From 2004 through 2007, Kansas head coach Mark Mangino had the upper hand on Bill Callahan. In Lincoln, Nebraska hung on to win 14-8 in 2004 and 39-32 in overtime in 2006. In Lawrence, it was another matter entirely as the Jayhawks blasted Nebraska 40-15 in 2005 and that infamous 76-39 rout in 2007. Last season in Lincoln, Nebraska fared better against the Jayhawks in winning 45-35, a score that to me was much closer than the game was. Nebraska went minus-two in turnovers, and turned in a Jekyll/Hyde performance on defense. The Blackshirts forced 7 punts, but also gave up six plays of more than 20 yards.Much of the credit for those big plays goes to the Jayhawk offense, and the core offensive skill players all look to return in 2009. It all starts with senior quarterback Todd Reesing, who's already set 30 school records. In any other conference, Reesing would probably be a star, but the Heisman candidates in the South division cast a huge shadow. Last season, he completed 66% of his passes for 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. There's no argument from anybody that he's the best quarterback in the North division going into 2009.
Eight of Kansas' top nine receivers return in 2009 including second team all-Big XII and honorable mention all-American Dezmon Briscoe. Well, Briscoe hopes to return as he was suspended from spring practice to clear up some academic issues. Briscoe caught 92 passes for 1407 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Backup senior quarterback Kerry Meier moonlights at wide receiver as long as Reesing stays healthy; last season, Meier caught 97 passes for 1045 yards and 8 touchdowns. Junior Johnathan Wilson rounds out the receiver corps, adding 43 receptions last season.
Jake Sharp returns for his senior season at running back after back-to-back 800 yard seasons the last two seasons. Senior Jocques Crawford left the team last month, leaving bruising freshman Toben Opurum as a possible backup to create a thunder and lightning tandem for the Jayhawks. Other candidates include converted wide receiver Rell Lewis and Deshaun Sands, whose father Tony ranks second on Kansas all-time rushing charts.
Running room could be tough to come by, with only two returning starters on the offensive line in sophomores Jeff Spikes at right tackle and Jeremiah Hatch, who moves from left tackle to center this season. Two redshirt freshmen in right guard John Williams and left tackle Tanner Hawkinson are expected to be thrown into the fire as starters, and possibly a third at left guard with Trevor Marrongelli, who's battling with junior Sal Capra. Lots of questions and inexperience to open the season, though those questions could be answered by mid-November when the Huskers come to town. If this line develops, they could become the standard for the Big XII North --- in 2011.
On defense, seven starters from a defense that ranked in the middle of the Big XII last season. Up front, junior defensive end Jake Laptad and senior defensive tackle Caeb Blakesley return after earning honorable mention all-Big XII last season. Also returning is junior defesive tackle Jamal Green, who added 21 tackles, 7 for losses last season as a part-time starter.
The Jayhawks will need to replace all three linebackers, who all happened to be the top tacklers on last season's defense. Kansas is switching to a 4-2-5 alignment to offset their lack of depth at linebacker with their depth in the secondary. Among the candidates to start is former running back Angus Quigley, who made the switch during bowl practice last December.
The entire secondary returns for the Jayhawks, led by senior all-Big XII safety Darrell Stuckey, who is the team's leading returning tackler (98) and pass interceptor (5). Juniors Phllip Strozier and Chris Harris, the 2007 Big XII defensive newcomer of the year, should start at the other safety and nickel spots. Senior cornerback Justin Thornton and sophomore cornerback Daymond Patterson, who switched from wide receiver to starting corner midway through last aseason, also return.
While many preseason national magazines picked the Jayhawks to win the Big XII North this season, the media has hedged their bets because of the questions on the offensive line, linebacker, and the Jayhawks schedule. The Jayhawks must face the gauntlet of Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech, which might potentially put them a game behind Nebraska and Missouri in the Big XII North race. That's a dangerous position with a rapidly improving Baylor squad in the South division. As such, the North division may come down to the winner of the round-robin between Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas. If that's the case, it may be to the Jayhawks advantage since Kansas hosts Nebraska and plays Missouri less than an hour away at Arrowhead in Kansas City.