LAWRENCE, Kan. — Charlie Weis is entering the third year of his five-year contract at Kansas, so he knows better than anyone that the Jayhawks need to start winning games in a hurry.
The longtime Big 12 doormat won just once in his first season and three times last year, including a conference victory over West Virginia. But for Weis to feel good about the progress that has been made, it might take going at least .500 for the first time since 2008.
"When we hand out a roster, this is the best we feel by a wide margin about the talent we have here," Weis said Thursday during his first availability of fall camp. "But that being said, we’ve done very little to back that up, me included. So we’ll see how it goes."
There are certainly reasons for Weis to feel better about this season than any other.
Despite losing leading rusher James Sims and several other contributors from last season, the Jayhawks finally appear settled at quarterback, have their best wide receiver corps since Weis has been on campus, and have a defense stocked with seniors that should be drastically improved.
Throw in the energy brought by new offensive coordinator John Reagan, who has scrapped the pro-style offense of Weis in favor of a spread approach, and optimism abounds.
"I certainly see the progress on defense, and I see evidence of it on special teams, and I think that what we’re doing offensively gives us a better chance to win," Weis said. "If I didn’t think it gave us a better chance to win, we wouldn’t have made the changes we did."
Weis and Reagan took all the drama out of the biggest question mark in the spring when they appointed sophomore Montell Cozart the starting quarterback over a couple of upperclassmen.
Not only did Cozart finally provide some stability for a position that has been vexing at Kansas for years, he also has the skill set to run Reagan’s offense. He’s an accurate passer on the run, and his elusiveness when he escapes the pocket gives the Jayhawks another dynamic.
"He brings athletic ability and somebody that can get us out of a lot of trouble," tight end Jimmay Mundine said. "He can extend the play, get a first down and throw downfield."
Mundine, who fits the Jimmy Graham mold of pass-catching tight ends, figures to benefit from the stability at quarterback. So does a deep wide receiver corps that includes Justin McCay, who struggled after transferring from Oklahoma last season, and Nick Harwell, who was one of the most productive wide receivers in the MAC before transferring from Miami of Ohio.
Of course, just about any production from the wide receivers would be an improvement over last season, when Mundine, Sims and fellow running backs Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon each had more catches than the top wide receiver (Christian Matthews had 11 for 107 yards).
That paltry production is a big reason Weis decided to hire Reagan away from Rice, where he helped the Owls beat the Jayhawks each of the past two seasons.
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Reagan was the running game coordinator at Kansas in the mid-2000s under Mark Mangino, and helped the Jayhawks to arguably the best stretch in school history. They went 12-1 in 2007 and capped the season with an Orange Bowl victory, and went 8-5 the following year.
"From the very first phone call with coach Weis, he said he wanted to give up control of the offense and spend his time being the head coach," Reagan said. "He wanted someone to come in and run the spread offense, and that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s allowed me to do what we want to do. He’s sat back and saw things and mentioned them, but it’s our offensive staff’s offense."
It’s a similar change to the one made on defense last year, when Dave Campo became "assistant head coach" for the defense and Clint Bowen became defensive coordinator. Bowen also has deep ties to the school, playing for the Jayhawks and working for them off and on since 1996.
"Our side of the ball, it’s been smooth," Bowen said. "Coach Campo and the rest of our defensive coaches, it’s a team effort, and when you’re part of a program, part of a team, all those personal egos go out the window."