Kansas was not exactly an offensive force on the gridiron in 2011.
In fact, not to put too fine a point on it…they were bad. Yards, to say nothing of points, were difficult to come by, as the Jayhawks finished 106th nationally in total offense.
So how does on go about fixing such a malady? Hiring a well-known offensive guru like Charlie Weis as head coach was a great start. Finding an experienced quarterback with top-shelf talent like Dayne Crist was another strong step in the right direction.
But, as always, true, sustained success offensively begins and ends in the trenches. And in 2012, it could be an area of genuine strength for Weis, as he attempts to turn the ship around on Mount Oread.
Three fifth-year seniors return with their positions locked down, forming a strong cornerstone on the left side of the offensive line. Left tackle Tanner Hawkinson, center Trevor Marrongelli and left guard Duane Zlatnik are all seasoned veterans, all in the best shape of their lives - and all ready to lead.
"They're good football players and they're smart and they really want to win again," said first-year offensive line coach Tim Grunhard. "We talked a little about it today. They've done everything they possibly can this summer to give themselves an opportunity to go out as a winner, and I applaud them for how hard they worked this summer."
"They're very, very excited to go out and compete against some of the teams that, quite frankly, have given them a hard time over the past couple of years," he added.
The remaining two spots remain unsettled, with battles taking place for right guard and right tackle between three primary contenders - Gavin Howard, Riley Spencer and JUCO transfer Aslam Sterling.
Sterling is the wildcard; a titanic presence at 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds with surprisingly quick feet for his size. Delays in wrapping up his final junior college classes resulted in his arrival on campus in Lawrence, Kan. on Thursday, and Friday he went through his first drills with the team.
Howard and Spencer are program veterans who spent an entire spring learning Weis' offense and sweating it out in grueling summer workouts with strength coach Scott Holsopple. Size isn't an issue for either of them either, as they both clear 6-foot-4 and top 300 pounds.
But Sterling's girth and athleticism are tantalizing.
"You know guys, I can't answer exactly what he's going to be good at or bad at, but I'll tell you what," Grunhard said. "That's a good place to start, with a guy that size. Right? You can't teach 360 (pounds). You can't teach a guy with good feet. You can't teach a guy that's 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6. That's something special."
With all that size up front, regardless of who wins a spot in the starting lineup come September, one would expect the run game to be an area in which Kansas could excel. Grunhard and the athletes themselves subscribe to that same line of thought.
Much of it has to do with the talent returning in the backfield, the long-time Kansas City Chief and former Roeland Park (KS) Bishop Miege head coach explained. Even with two-year starter James Sims suspended for the first three games due to a violation of team rules, the Jayhawks return one of the Big 12's most explosive talents in Tony Pierson, a bruiser with great speed in Brandon Bourbon and bring in a JUCO transfer - Taylor Cox - who is already turning heads.
During his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, most of it spent under Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer, the former Pro Bowl center learned just how valuable the running game can be to the team as a whole. Not only does it achieve the primary objective of scoring points when it's rocking and rolling, but it keeps the defense on the sidelines and rested.
It's no coincidence the Chiefs boasted both a strong running game and great defenses under Schottenheimer, and Grunhard wants to see that mentality reflected at Kansas.
"I told the guys 'Just get in the way,'" he said. "'Let this guys have an opportunity to run with the football.' Because there are some home-run hitters at the running back position. So I really and truly believe that we'll be able to run the ball, and that's a positive."
But Weis didn't recruit Crist to Kansas for his final year of eligibility simply to have him hand the ball off to a stable of backs. After a somewhat tumultuous and, unfortunately, injury-plagued career with Notre Dame, the cannon-armed signal caller is out to prove he can get it done through the air as well.
In order to do that, he's going to need time, and time means protection. Fortunately, every single member of the offensive line group understands how vital Crist is to the team's hopes for success this season.
"They talk about it every day," Grunhard said. "Trying to keep him healthy and give him an opportunity to step up and throw the ball - not worrying about people falling at his feet, not worrying about people in his face. Dayne and the offensive line have a great relationship, and that's something special."
"I don't know how many games we're going to win," he added. "We're not even going to talk about that. But the one thing I do know is these kids really and truly want to be a part of something great."