coach you have to get an entirely new team up to speed on your system. A team that you did not recruit, with a roster you are inheriting. So there is some room for forgiveness for Weis. Chances are that won't be the case this season.
"People want to talk about changing the culture (of a program), I don't call it changing the culture. It's cleaning out the program," Weis said. "Now they know me and I know them a whole lot better than at this time last year and there's really no gray area any more. It's all black-and-white; it's either this way or that way."
One area where there was no shade of gray last season was on the offensive side of the ball. The Jayhawks were horrible and one of the most important things Weis is going to have to accomplish is getting that offensive unit to gel more so than last year. Considered much more of an offensive mind than a defensive one, Weis, who has been an offensive coordinator for three NFL teams, had Kansas dead last in the Big 12 in total offense (360.3 ypg) in 2012.
That was the result of a pathetic passing attack. The Jayhawks ranked third in the Big 12 in rushing (2,540 yards) as a team but had nearly 1,000 fewer passing yards (1,784) than the next worst team in the conference (Iowa State at 2,701).
"Last year, we improved the toughness of our offense because we became one- dimensional," Weis said. "We weren't throwing the ball with any efficiency and we were running the ball; other teams knew we were running the ball, and we still ran the ball with some efficiency."
Obviously who is under center will largely influence any improvement in the aerial assault. Starting quarterback Dayne Crist has moved on, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing considering he threw for just 1,313 yards, while completing just 47.7 percent of his pass attempts.
Senior transfer Jake Heaps, who began his career at BYU, will be eligible to play this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules. Heaps has been making a strong case this spring to earn the nod come September. In the spring game he threw for 257 yards on 20-of-28 passing, with four touchdowns.
That type of showing has allowed Heaps to take a giant step towards being the starter in the fall despite the return of backup Michael Cummings.
"I would say that (Heaps') the man to beat out. I put him first (on the depth chart) for a reason," Weis said while adding that he sees Heaps as a better drop-back passer than Cummings. "My answer is we were 1-11 last year, and I'd prefer not to be 1-11 again. If I think certain guys are better than other guys, I'm putting them ahead."
Luckily for Weis 1,000-yard rusher James Sims and talented speedster Tony Pierson will be back to anchor the backfield.
"I think our running backs, which were our best position last year, are by far better this year. That is a good place to start. We have talent and depth, and if you run the football with efficiency, the passing game should not be as tough as we made it look last year," Weis said.
The offense is just one half of the equation for any team trying to dig themselves out of such a terrible season. The Jayhawks didn't lose 11 games solely because they couldn't complete passes. They also didn't do much to stop other teams. Kansas ranked ahead of only Baylor in total defense (481.8 ypg) in the Big 12.
Any improvements will likely come from the front seven, especially in linebackers Ben Heeney and Darius Willis, who Weis was impressed with during spring practices.
"They are both very physical players that can take on the inside game that most teams will sprinkle in at you," Weis said.
Though there is of course optimism in the air in Lawrence, it is unlikely that Kansas is going to vault itself to the top of the Big 12 in 2013. Getting there may take some time but Weis is well aware of that and ready for the long haul.
"If I want to be here for a long time, there are a lot of things that have to change. One of them is we have to start winning more football games. That would be a good place to get to this year."
It certainly would be.