Can Kansas top last season's out-of-nowhere Orange Bowl win?
Although no one asked directly Tuesday during Kansas Jayhawks football head coach Mark Mangino’s 10-minute questions at the Big 12 Media Day event, many of the scribes tried to nibble a response to perhaps the most boiling question on their minds: “How do you top 2007?”
The Jayhawks finished 12-1 and recorded an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, and the feat was still considered unbelievable almost a year after it had taken place. Mangino felt he knew all along that Kansas was going to shock a lot of people, even putting away talk of a poor non-conference schedule and getting the Jayhawks to the No. 1 ranking on both main national polls.
But Mangino stressed more about looking to the future and the intention of the Jayhawks of 2008 to show that 2007 wasn’t a fluke.
“You know, coming off a pretty good season last year, expectations are very high for our program in Lawrence, in the state of Kansas, and around the country. And we're extremely excited about that,” Mangino said. “We embrace those expectations because there was a time when I first arrived here that there were no expectations for Kansas's football program, and the fact now that people are taking a look at our program and seeing that we're competitive and we're able to compete at a high level here in a great conference like the Big 12.
“We think we're going to have a pretty good football team again,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, though. We're not really as good as we need to be today. I'd like to think by the end of August, we'll be pretty good football team. But we are looking forward to the season with the same great expectations that our fans have.”
Nine starters return to the Jayhawks’ defense, which was a key part of the success in 2007. Kansas gave up an average of 94.8 yards rushing per game and intercepted 23 passes on the season.
Defensive back Brandon Stuckey said the one loss of the season to Missouri has kept his squad in an even keel as they prepare for the upcoming season.
“Anytime you come back and you have nine out of 11 guys still on the team from last year and players with experience replacing the (other) two guys, you have to believe that we can do better,” Stuckey said. “And our strength coach (Chris Dawson) will bring (Missouri) up when we’re not working out hard or struggling in the workout as a team.
“You learn from it and you realize that without that game, you wouldn’t be as strong as you are today, or as humble. You realize there’s still a lot of room to grow. You get to be better than 12-1 by filling in the margins of error, filling the void of the games that you didn’t fulfill the execution of the play like you should. We know we can get through anything as long as we work together and believe in each other. ”
Kansas also returns six starters on offense, including quarterback Todd Reesing. Reesing (3,486 yards, 33 passing touchdowns, seven interceptions) goes from battling for the starting QB position to being the main playmaker and stabilizer for the Jayhawks this season; and although he’ll be the focus of fans and opponents alike, it’s not necessarily how he’s looking at his situation.
“Everyone plays well as a team, and I think that’s why we played so well last year,” Reesing said. “We didn’t have a bunch of individuals; we didn’t have guys who wanted the spotlight. It really came down to how those 11 guys are going to play as one. Anytime you can do that, then you have a chance.
“I don’t look like (I’m underappreciated). I’m not looking to get hype or do this or that. I have my Orange Bowl ring, and I’m happy with that. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says -- it’s what you do on Saturday.”
One area that will be questioned will be the running back spot. Brandon McAnderson graduated and former Salina Central back Jake Sharp will have company in the back with Jocques Crawford, who was the NJCAA offensive player of the year at Blinn (Texas) Community College.
Mangino said the running game will be fine, considering the returning players and the addition of Crawford, who gained 3,004 yards and scored 27 touchdowns in his two years with Blinn.
“We have a few candidates for the position,” the head coach said. “We've got Jake Sharp who played well for us last year. We're hoping we can get some work out of Angus Quigley. Angus is a guy who has been injured most of his career here and last year when he was healthy, his transition into being a full-time player was maybe a little bit slower than we had anticipated. It took him a while to knock the rust off, so to speak.
“We have other guys in the program that are talented. Of course, Jocques Crawford we'll find out when he steps on the field August 1 what he'll be able to do. We have high expectations for him. Like any other player that comes from junior high or high school, he has to prove that he can play at this level every down. I think he will, but we'll wait and see.”
Senior linebacker Mike Rivera said even if something happens and the Jayhawks falter some time during the regular season, the big picture could still mean the level of Kansas football will be solidified by the time January rolls around. That means, however, that the focus the players have at the start of the season can’t waver as the year rolls along.
“If you have two or three losses and 10 wins, that’s still a good season,” senior linebacker Mike Rivera said. “We have people who do ask us if we’re going to go to the Orange Bowl game this year. Yeah, it’s our ultimate goal, but that’s not what we need to have our focus on. I have confidence in saying we’re going to do a good job this year.
“We have to focus on the first game; (and) we have to focus on two-a-days in the summer. We have to get through those little mountains before we get to the big stuff. It is nice people are asking about if we’re going to go to a bowl game, considering it’s been up-and-down where we go to a bowl game, then we don’t, and then we go (to the Orange Bowl).”
John Curtis is sports editor at the Augusta Daily Gazette in Augusta, Kan.