Let’s talk a little bit about this senior class at the University of Kansas.
It’s not every departing group of footballers who can lay claim to experiencing the heights of success while wearing the Crimson and Blue. That’s one of the harsh realities of playing for a program with a lifetime winning percentage just a hair north of .500.
Through the years, however, there have been a few classes who have proven that things like Orange Bowls and top 10 national rankings are possible on Mount Oread.
The 1968 team, for example, ended the season ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press, losing to No. 6 Penn State in the Orange Bowl. The 1995 team earned a final AP ranking of No. 11, and defeated No. 25 UCLA in the Aloha Bowl.
And then there’s the 2007 team, arguably the greatest in the history of Kansas football. That squad not only won 12 games and defeated No. 5 Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, it came tantalizingly close to a shot at the National Title game.
That team had an incredible collection of talent, and not just raw talent, but experienced talent. Names like Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier, Aqib Talib, Brandon McAnderson, Anthony Collins, Mike Rivera, Joe Mortensen and James McClinton won’t be soon forgotten by Kansas fans.
Even so, a couple freshmen managed to make their presence known that year. Chris Harris started 10 games opposite Talib at cornerback, recording an interception in the Orange Bowl and 65 tackles on the season.
Defensive end Jake Laptad earned All-Big 12 freshmen honors from The Sporting News, playing in all 13 games as a true freshmen. He recorded 20 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, including three sacks.
Go a year further down the timeline, however, and their impact becomes even more evident. Wide receiver Johnathan Wilson was the team’s third-leading wide receiver in 2008, with 43 receptions for 573 yards and three touchdowns. He started all but one of the 13 games of the season.
Offensive lineman Sal Capra played in virtually every game as a sophomore reserve on that squad.
Kicker Jacob Branstetter hit nine of 12 field goal attempts and was the team’s placekicker all season long � in addition to recording an astonishing seven tackles on kickoff coverage.
Safety Philip Strozier started the final six games of the season, recording 36 tackles, two interceptions, and one very, very important blocked field goal that sealed the Jayhawks’ improbable come-from-behind victory in the Border War versus Missouri.
Almost every one of the 19 seniors who trotted out onto the turf at Memorial Stadium for the last time Saturday managed to make an impression early in their careers � and those that didn’t were invaluable as backups and practice squad players. Their contributions helped prove that not only was success possible at Kansas, but so was sustained success.
While it is tough for any program to produce back-to-back 12 win seasons, the 2008 Jayhawks went 8-5 with a blowout victory over the University of Minnesota in the Insight Bowl to boot.
Back-to-back winning seasons, bowl appearances, and bowl victories � and it seemed as if the best was yet to come. At long last, the Jayhawks looked to have a stew going.
As everyone knows by now, however, things didn’t exactly go as planned. Injuries and controversy within the program led to a disappointing 5-7 record in 2009, along with the ouster of former head coach Mark Mangino.
The hiring of Turner Gill as his replacement brought renewed hope to the program, but it didn’t last long. A rash of injuries, departures, and the issues inherent to dealing with a major coaching change have put the Jayhawks in position to end the season in the cellar of the Big 12 with a 3-9 record.
But as surprising as it may seem, that record doesn’t completely define what the 2010 season has been about.
This column has touched on themes of improvement and hope a great deal in the past few weeks, and with good reason. It hasn’t always been reflected in the win column, but the Jayhawks have been taking steady strides forward since falling to Texas A&M 45-10 on Oct. 23. They’ve shown heart and fight and intensity, and everything a first-year coach could hope to see.
Since he arrived, Gill has stressed the importance of the veteran leadership on this team. It’s one thing to hear lessons from a coach, but another thing entirely to hear it from a peer.
And senior leadership is something for which this year’s team has certainly not lacked. Even amidst a season that has produced disappointing results on the field, players like Harris and Laptad, Brad Thorson and Justin Springer, have helped show their younger proteges that it is possible to win at Kansas, and win big.
The foundation is there. Now it’s up to Gill and Co. to build on it in the seasons to come.