Walk into any grocery store or movie shop in Lawrence these days, and for the first time in history, you can purchase a Kansas football highlight video.
The jersey of star linebacker Gabe Toomey is displayed at a local spirit shop. Seat prices are up from last year, but no one seems to care. Heck, so popular is head coach Mark Mangino that, when he goes to Allen Fieldhouse, he's forced to watch Kansas hoops from the tunnel. Sitting in the stands creates too much of a distraction. And they said KU would never be more than a basketball school.
After being shut out of the postseason for seven straight years, the Jayhawks pulled a shocker in 2003 by posting a 6-6 regular-season record and earning a berth in the Mazda Tangerine Bowl.
The turnaround -- which came after a 2-10 campaign in Mangino's inaugural season of 2002 -- has sparked a buzz about Kansas football. Thrilled as he is with the hoopla, Mangino has managed to keep a realistic approach about the state of his program.
"We're still under construction. That's the best way to put it. I'm very comfortable with the program, but we know we have a lot of work to do."
OffenseKansas set 12 offensive school records in 2003, but the player who helped the Jayhawks do it has graduated. Replacing quarterback Bill Whittemore -- the main reason Kansas was able to resurrect its program -- won't be easy. But Mangino believes he has something special in sophomore Adam Barmann.
"You can't just replace someone like Bill with a few snaps of the fingers," Mangino said. "He did an awful lot for our team. But we like the quarterbacks we have in our program. I'm very comfortable with that position."
Considering he started three games last year while Whittemore was injured, Barmann shouldn't have any jitters when he takes the field for Kansas' opener. Also comforting is the fact that the Jayhawks return three starters on an offensive line that yielded just 19 sacks last season. Tailbacks John Randle and Clark Green combined for 1,471 rushing yards in 2003. Look for both to see extensive action this fall.
The biggest strength of the offense, however, is the receiving corps. Even with Charles Gordon (57 catches) moving to cornerback, this is a unit that boasts talent and depth. Look for Mark Simmons to be Kansas' main deep threat for the second straight year.
DefenseIf Kansas' defense has any strength, it rests with the linebacking corps of Toomey, Nick Reid and Banks Floodman. The threesome averaged 115.7 tackles in 2003 and looked even better in the spring.
Kansas' defensive line and secondary, however, are another story. Opposing runners averaged nearly five yards per carry against a horrendous KU defensive line last season. Mangino is hoping the addition of tackles James McClinton and Todd Haselhorst, as well as the return of Travis Watkins (broken foot), helps shore up that problem. Kansas, which tallied just 23 sacks in 2003, also needs to put more pressure on the quarterback. Junior college transfers Jermail Ashley and Charlton Keith should provide assistance, along with an emerging John McCoy.
Expect Gordon, the receiver-turned-cornerback, to be the top player in a secondary that includes two junior college transfers in safety Rodney Harris and cornerback Theo Baines.
SpecialistsKansas couldn't ask for two better kick returners than Randle and Greg Heaggans. And Gordon ranked among the national leaders in punt returns last season. It's the punting and kicking, however, that give Kansas' special teams an iffy feel heading into the season.
Gone is punter Curtis Ansel, a Ray Guy Award finalist who pinned 19 punts inside the 20-yard line last season. Kicker Johnny Beck made just 9-of-16 field goal attempts and was a measly 1-of-6 from 40 yards and beyond.
Final AnalysisKansas' berth in the 2003 Tangerine Bowl marked the Jayhawks' first postseason appearance since 1995. Still, Mangino is keeping his team's 6-6 regular-season finish in perspective.
"I have no illusions about 6-6 meaning anything more than that we've made progress," Mangino said.
Kansas is faced with a significantly tougher schedule than the one it played in 2003. Eight of the Jayhawks' 11 opponents played in bowl games last year. All of it means that there's little room for error. That could be too much to handle for a new quarterback and a defense littered with fresh faces.