First of all, and I think of great importance, this team is both organized and motivated. Coach Mangino has assembled a staff that understands what is needed, and how to work towards achieving the goals this team has set for itself.
Perhaps the most overlooked position in the past, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, has been filled with a pseudo-Drill Sergeant by the name of Chris Dawson. Each practice begins with calisthenics led by Coach Dawson. His booming voice resonates across the field, calling out exercises and shouting encouragement to the players. He starts the process of getting the players focused and excited about the upcoming practice.
The other coaches are equally vocal. I observed quiet moments of instruction and encouragement alongside harder and louder correction of miscues. Defensive Coordinator Bill Young strikes me as someone not to disappoint. He takes no prisoners, and accepts no excuses. I think this is exactly what this team has needed for some time.
This team looks stronger and faster than in the recent past. One encouraging sign is that very few of the players have struggled from a conditioning aspect to get through the practices. Unfortunately, one of the exceptions to that is Phil Tuihalamaka. He was expected to be plugged in on the defensive line to shore up a porous run defense. At this point it seems to me he shows inadequate stamina to be much of a factor for sustained periods of time.
If Big Phil is unable to man the interior consistently, this defense will continue struggle this year. Injuries have started to accumulate, with another important juco transfer also ailing. John McCoy, a 250 lb MLB, was highly recruited and most fans anticipated him stuffing runs as well. He injured his right knee sometime after the first 2 open practices. While it doesn't appear that it will cost him game time, the staff has already shifted the LB corps to involve Nick Reid. Reid was outstanding as an undersized freshman last season, but was expected to help provide depth at safety this year. The official line is that there is sufficient depth without him, but I have my doubts. In my opinion if McCoy and Big Phil cannot go early, the interior of this defense is going to suffer.
Having said that, the secondary should be significantly better this season even if there aren't wholesale changes in personnel. The signing of so many juco DB's with this class was exciting to m, because I felt they would come in and start right away. Not so fast. Remuise Johnson continues to be one of the best corners in the conference, even if he is undersized, and I don't see him going anywhere. The other side is a little more uncertain, with Ronnie Amadi, Marcus Hicks, and Shelton Simmons all seeing time there. If nothing else, the Amadi twins have benefited from a year of experience, and have both improved their strength.
One of the most improved players from last season, in my opinion, is Tony Stubbs. He seems to have finally found a home at safety. He has spent the practices delivering crunching hits to crossing receivers, intercepting passes, and generally making it hard on the offense. His partner at safety could very well end up being Shelton Simmons, although the staff also seems to be impressed with Jonathan Lamb (RSFr). Personally, I don't see it yet with Lamb. He spent most of the third open practice getting burned on long passes, but that might be a miscommunication problem. Also, don't count out Zach Dyer, although he doesn't seem to be getting as many reps as some other DB's.
The offense last season, as long as Bill Whittemore was in the game, was not unimpressive. They were able to score consistently, and would have won a few games if the defense had held up. This year's unit is no different. Losing four offensive linemen is not going to help, but last year's team had a new O-line too, and the replacements seem pretty good. There is legitimate competition at every skill position except QB, and the strength of this team could end up being the receiving corps.
Remember when the starting WR's went 5'7"-5'8"-5'7"? Dem days is gone! There is only one WR currently on the roster shorter than 5'11", and that's senior Derick Mills. The prototype WR for this staff looks to be 5'11"-6'2", with speed. However, juco transfer Scott Bajza stands 6'6", and true freshman Moderick Johnson stands 6'5". Both of them are going to see significant playing time. Johnson may turn out to be the gem of this class. He catches everything thrown at him, and he is deceptively quick for someone as tall as he is.
Mark it down now -- Charles Gordon is going to be a player in this conference. He redshirted last season, and he used that time effectively. He has shown the ability to catch anything, and once he has it in his hands, nothing is going to dislodge it. Gordon has taken a couple of vicious hits over the middle, and he held onto the ball each time.
Often overlooked during Gameball's time on the Hill, the TE position is undergoing renovation. Adrian Jones has shifted to OT, and JUCO transfer Lyonel Anderson has secured the starting spot. The TE will no longer be an extra blocker for Coach Mangino. The TE's on the roster are smaller than in the past (240-250 lbs), but they are also quicker. Watch for freshman Derek Fine in the future, possibly this season. But I believe he will redshirt to gain weight. He was a member of the 2001 class, but had an appendectomy and sat out last year in Oklahoma. He is back up to 220 lbs, and he made several impressive catches in the third open practice. If he were 10-15 pounds heavier, I believe he would be pushing for a starting spot. Denver Latimore is also in the mix, and as the heaviest of the 3, will probably see most of his action in goal line/short yardage running situations.
Finally, there are the running backs. When the dust settled last season, the incumbent TB was dislodged (and disgruntled), and a RSFr named Clark Green had the job. This is a new season, but the story is remarkably similar (except the disgruntled part). Green is penciled in as the starter, but that is written very lightly and the eraser is poised. Jerome Kemp and Jon Cornish redshirted last season and are eager to prove themselves. However, the dark horse favorite has to be John Randle. Highly touted as a cornerback, he committed to KU because they told him he would have a shot at running back. He's getting his shot and making the most of it. While he is a little light by Big 12 standards at 175 lbs, he has shown the ability to make people miss at the line of scrimmage, and is unafraid to take it hard into the line. His only weakness seems to be a case of stone-hands. Of course, catching the ball out of the backfield is a strength of Clark Green. In my opinion, if Green holds onto the #1 spot, this will be the difference.
This is a new season, and the first after a full year of implementing Coach Mangino's game plan and schemes. It's hard to be anything but excited by the changes taking place at KU, and I can't wait until August 30th. Bring on the Wildcats!