as though Big 12 media days come earlier every year, but here we are, in late July, and the Big 12 Conference’s 10 football programs are poised to convene here at the Omni Hotel for the league’s annual late-summer media summit.
For Kansas and second-year coach Charlie Weis, the early days of another football season offer hope that the program can finally escape the Big 12 cellar after posting a 6-30 record (and just one Big 12 victory) over the last three seasons.
Weis will be joined in Dallas by junior quarterback Jake Heaps, senior running back James Sims, junior linebacker Ben Heeney and junior defensive back Cassius Sendish. It’s an interesting mix: Two leaders from last year (Sims and Heeney) and two that have yet to play a snap (Heaps and Sendish).
The Jayhawks will take the stage on Monday, along with Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU. And for now, as we count down to the unofficial start of Weis’ second season in Lawrence, here are five key questions heading into the fall.
1. Can quarterback Jake Heaps inject some life into a comatose passing attack?
In Weis’ first season, the long-time quarterback whisperer could never squeeze any production out of Dayne Crist (or backup Michael Cummings). Kansas ranked 113th in the nation in passing offense, averaging just 148.7 yards per game, and the Jayhawks’ receivers failed to record a touchdown reception all year.
So here comes Heaps, who will take the keys to an offense for the first time since his sophomore year at BYU in 2011. Heaps’ two seasons at BYU were a mixed bag, plenty of freshman records, tons of talent, and just a 57-percent completion percentage in parts of two seasons. Now, of course, he’ll be working with a rebuilt receiver corps that features Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay and potentially transfer Nick Harwell, who is still working to get eligible for this fall. Junior tight end Jimmay Mundine provides another weapon — especially in the red zone. And if there’s a reason for hope, it may be this: The Jayhawks feature one of the deepest backfields in the Big 12. And Heaps won’t need to be great — just solid and dependable. Make smart throws. Convert on third down. And so on.
If that’s the case, the entire KU offense could benefit.
2. James Sims will be KU’s featured back after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season. But who else will get carries in a potentially crowded backfield?
Here’s a nice problem to have. Sims rushed for 1,013 yards in nine games last season, averaging more than 24 carries per contest. And strangely, his production could stay about the same this season — depending on his workload.
Junior Tony Pierson (6.5 yards per carry last season) is slated to take on a bigger role in the Jayhawks’ passing attack, but the KU backfield also includes senior Taylor Cox (464 rushing yards in 2012), junior Brandon Bourbon and sophomore Darrian Miller, who returns to the KU program after being booted during Weis’ first months on the job.
Miller is a special talent, and Cox can provide a similar combination of speed and power that Sims possesses. So what’s the answer? Well, Miller and Bourbon have already used up their redshirts, but Cox would have the option of sitting a year if the staff believed he could contribute more next season. It’s a position battle to watch.
3. So Heaps and Sims could be the Jayhawks’ two most important players on offense — but who will block for them?
After losing three senior starters off last year’s offensive line, the Jayhawks could have a particularly noticeable junior college theme in front of Heaps and Sims. Offensive tackle Aslam Sterling is back for his senior year after getting his feet wet last season, and Weis added four big bodies in his latest recruiting class.
Juco transfers Ngalu Fusimalohi and Mike Smithburg were listed as starters at left and right guard, respectively, during spring ball. And two other juco transfers — Zach Fondal and Pearce Slater — are expected to be on campus for fall camp.
4. The Jayhawks lost all four starters from their secondary in 2012. Can the unit still be improved?
Probably. KU lost senior safeties Bradley McDougald and Lubbock Smith and senior cornerback Greg Brown to graduation. Junior Tyler Patmon also left the program and surfaced at Oklahoma State.
Of course, the Jayhawks ranked 114th in passing defense last season, so perhaps some new faces can provide some hope. Weis is bringing cornerback Cassius Sendish, a juco transfer, to Dalls for media day, perhaps a sign that he can become an important part of the defense in his first year. KU also added junior college transfer Kevin Short, a highly touted performer from Fort Scott, while junior Dexter McDonald returns to the program after a year in the junior college ranks.
5. Can the Jayhawks break their long losing streak away from Lawrence (22 games) and win a pivotal game at Rice on Sept. 14?
Yes, it’s been nearly four years since KU won a game away from home — at Texas-El Paso on Sept. 12, 2009 — and you can imagine that Weis would like to change this trend in year two.
Perhaps more important, the Jayhawks’ first road game in 2013 could be a critical measuring stick. Last season, the Jayhawks coughed up a late lead against Rice at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, a game that would be emblematic of the rest of the season. The Jayhawks will open with South Dakota on Sept. 7, and there will be plenty of important tests in the Big 12. But if KU wants to make progress in Weis’ second year, its trip to Rice on Sept. 14 could offer a key springboard.