Charlie Weis does not talk. He seduces. He hypnotizes. When he tells you how smart he is and how well he can build a college football program, you look at him, you nod your head, and you walk away convinced that, wow, this man can build a college football program!
The evidence, on the other hand, might disagree a bit. Weis inherited a stagnant Notre Dame program and immediately steered Tyrone Willingham's recruits to a 19-6 record in two seasons. But despite stellar, consistent recruiting classes, the program bottomed out in Year 3 with a majority of his own signees. The Irish rebounded to a certain degree, but in his final three seasons in South Bend, Weis led his team to just a 16-21 record. After a strong year as the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive coordinator, he took over the same role at the University of Florida… and the Gators ranked 65th in Off. F/+. After a decade as a head coach, college offensive coordinator and NFL offensive coordinator, Weis has officially proven one thing: that he is a great NFL offensive coordinator.
That said, despite general curiosity about the hire of Weis (he has seduced a good portion of the Kansas fan base, but outside of the state, few viewed it as an amazing hire), he has not yet proven that he is incapable of building something decent at a school like Kansas. After all, while he failed to live up to expectations at Notre Dame, he did still piece together a bowl-eligible team in four of five seasons. Considering the Jayhawks have not been bowling since 2008 and have gone just 5-19 the last two seasons, six wins would certainly not be viewed harshly. Mark Mangino proved that you can put a quality product on the field in Lawrence, at least occasionally, and for all of Weis' struggles at the collegiate level, it is not out of the realm of possibility for him to do the same.
Charlie Weis is cocky and witty, stubborn and confident, successful and unsuccessful. It makes sense, then, that he is inheriting a contradictory program that has, in the last five years, gone both 12-1 and 2-10, fielding both one of its best teams ever in 2007 and two of its worst in 2010-11. The bar for him would have been set quite low had he not tried his damnedest to raise it this offseason. But even if he is destined to succeed in Lawrence, it probably won't happen in 2012. His first Kansas squad will almost certainly improve, but only so much.
When he was head coach of the Buffalo Bulls, Gill was known for milking every last ounce of talent out of his players, teaching conservative, fundamental football. His teams forced fumbles, created breaks for themselves, and won a surprising MAC title in 2008. It was easy to look at his profile and think, "Just imagine what he could do with a higher level of talent!" Well, when he took the Kansas job last winter, he inherited a squad that seemed to have, by far, less talent than most of the rest of the conference. They had a decent young back that wasn't as good as everybody else's decent young backs. They had a couple of solid linebackers who weren't as good as everybody else's. Their offensive line was decent but not good enough to account for the lack of skill position talent.
With a gap this large, Kansas needed to take risks to win with this level of talent, and that isn't entirely in Gill's nature. The team was young enough that it isn't impossible to think things could improve when last year's freshmen are seniors, but it is nearly impossible to imagine the Jayhawks succeeding to much degree this coming fall. According to F/+ rankings, Kansas ranked dead last among BCS conference teams last year. Ask Washington State or Duke how long it takes to build from that. […]
[T]hat Washington State specter looms. Teams don't collapse out of nowhere like this and immediately rebound with much velocity. While Gill figures out what he has (and preferably begins to think about a new pair of coordinators with an actual underdog mentality), it's not hard to see Kansas improving a bit and at least showing occasional saltiness in the fall; but it's also not hard to see the Jayhawks bottoming out. Kansas fans should look for individual progress from some of the youngsters -- Webb at quarterback, Sims, Sands and Miller at running back, et cetera -- in the hopes of building for 2012-13, but 2011 is most likely not going to be too pleasant an experience in Lawrence, especially not with their most winnable conference game (Iowa State) coming on the road.
Well, at least it didn't get worse in 2011. After falling from 56th to 113th in F/+ rankings in Turner Gill's first year, the Jayhawks stabilized, relatively speaking, and ranked 113th again in 2011. They followed a 2-0 start with an 0-10 finish, but they at least had their moments. For every huge loss (to Georgia Tech by 42, to Oklahoma State by 42, to Texas by 43, to Texas A&M by 54), there was an encouraging step. They built leads of 20-0 to Texas Tech, 7-3 to Iowa State, 24-3 to Baylor and 10-0 to Missouri but fell in all four contests. Strength and conditioning were issues with this squad, as was the special teams unit, but really, it just came down to talent. Kansas had enough to occasionally make things interesting for 30 minutes but not nearly enough to last for 60.
Sometimes when you inherit a rebuilding job, you have to take the time to build morale and help with players' psyches. This isn't really a Charlie Weis strength, but it also isn't what the Kansas job currently requires. Before he could worry about anything psychological, Weis had to address a the dearth of talent. And all things considered, he did a decent job. You aren't going to sign Top 10 recruiting classes at Kansas, but through the transfer market (and his Notre Dame connections), Weis assured that the 2012 Kansas squad will be, if nothing else, more talented than the 2011 squad. Now he just has to show he can coach it.
Because of the wealth of personnel moves, it might be best to simply go unit-by-unit and compare this year's Kansas squad to last year's.
- Quarterback: Better. Dayne Crist transferred from Notre Dame for his final collegiate season. While he has not lived up to the five-star billing he received in high school, a) I spent a good portion of last season thinking he got a raw deal from Brian Kelly in South Bend, and b) he is, almost without question, an upgrade over Jordan Webb, last year's starter. Webb was certainly plagued by a nonexistent receiving corps -- his options were to basically to complete short passes that went nowhere or wait in vain for receivers to get open downfield and eventually get sacked. Still, Crist is more physically gifted than Webb, and his ceiling is quite a bit higher. He lends a clear veteran presence to the squad, and being that he originally signed with Notre Dame to play for the Charlie Weis offense, one would think this might end up a pretty good fit.
- Running Back: Same. I could be talked into saying this unit is better, too. Last year's leading rusher, junior James Sims, is suspended for three games, and the No. 2 back, Darrian Miller, transferred. But they combined to average just 4.0 yards per carry; their losses are not crippling. In their place, we will apparently see a combination of sophomore Tony Pierson, sophomore Brandon Bourbon, junior college transfer Taylor Cox and converted receiver Marquis Jackson. Pierson is potentially the most explosive player on the team; he averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a freshman and ripped off an 88-yard touchdown in the spring game. Jackson was exciting in the spring game as well, scoring three second-half touchdowns. The ceiling is quite a bit higher with the more carries these two backs get, but it is difficult to officially declare the unit better when it is without Miller and without Sims for a quarter of the season.
- Receiving Corps: Better. This is almost by default. Last year's unit returns almost intact (of the seven players targeted more than 10 times last season, six return) and adds senior Daymond Patterson (Kansas' leading receiver in 2010, who missed almost all of last season with injury), senior tight end Mike Ragone (a former four-star signee at Notre Dame who has struggled to stay healthy and found himself behind Tyler Eifert on the depth chart), and two interesting, three-star junior college transfers: receiver Josh Ford and tight end Charles Brooks. Patterson was nothing but a possession receiver in 2010, and there is nothing guaranteeing that Ragone will stay healthy or Ford and Brooks will catch on quickly; but last season's receiving corps was just so bad that any additions make this a better unit. Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay will make this group even better, but he's sitting out 2012.
- Offensive Line: Worse. This was, relatively speaking, the strength of the offense last year, with a fourth-year starter in center Jeremiah Hatch and two third-year starters in tackles Tanner Hawkinson and Jeff Spikes. But the problem with third- and fourth-year starters is that they will be leaving soon. Hatch and Spikes are both gone, leaving behind Hawkinson (36 career starts) and just two other players with starting experience: seniors Duane Zlatnik (21 career starts) and Trevor Marrongelli (18). This unit does still return 75 career starts, but Hatch and Spikes are both solid losses.
In 2010, Weis' Chiefs offense led the NFL in rushing. But it bears mentioning that, despite the "decided schematic advantage" that Weis proclaims to bring to the table, he's never really fielded a good run game at the college level. He's going to have to at Kansas; his most explosive weapon (Pierson) is back there, and unless a newcomer like Josh Ford comes up big, he still isn't going to find many big plays in the passing game, even with Daymond Patterson back. This offense should be better than last year's, but "better" doesn't necessarily mean "good."
One of the most baffling decisions Turner Gill made at Kansas was hiring Carl Torbush as his defensive coordinator. Torbush was once a big name in the coordinator world, but it had been quite a while since he had been at the helm of a big-time defense. That didn't change at Kansas. Still, having Carl Torbush was still better than basically not having a defensive coordinator. Torbush was forced to retire last May when diagnosed with prostate cancer. Vic Shealy was promoted to coordinator just months before the season began, and he attempted to implement a last-second change to a 3-4 look. It didn't take. The Kansas defense, which had already sunk from 65th in Def. F/+ to 94th in 2010, collapsed to 111th in 2011. The Jayhawks almost literally did nothing well on defense. They couldn't defend standard downs (99th) or passing downs (104th), they were abhorrent versus the pass (103rd in Passing S&P+), and they almost had the single worst pass rush at the FBS level (115th out of 120 teams). They were slightly better against the run (89th in Rushing S&P+) and in the red zone (78th), but this was easily one of the country's worst BCS defenses.
There were snickers when Weis brought in Dave Campo as his defensive coordinator -- Campo is best known for his time as the cartoon character in charge of the Dallas Cowboys -- but Campo with a full offseason to prepare and something resembling a plan in place, he should still be an upgrade over what Kansas had. What about his personnel?
- Defensive Ends: Better. It is difficult to get too excited about defensive ends on a unit that was so awful at getting to the quarterback last year, but between senior Toben Opurum (10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks), Nebraska transfer Josh Williams and speed rusher Michael Reynolds, it is potentially one of the more interesting units on the defense. Still, Williams and Reynolds combined for just 2.0 tackles for loss, and junior Keba Agostinho added another 2.0. That isn't great. Even if the ends double last year's disruptive production, that still only gets them so far.
- Defensive Tackles: Worse. Kansas ranked 81st in Adj. Line Yards, which, for this team, qualified as a relative strength. The losses of starters Richard Johnson, Jr., and Patrick Dorsey, then, probably isn't a good thing. Still, between senior John Williams (who missed most of 2011 with injury), juniors Shane Smith and Randall Dent (combined: 4.0 tackles for loss, one pass broken up), sophomore Pat Lewandoski (2.0 tackles for loss, two passes broken up), and juniors Ty McKinney and Jordan Tavai, there is still both potential and experience here.
- Linebackers: Better. Despite weakside linebacker Steven Johnson's best efforts (6.0 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two passes broken up), the linebacking corps was quite weak in 2011. Johnson's departure isn't good, but junior Darius Willis (8.0 tackles for loss) returns, juniors Huldon Tharp and Prinz Kande should have at least some potential, freshmen Schyler Miles and Courtney Arnick were three-star recruits, and Notre Dame transfer Anthony McDonald should ensure that the unit is better and deeper than a year ago. McDonald was stuck behind Manti Te'o in South Bend; there isn't a Te'o in Lawrence, at least not one good at football.
- Secondary: Same. Of the eight defensive backs who logged at least 13.0 tackles in 2011, only four return in 2012. That said, it is difficult to get worked up about the losses. Safety Bradley McDougald is one of the most interesting, disruptive players on the roster (5.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions, five passes broken up last year), and while it is difficult to expect improvement, the return of players like corners Tyler Patmon and Greg Brown and safeties Lubbock Smith and Victor Simmons should ensure that the unit doesn't get worse.
Once again, Kansas plays two inferior opponents in the first two weeks (though neither South Dakota State nor Rice are a 100-percent guaranteed win), then faces a brutal gauntlet. If they win those first two games, take out Northern Illinois in DeKalb and steal a home win (say, Iowa State), that would give them four wins, just one fewer than Turner Gill's combined win total. That seems incredibly successful to me.
Through transfers and junior college signees, Weis has put together a more talented roster than the one he inherited from Turner Gill. And I feel it is important to note that, after his 2007 collapse at Notre Dame, he engineered improvement in each of his final two seasons in South Bend, from 88th in F/+ in 2007, to 52nd in 2008, to 36th in 2009.
This felt like a terrible hire to anybody who remains unseduced by Weis -- and for all we know, we will quickly find out that we were right -- but that doesn't mean it is guaranteed to fail. He will need to continue to upgrade the talent level in one way or another in coming seasons, but he still doesn't face an entirely impossible task in Lawrence. That is, unless you are expecting him to quickly put the pieces together. It's going to take him a while.
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