* Mike Ragone has been blessed with much as a football player - great size, exceptional athleticism and intelligence.
His health, however, has been another issue altogether. The New Jersey native has dealt with his share of injuries since since his prep days, both of the nagging and season-ending variety. Every time it seemed as if he were about to break out during his four years at Notre Dame, another setback would hit.
But Kansas is a chance at a new beginning, especially for prospects such as Ragone - fifth-year senior transfers looking for that one last shot to prove they can play at the next level. And for the first time in...well...forever, he’s healthy enough to do just that.
“The best part is that he’s healthy, and that’s probably the first time going into the season in an eternity for him,” said Head Coach Charlie Weis. “I think that he’s healthy, he’s not limping. He’s a very stout blocker at the point of attack who has got some receiver skills, which should help us both in the running game and the passing game.”
* For now, the situation at running back appears to be clear. We say “for now” because the elephant in the room that is James Sims won’t have a chance to make an impression until the fourth week of the season due to his suspension.
“I think Tony (Pierson) would be first and I think Taylor (Cox) would be second, just the way I said,” Weis noted. “(Brandon) Bourbon is a close third, but that would be the one, two and three. But I see it going that way until 29 (Sims) gets back into the action and that’s not until Week 4.”
By now, Weis said each of the backs has had ample opportunity to show what they can do in practice without worry about a shortage of repetitions.
“We’ve had plenty of reps to go around,” he said. “Trust me. Practices have had a lot of plays.”
* Running back isn’t the only position group where the depth chart appears to be firmed up.
In fact, Weis indicated the vast majority of the two-deep has already been determined - the competitions for spots come to a close.
“Most of them are settled,” he said. “There’s a little gray area, like a couple of guys that got here real late. There’s a little juggling but I’d say over 90-percent of the depth (chart) that you’ll get next Tuesday is already done.”
Of course, the players don’t know that.
“We can’t tell them,” Weis said, smiling. “Here’s what they know - they know if they’re still fighting. They know how close it is. They’re not blind. They can watch the tape and see who is playing better than the others and who is getting more reps because of it. I think when you go by that objectivity and form of analysis it makes things a heck of a lot easier.”
* One of the positions that doesn’t sound as if it’s rock solid just yet is quarterback.
No, not starting quarterback. That’s all Dayne Crist. We’re talking about the backup spot, where redshirt freshman Michael Cummings and JUCO transfer Turner Baty are battling it out for the the No. 2 job.
In recent interviews, Weis indicated Cummings maintained a slight edge on Baty. And as of now, that hasn’t changed.
“Right now, Michael is ahead of Turner,” he said. “And if we were playing a game this week, Michael would be number two. He’s just played better.”
* Opposing fans and media may find this hard to believe, but Weis has confidence in his offense.
And not just one aspect of it. They may be able to guess, for example, that the passing game is looking up with addition of Dayne Crist. But in truth, he’s sounding cautiously optimistic overall.
“I feel good about both of them,” Weis said, of the running and passing games. “I’m not supposed to say that when you’re coming off a 2-10 team, but I feel pretty good about both of them.”
It’s helped that the defense has begun to provide a real challenge, thanks to the influx of new players and the work of Dave Campo and his staff. The pace of play has picked up considerably as the light bulbs begin to flicker on with each individual player.
“It’s been a pain in the butt as an offensive coordinator,” Weis said. “It’s gotten tougher as camp has gone on because they’ve gotten better and better, which is a good thing. As the head coach that’s a wonderful thing.”
* Much has been made of the familiarity between Weis and Crist, and it’s potential as a boon to the offensive capabilities of the team this season.
Weis plans to put a great deal of responsibility on his quarterback’s shoulders immediately - giving him the authority to check out of plays at the line of scrimmage as he sees fit, which is unusual in the college game. He trusts Crist, his intelligence and his understanding of the system.
Which isn’t to say he still can’t find ways to improve.
“Sometimes, quarterbacks who play in this system try to be too cerebral,” Weis said. “And sometimes they have to be reminded they’re the player and not the coach. Try not to do too much in other words. Just do what the play tells you to do. Don’t try to do too much.”
Even so, there’s no doubt Crist’s level of understanding has proven to be an advantage thus far. Weis recalled a recent practice during which Crist audibled into a running play off the left side that went for 30 yards. It was a great call.
Here’s the thing - that play had not been discussed as part of the audible package at Kansas. It was something Crist remembered from his time with Weis three years ago at Notre Dame.
He just smiled, and gave his quarterback what he’s dubbed an “Atta boy.”
“When it works it’s an atta boy,” Weis said. “When it doesn’t work it’s ‘What the hell are you doing?’ They all know that.”
* Tuesday, Weis announced that a handful of walk-ons had earned scholarships for various reasons.
Because Kansas is currently under the scholarship limit, he had a few with which to work and plenty of worthy candidates on the team - Justin Carnes and Shane Smith for their invaluable work on special teams, and Ryan Burton and Brandon Hawks because, in his mind, they exemplify what walk-ons should be. All four are hard workers in the classroom and on the football field.
Weis cleared the scholarships with the administration first, and though he chose to keep the presentation private rather than publicize it, it was clearly a moment he cherished.
“I think as the head coach and together with administration, watching the team’s reaction to those guys, it was pretty good stuff,” he said.
* During the press conference, Weis was asked whether or not he felt the team had bought in by this point - whether they were fully committed. His answer was as direct and honest as any the public has come to expect from him.
“If they weren’t they wouldn’t be here anymore,” he said, simply. “I think that was the important thing. There were people who were against you and then there were a bunch of people on the fence. And those people on the fence can go either way. They either can join you or go against you.”
Not that everyone on the team is happy. It’s just that, now, they’re unhappy for the right reasons - such as their spot on the depth chart or the number of snaps they’re receiving.
“Who wouldn’t want to be playing?” he asked. “You want them to want to play. You want them to be upset that they’re not playing. But you also want them to supress their ego, rise and realize this is about the team. This isn’t about them.”
* Riley Spencer was back on the practice field yesterday after a week off nursing a leg injury.
“He’ll be out there today,” Weis said. “I told you Tuesday, and it’s Tuesday.”
* So much has been said and written about the quarterback and running back positions due to the high level of talent and experience they enjoy, that wide receiver has gone somewhat overlooked by many.
In reality, it is as experienced as any unit on the Kansas roster, with its top three performers - D.J. Beshears, Daymond Patterson and Kale Pick - all seniors. Additionally, Weis has stated before that the level of talent he found at the position surprised him, and it looks as if some new faces have surged into the battle for playing time.
Tuesday, Weis cited the aforementioned three seniors, as well as Chris Omigie, Andrew Turzilli and true freshman Tre Parmalee as all having particularly strong camps - extraordinarily strong in Pick’s case.
Parmalee is probably the biggest surprise, even to Weis himself. When he met with the 5-foot-10, 168-pound wide receiver for the first time as the Kansas coach, he immediately pictured him as a prime redshirt candidate due to his size.
Then camp began, and he made himself impossible to overlook, day after day. Fans got a taste last week during the program’s open practice, when Parmalee scored three touchdowns including two on special teams.
“You bring a kid in, he’s 170 pounds soaking wet and you’re thinking okay, let’s sit him for a year and let him develop,” Weis said. “But he’s just made too many plays. And he’s made them in the return game, he’s made them at receiver and he makes them every day.”
* If there’s one overriding message Weis is delivering to his team right now, it’s this:
A slow start is anathema to success in 2012. They have to jump out of the gates fast and hard.
“I think that everyone else wants to look at the 12 game schedule,” Weis said. “I want to look at one. I have a one game schedule and it’s South Dakota State.”
He makes no bones about wanting to be so sharp and precise come Sept. 1 that they jump all over SDSU and allow themselves to have a little fun, let the fans have a little fun. He expects his team to turn in an impressive performance.
“And then let’s see where it goes from there,” he added. “But I really think my number one message is ‘take them one at a time and put everything into just playing your best game against South Dakota State’. And do not worry about any other team. Do not listen to anyone talk about any other team.”
* Another McDonald, another fifth-year transfer from Notre Dame who sat atop the most recent depth chart at middle linebacker, has been on the stationary bike during practice of late, nursing some bumps and bruises.
It’s by design, Weis explained, because he only knows how to play one way and one speed - tackle to tackle and all out. They want him as healthy as he can be when they need to turn him loose.
But McDonald’s playing style and physical abilities aren’t suited for every single situation. If an opponent is playing on the periphery in space, for example, they’ll need someone with more speed.
Enter Ben Heeney, the talented sophomore from Hutchinson, Kan. who has slid into the first-team role at MLB in McDonald’s absence.
“Heeney has got a lot of athleticism,” Weis said. “Last year you saw him make a bunch of plays on special teams. When you can make plays in the open field on special teams, usually it’s a true indicator that you’ve got yourself some athleticism. And I think he’s responded very nicely to the position.”