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March 31, 2011

Offensive improvement key for Kansas

There was an upset of Georgia Tech and an improbable fourth-quarter rally to stun Colorado, but, overall, Kansas' first season under coach Turner Gill was a disaster.

Just three years after a 12-1 run that included an Orange Bowl victory, the Jayhawks managed just three wins.

Numerous teams across the country have shown dramatic improvement in their coach's second season, and perhaps that will occur in Lawrence, too.

But if that's going to happen, the Jayhawks this spring will need to make major strides with their pass rush and in pass protection, find two new starting linebackers and stabilize the situation at quarterback.

Here's a look at Kansas as it readies for spring practice.

Turner Gill had a rough first year at Kansas.
Coach: Turner Gill
Last season: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in the Big 12 North.
Spring dates: April 1-April 30.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): TE Tim Biere, C Jeremiah Hatch, T Tanner Hawkinson, WR Brad McDougald, WR Daymond Patterson, QB Jordan Webb, G Duane Zlatnik.
Defense (6): CB Isiah Barfield, T Patrick Dorsey, T Richard Johnson, LB Steven Johnson, DB Tyler Patmon, FS Lubbock Smith.
Special teams: None.

Positions of strength

Although the Jayhawks often struggled to move the football on the ground in 2010, the running backs are solid. In fact, depth is good enough that Toben Opurum, the leading rusher in 2009, moved to defensive end last season. Sophomore James Sims only started three games, but he still gained 742 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Two other returning backs rushed for more than 200 yards in reserve roles. Brandon Bourbon was a four-star recruit who played well on the scout team last season; the Jayhawks also signed three running backs in the 2011 class, and Darrian Miller already is on campus.

Help is needed

The passing attack needs an upgrade. KU had as many interceptions as TD passes last season (11), and the deep pass was missing from the offense. Serious work is needed along the offensive line, which returns three full-time starters. A year ago, the Jayhawks averaged only 134.5 rushing yards (87th in the nation) and allowed 37 sacks. Only six teams gave up more sacks. Kansas has some problems to fix in the defensive front, too. Last season, KU was 107th in the country in rushing defense and allowed 30 rushing touchdowns. Furthermore, the Jayhawks managed only 14 sacks, and last season's sack leader, Jake Laptad, has completed his eligibility. KU needs two new starting linebackers. The Jayhawks also are looking for a new kicker and a new punter.

3 guys to watch

LB Huldon Tharp: Two years ago, Tharp posted 59 tackles for the Jayhawks, but he missed last season with a foot injury. He's out to show he's back at full speed this spring. If he picks up where he left off in '09, the Jayhawks' situation at linebacker will improve right away.

QB Jordan Webb: Webb is of three quarterbacks who started games last season. He made seven starts as a redshirt freshman and figures to open as the "starter" in spring workouts. Webb threw more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (seven) last season, so it's vital that he raises his level of performance to ensure that he will remain the starter in the fall.

LB Darius Willis: He started as a freshman at Buffalo in 2009, then transferred when Kansas hired Bulls coach Turner Gill. Willis sat out last season and was named the scout team defensive player of the year. He could solve some problems with a strong spring.

The pressure is on

C Jeremiah Hatch: Hatch, a senior, has been in the startling lineup since his freshman season, but Kansas needs to see more than solid play from him. Hatch needs to provide much-needed leadership for a line that had problems a year ago.

The buzz

Smith's showing at running back and a year of experience for Webb provides some hope that the offense can be better. That's a must if the Jayhawks are to bounce back from their 2010 debacle. They scored 16 or fewer points in all nine of their losses last season. Although there are defensive issues to be addressed, making progress offensively is a priority this spring.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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