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KANSAS WEEK: Opponent Preview

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Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist either breathes new life into Kansas's offense, or Jayhawk fans endure a third consecutive beat-down.
Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist either breathes new life into Kansas's offense, or Jayhawk fans endure a third consecutive beat-down.

TCU's second opponent in 2012: the Kansas Jayhawks.

There’re hardly words to describe how bad Kansas's defense was last season. The Jayhawks finished dead last in total defense, scoring defense, yards per play, and yards per carry, and near-last in rushing touchdowns allowed, yards per pass attempt, pass efficiency defense, first downs allowed, sacks, tackles for loss, third down rush yards allowed, and plays over 10 yards. In other words, it was disaster on every down.

That’s what Dave Campo, new defensive coordinator, starts with. So it probably doesn’t matter what magic Charlie Weis can bring to the offense (and who says he’s going to bring any at all?); until the defense can improve to merely "bad," or, heaven bless them, all the way to "so-so," Kansas is going to continue to lose at a stomach-churning rate.

Campo’s got help with the return of Clint Bowen, who was Mark Mangino’s defensive coordinator in Kansas’s golden years. Bowen now coaches the defensive backs and special teams. Whether or not Bowen’s secondary improves at all may be the most pressing issue facing the Jayhawks in 2012.

Campo and Bowen are shaking things up. Senior Lubbock Smith, who was a multi-year starter in 2009-10, but hardly played in 2011, is likely back to starting at strong safety. He’ll play next to senior free safety Bradley McDougald (81 tackles), perhaps the only bright spot in the secondary last season. Brian Maura, formerly a wide receiver, is now playing in the secondary.

At corner, the 2012 rotation has a lot of returners: Greg Brown, Tyler Patmon, Corrigan Powell and Dexter Linton. Maybe better coaching will take the stink off of this crew; JUCO transfer Nas Moore will compete to play right away.

The second most pressing issue facing Kansas football is the rush defense. Campo will run a 4-3/3-4 defense, flexing the hybrid linebacker/defensive end role. Sophomore Michael Reynolds and senior Toben Opurum (42 tackles, 9.5 for loss) fill that fluid position. Inside, KU hopes to spur improvement by adding JUCO and transfer tackles into the mix. Ty McKinney, Keon Stowers and Jordan Tavai, all JUCO transfers, and Josh Williams, a transfer from Nebraska who graduated and is eligible to play this year, are all new to the program and in the mix to start. (Williams might play at end.) Randall Dent and Pat Lewandowski are the sole returning KU players on the two-deep.

Notre Dame transfer Anthony McDonald will play immediately at middle or strong linebacker, joining MLB Darius Willis (78 tackles) and Huldon Tharp. Speedy Michael Reynolds moves to outside linebacker "In this league, you need to get fast guys that can play in space," Weis said, indicating Reynolds had impressed coaches with his speed but still needed to prove himself fundamentally.

Weis, you say? Yep, the one who won three Super Bowls as an offensive coordinator (Giants, 2001 and 2003-4 with the Patriots). That remains the bright line on his resume, despite half a decade as the head man at Notre Dame, and a season as OC at Florida. Can he turn the flaccid KU offense around? He calls his own plays, and has an 11-year NFL vet to help coach the o-line into shape, Tim Grunhard. Rob Ianello, recently fired from the top job at Akron, is his top recruiter and WR coach. Ianello was a Weis assistant before that. Weis expected turbulence at the onset of his tenure as a Jayhawk, and brought a 'my way or the highway' approach to it.

"Rather than set specific goals, I think ... what you have to do is you have to break the team down and then build the team back up. That's what the offseason's been and that's what the spring is going to be all over again. It was very easy to get the players to buy in because they didn't have an alternative," Weis said. "It was either buy in or quit. Those were their two choices."

Weis came in and signed a bunch of JUCO transfers to inject new life, and talent, into his new team—and to replenish the multitude of players lost in the coaching transition. One of them hopes to transform the offense: QB Dayne Crist. Can Crist do at Kansas what he couldn’t do at Notre Dame: win games? Unlike Brian Kelly’s offense at Notre Dame, which Crist couldn’t run, at KU he’ll play in a pro-style offense that’s friendly for movement-impaired QBs NFL arms. Weis claims the experiment is working fine.

"He makes all of the other offensive players better," said Weis, "and every one of them will tell you the same thing. I'll tell you when you know a kid is special is the day he walks in and the players look at him as a leader and he hasn't even done anything yet."

Experience tells us that we looks for results on the field before all else.

In the backfield, last year’s leading rusher, James Sims (727 yards, 9 touchdowns) is suspended for three games—which means TCU won’t see him until 2013. Last year’s second-leading rusher, Darrian Miller, was dismissed from the team. Marquis Jackson and Tony Pierson played well during the spring.

KU may actually be in good shape on the o-line. Ousted coach Turner Gill was optimistic about this squad. Three returners protect Crist’s blind side, senior LT Tanner Hawkinson. Fellow seniors C Trevor Marrongelli and LG Duane Zlatnik are also at new positions, but are experienced linemen. Juniors Gavin Howard and Riley Spencer (6-7, 300) will hold down the strong side. Spencer is the surest bet among the new starters. JUCO transfer Aslam Sterling is in the mix at guard. Behind a good push, KU’s rush numbers (which haven’t reached 4.0 ypc since KU’s Orange Bowl year) might be decent.

The top three WR: Kale Pick (converted QB, senior, 34 receptions for 343 yards), D.J. Beshears (team-best 40 catches for 437, also a KR/PR) and Daymond Patterson, converted safety, who missed all but one game of last season due to injury. Tall backups are Chris Omigie, Christian Matthews and JUCO transfer Josh Ford, and fast guys JaCorey Sheppard (15 receptions for 252 yards), Connor Embree (a transfer from UNLV) and Tre Parmalee. Maybe Crist can make something of these guys. Look for more passes to tight ends, in the pro-style offense.

Returning tight ends Jimmay Mundine and Trent Smiley combined for just eight catches for 94 yards in 2011. Mundine, 6-2, 240, was the pass catcher of the duo, and Smiley, 6-4, 240, was the blocker. Charles Brooks (6-5, 245, JUCO transfer, Scottsdale, Ariz) and Jordan Smith (6-5, 238, Waco, Texas, a Gill recruit who stayed on for Weis), both early enrolled, and expect to contribute right away.

"The offense that coach Weis runs (is perfect for me)," Charles Brooks said. "He throws the ball around a lot, and he’s got three or four tight ends who are in the NFL right now. He does a good job with the tight-end position and allows them a lot in the offense." Added Brooks: "I think I have a chance to play right away."

Fellow-recruit Jordan Smith is just as excited:

"Actually, when I first heard (KU hired Weis), that’s the first thing I thought of: He’s been around a pro system," Jordan Smith said. "You look at the Patriots, their tight ends are breaking records, and it’s good to know that the guy they got uses tight ends. The tight end is not something that’s necessarily for every coach and every team. It’s just great to know that you have a guy that’s going to use you no matter what to benefit the team and get the program to where it needs to be."

Neal Barlow, an Arkansas transfer TE who sat out last season, is also gunning for catches in Weis’s system.

PK Alex Mueller returns, though he was just 3-for-8 on field goals a year ago. P Ron Doherty ranked 27th nationally and also was used some as a placekicker.

Before welcoming TCU to the Big12, Kansas has a warmups against South Dakota State, each in Lawrence. (It was North Dakota State that beat KU in Turner Gill’s first game as a Jayhawk.) If KU isn’t 2-0 going into the game, TCU should win by about 40 points.