Kansas Preview: Offense

Whether by creative play-calling or personnel shuffling, Kansas is fighting to try and turn its offensive season around.

When Charlie Weis took over the Kansas job, many people talked about the pro style offense that he would bring to the Jayhawks. A year and a half into the job, Weis hasn't been able to implement that kind of system, and has instead used a "kitchen sink" offensive philosophy, running everything from the pod formation to traditional spread and everything in-between. It's not unusual for the Jayhawks to come out one week with one strategy and come out another looking totally different offensively, as Weis tries to squeeze every last ounce of juice from an offense low on proven production.

All the creative playcalling in the world can only do so much to mask a problem up front. Having a bad offensive line is like throwing a chocolate popsicle into a dryer full of clean clothes — the rest of the clothes may be clean, but that popsicle is going to make everything in there dirty. Kansas's offense ranks 113th nationally in Offensive S&P+, with a high point of 89th in Rushing S&P+. Considering the Jayhawks have one of the better backfields in the league, that points in one direction.

Blame for that offensive line can fall pretty squarely in one spot: the Turner Gill staff. During Gill's tenure, the Jayhawks landed eight offensive line signees … and none of them are slated to be in Saturday's starting lineup. In fact, the lone Gill signee in the starting lineup on the offensive line is Pat Lewandowski, who was signed as a defensive lineman, and was on that side of the ball until Weis arrived and moved him over partway through last year.

We'll get to the line in a bit, but it's important, in this case, to understand that everything that the offensive line has done (or hasn't done) has affected the Jayhawks at other positions. Jake Heaps (6-1 210) threw some nice darts early for Kansas, but a combination of receiver drops and overwhelming pressure from defenses made him a less appealing option. Heaps's numbers aren't very impressive — he has a quarterback rating of 101.14 and he's completed just 50 percent of his throws, but those two above factors have made a major impact. Heaps does have seven touchdowns to six interceptions, and, when given a clean pocket, he's capable of making some big-time throws. But his utter lack of mobility makes him a risky choice and opened the door for playing time first for Michael Cummings (5-10 207), and more recently for true freshman Montell Cozart (6-2 189), who had his redshirt pulled two weeks ago against Oklahoma.

Cozart actually entered the Kansas program as more of a thrower — he passed for 2,759 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior in high school — and as a junior he earned the Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year Award after completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,448 yards and 31 touchdowns. But the reason Cozart's redshirt was pulled was undoubtedly more for his athleticism … his legs gave him a more fighting chance against the pass rush and gave Kansas some options with the quarterback run game. The Jayhawks haven't been able to truly exploit that part just yet, as Cozart has rushed 11 times for 25 yards in the last two weeks, and he hasn't been much better as a passer, hitting on just 4-of-14 passes against Baylor, though one of his throws was a 45-yard strike.

Kansas has still found some success with the running game. James Sims (6-0 200) rushed for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns in just nine games as a junior, and was actually tops in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (112.6) and rushing yards per conference game (115.2). But this year, he's down from that pace, despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He's still capable of breaking loose, like his 23-carry, 129-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma, but he has just two 100-yard games so far this year. Sims isn't the most explosive back in the Big 12, but he might be the best at making something out of nothing, slithering and sliding to make two yards out of no gain, or four yards out of two.

The Jayhawks also received a nice boost from the return of Darrian Miller (5-10 185), who was actually considered by many to be Kansas's best back (over Sims) as a true freshman in 2011. He was suspended in 2012 and went to junior college for a season (taking a redshirt in the process), but has come back to average 4.4 yards per carry. He makes for a nice secondary option, and could slide pretty seamlessly into Sims's spot as a junior. Taylor Cox (5-11 212) was also supposed to add a nice option, but he's had nagging leg issues and hasn't played since the second game of the season. He's looking into a potential medical redshirt.

Kansas also has a spot called the "F back" spot, basically a combination slot-running back position. Gifted speedster Tony Pierson (5-10 175) is the ideal player for that position — he's one of the fastest players in the Big 12. He's averaged 6.7 yards per carry and 15.6 yards per reception this year. He's also expected not to play on Saturday. That opens up more time for Brandon Bourbon (6-2 225), a former star recruit who has excellent speed to go with his size. Bourbon hasn't accomplished as much as a receiver as Pierson, but he is actually averaging 6.6 yards per carry and has two touchdowns among his 15 totes. When the Jayhawks go with a true fullback, they pick Nick Sizemore (6-1 245).

As mentioned above, the Kansas receiver position has struggled with inconsistency. And the bad news is that without Pierson and Andrew Turzilli (6-3 195), the Jayhawks are without two of their few big-play guys. Turzilli has just 22 career catches, but three of those are over 40 yards, including a 50-yarder he beat TCU cornerback Jason Verrett for earlier this year. The only other big-play receiver the Jayhawks have is JUCO transfer Rodriguez Coleman (6-3 195), who is averaging 22.8 yards per catch on his five snags, but has struggled with his hands. Tre' Parmalee (5-10 175) is listed as the starter at 'X' opposite Coleman, and he's more of a slot receiver. Justin McCay (6-2 210), a former five-star prospect and Oklahoma transfer, has yet to get going, while Christian Matthews (6-1 196) is also in the rotation.

With those injuries, the rotation is missing two key speed guys, but perhaps more importantly, the Jayhawks don't have a dependable possession guy, somebody who can get open and catch a 10-yard pass on third-and-eight. That kills a lot of drives before they get started.

With Pierson out, Kansas's best receiving option might be tight end Jim May Mundine (6-2 240). Mundine leads the Jayhawks with four touchdown catches, and he's pretty difficult to cover. But while Mundine has star potential, he too has suffered from bouts of uneven play.

Kansas has allowed 20 sacks this year, for a damaging 162 negative yards. In fact, when you take those lost yards out, Kansas's rushing average goes from 3.4 yards per carry (remember that in college, sacks count as lost rushing yards) way up to 4.2 yards per rush. That's still not great for a sack-less rushing average, though … for reference, that would have put the Jayhawks at or near the bottom of the league a year ago. Last year, Kansas averaged better than that, 4.6 yards per carry, with the sacks included.

Some of that comes from a line in constant flux — three of the listed starters for the Texas game are JUCO transfers, and the line's ineffectiveness has led to a general shuffling of players over the course of the season. Lewandowski (6-6 295) plays left tackle basically because somebody has to. In fact, Lewandowski started the first game of the season at center and didn't start a game at left tackle until two games ago. The only two players who have started every game so far at the same position are guards Ngalu Fusimalohi (6-2 310) and Mike Smithburg (6-3 300) on the left and right, respectively. Both of those players joined the program this offseason as JUCO transfers. Kansas has auditioned three different players at center and four different players at the tackle spots, settling, for the moment, on Gavin Howard (6-4 300) in the middle. Howard is one of the few holdovers from the Mark Mangino era … he started six games at right tackle last year. Aslam Sterling (6-5 315) began the year at right tackle and has started every game this season at one of the two tackle spots. He was expected to be one of the team's best players heading in, though he hasn't taken that kind of leap forward yet. If the depth chart holds, this will be just the third game that Kansas has used this offensive line grouping.

Sophomore Matthew Wyman (6-2 200) joined the Kansas football team through walk-on tryouts this past spring, and he's 5-of-9 on field goals this year. His most notable kick was a 52-yarder he hit as time expired to beat Louisiana Tech. He's also 13-of-16 on extra points. Miller and cornerback JaCorey Shepherd (5-11 190) are the kickoff returners, and while they're both good, neither has really broken free. Punt returner Connor Embree (5-10 180) was actually given the job because he's so sure-handed, though he's averaged 15.1 yards per return.

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