LAWRENCE — They all get an extra week. Jake Heaps will wait a few more days to return to the field after his transfer from BYU. A cavalry of junior college transplants will have seven more days to master the defensive schemes. And second-year coach Charlie Weis will have an open Saturday to watch college football* and prepare for Kansas’ season opener against South Dakota on Sept. 7.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
*Here’s an interesting side note: Weis says his favorite part of watching football games on television is listening to the announcers. Why? Because broadcast teams usually spend time talking to each coaching staff while prepping for a game, and Weis believes he can pick up on some things the coaching staffs may have told the broadcasters. Anyway…
The Jayhawks are in the unique position of having a week-one bye, the first of two open weeks in the season’s first five weeks. After nonconference games against South Dakota, Rice and Louisiana Tech, Kansas will have an open date on Sept. 28 before opening the Big 12 season against Texas Tech on Oct. 5.
The early bye also means we get an extra week to dissect and examine a program that’s trying to crawl up from the canvas. So why not? The Kansas program has plenty of question marks — maybe a few more than any Division I program should rightly have. But those question marks, for the moment anyway, can also provide a little bit of hope. Maybe the defense will take a major step. Maybe Heaps will flourish under Weis. Maybe the receiving corps will register a touchdown catch for the first time since 2011.
So with the college football season officially underway, let’s set the over/under on a few of the biggest unknowns heading into the KU season.
1. James Sims' rushing yards: 1,150
So let’s see. Sims rushed for 1,013 yards in just nine games last season. He regularly saw eight or nine defenders in the box. The Jayhawks had no passing game. And Sims still managed to average 4.6 yards per carry and run for more than 100 yards in six straight games.
So one would assume, if the Jayhawks’ passing game is healthier, and Sims is a year older, and he stays healthy for 12 games, he’ll easily eclipse last year’s mark. The question, though, could be carries. Sophomore Darrian Miller, who often played ahead of Sims back in 2011, has returned to the program. And junior Tony Pierson, despite being more active in the passing game, will also get carries.
So, even if Sims again averages 4.6 yards per carry, will he get 218 carries again? That would be more than 18 carries per game in a 12-game season. We’ll assume Sims gets just more than 20 carries per game and set the over/under at 1,150 yards
2. Receiver touchdowns: five
We can feel safe in predicting one thing: The Jayhawks receiving corps will surpass its improbable number of touchdown receptions from last year: Yeah, it was zero.
The question is how many? Tight end Jimmay Mundine will be a dangerous red-zone target. And running backs Pierson and Brandon Bourbon will be playing a hybrid position that will be involved in the rushing and passing games.
If you classify Pierson and Bourbon as running backs, we’ll put the over/under on receiver touchdowns at five.
3. Road victories: 0.5
A couple of things: KU hasn’t won on the road since it beat UTEP in September 2009. And here are the Jayhawks’ road opponent in 2013: Rice, TCU, Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. That’s three teams ranked in the preseason top 25 and two teams (Rice and Iowa State) that won in Lawrence last season. For Kansas, the pivotal game could be Rice.
4. Jake Heaps’ completion percentage: 60.5
As a true freshman at BYU, Heaps threw for 2,316 yards and 15 touchdowns with nine interceptions. The next year, he was benched after five games and finished with 1,412 yards passing, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. But the stat to keep an eye on is completion percentage, where Heaps hovered around 57 percent for both seasons.
Last year was disastrous, with KU’s quarterbacks combining to complete 47.3 percent of passes for 1,784 yards. If Heaps can connect on around 61 percent of his passes, it’ll be a nice improvement from his days at BYU — and a major upgrade for the KU passing game.
5. Tony Pierson's receptions: 42.5
Last season, as a sophomore, Pierson finished with 21 catches for 291 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers came while playing a limited role in the passing game — especially during the season’s first four or five weeks. This year, Charlie Weis keeps throwing out the name Tavon Austin to describe Pierson’s new role.
Austin, of course, was the brilliant West Virginia weapon who finished last season with 114 catches while also running 72 times for 643 yards. Kansas, of course, won’t even come close to matching the pace of West Virginia’s offense — or its number of passes. But we’re bullish on Pierson’s ability — and the fact KU has a dearth of other proven weapons in the passing game.
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.