When the Big 12 released its pre-season media poll a week ago, it probably didn't come as a surprise to many that the Kansas Jayhawks were situated firmly in the cellar.
It's not hard to understand. After all, the 2010 and 2011 seasons were…well…a pair of colossal train wrecks, not to put to fine a point on it. Last season's 2-10 mark was highlighted by the nation's worst defense, which gave up an average of a hair more than 516 yards per game. The offense didn't fare much better, ranking 106th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Throw in the fact that the Jayhawks were the only team in the conference without a player named to the pre-season All-Big 12 team and it's easy to see where the pessimists might find a foothold.
Just don't look for one inside the Anderson Family Football Complex.
"It's obviously added some motivation, but that's just what the media says," said senior captain Tanner Hawkinson. "Obviously, we play the games for a reason."
Since Charlie Weis was hired as head coach before the start of the year, the attitude surrounding the program has been different. Sure, some of it may be attributable to the excitement that always surrounds a coaching change, but it's difficult to maintain that initial burst without something of substance driving it.
The proliferation of social media has allowed fans - and media - a glimpse into the thoughts of players on a unique level. And if those thoughts are any indication, the Kansas players remain just as excited an eager today - after winter conditioning, spring and an entire summer for the shine to wear off - as they were in December.
It starts with Weis, Hawkinson said, whose initial address and the attitude he brought with him rubbed off on the team, and it was magnified by the quality of the staff he put together.
"Just the respect for those coaches and their knowledge and being able to be taught from them," he explained. "And then also starting (strength and conditioning ) Coach (Scott) Holsopple as well. The type of work that we've been putting in just brings us closer together as a team. I think it's been good for us not only as a team, but for our confidence."
Senior defensive end and linebacker Toben Opurum, also a team captain, echoed Hawkinson's thoughts this week in Dallas during Big 12 Media Days. As a leader of the defense, he is held particular accountable for the unit's performance. And he believes there are a number of reasons to expect improvement this year.
First and foremost, Opurum also pointed to Holsopple and the strength program.
"It's just a different feel," he said. "Every strength coach is going to bring something different to the table, and Coach Holsopple brings a different level of intensity that most people can't handle. With him being a former boxer, we're doing workouts we've never done before."
"Everything we're doing is measured, so you can see your results week by week," Opurum added. "And throughout the summer guys have put on weight, guys have bench press increases, there are squat increases. It's nice to be able to see all this stuff."
The internal optimism goes beyond the hard work they've put in behind closed doors, however. The burly pass-rushing specialist also pointed to defensive coordinator Dave Campo, whose work with the corners has already paid dividends in Opurum's mind. His experience and expertise will be a huge boon to the entire defense.
"And then we've got a lot of guys coming in that we're really depending on to step up and help us out immediately," he noted. "I've seen them work this summer, and I see no reason to think they won't be able to do so."
That nobody outside of the locker room believes in them only serves to fuel the fire inside it.
"I've seen the work that we put in and I understand nobody is working as hard as us," Opurum said. "It's hard for me to think that won't reflect on the field."
"I really feel like, it seems like every year there's a team that really surprises some people," Hawkinson added. "And I'm really confident we can be one of those teams that surprises people from week to week."