From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!
Today I am previewing the Kansas Jayhawks. It might seem like there is a dearth of talent on the Jayhawks, and one might assume that given their abysmal 2-10 record last year and statistically awful defense. However, I was quite pleasantly surprised at the talent level of the Jayhawks roster. There isn’t a lot of depth, but just having talent at all was a bit of a surprise for me honestly. Weis was able to recruit some 5th year seniors eligible for immediate playing time, most notably Dayne Crist, and has a chance to make a run at 6 wins and a bowl game in his inaugural year as Head Coach. I’m not sure they’ll get there, but I think they have a real shot at 4-5 wins. They won’t beat teams like Oklahoma, West Virginia or Texas, but games against San Diego State and Rice are winnable and they won’t be as overmatched against TCU and Illinois as some might assume. I’m not going to guarantee a bowl game for Kansas, but I will guarantee 4 wins. They’re good enough to accomplish that even given the enormous amount of coaching turnover in the last 4 years. So keep an eye on Kansas, they might be good for a shocking upset this season, and if they get a couple breaks against better teams they could find themselves in a bowl game. Here are the prospects to look out for on the Jayhawks:
Dayne Crist, QB- Weis’ first priority was trying to find a quarterback to run his offense at Kansas, and who better than someone he was already familiar with. That undoubtably was the deciding factor in Crist choosing to transfer to Kansas over other schools, and as a result he will have one last shot to show NFL teams what he can do. I don’t anticipate him ever being a NFL starter, and he might not even stick in the NFL despite his obvious arm talent and NFL size. But for Kansas, having a 6’4”, 235 pound quarterback with a rocket arm is something very new and different, and if he performs well it could really help Weis with recruiting. “I picked Dayne Crist off of Notre Dame’s scrap heap and made him productive, imagine what I could do with you!” Regardless, Crist has a chance to show off one last time for evaluators this year, and I hope he makes the most of it. I’ve never been impressed with his poise in the pocket, he doesn’t seem to be “the guy” in big games or moments, and he looks nervous when he is pressured. The key for Kansas will be keeping him clean and giving him functional space, and if they can do that while helping him get the ball out of his hands quickly as they did regularly in the Spring Game then he could be successful this season. I really have no idea what to expect from Crist this year, and I don’t think he’s going to get drafted, but it will be fun to see what he and Weis can do together in his last hurrah as a college quarterback. Crist has been through a lot, and I may not love him as a quarterback prospect, but you want to root for him after his injury issues to both knees at Notre Dame before being benched by Brian Kelly in favor of Tommy Rees. Here’s hoping he has a good season and avoids any further injuries.
James Sims, RB*- Sims was Kansas’ leading rusher last year with 727 yards and 9 touchdowns (4.0 ypc) and the 6’0” 202 pound back with surprising speed had a firm grip on the starting position until he was arrested for a DUI in April leading Charlie Weiss to suspend him for the first three games of the 2012 season. That may not seem like a huge blow, particularly for something as serious as a DUI, but as far as I can tell that is Sims’ first run-in and Weiss has shown that he will not tolerate that kind of behavior as he dismissed 10 players from the team shortly after being named Head Coach. The Jayhawks have a surprising amount of talent and depth at running back, so Sims will have to fight and produce when he comes back from his suspension to earn his job back. He’s got some potential, but I want to see how he does in the final 9 games (or 10 if they can somehow get to a bowl game), but I’m glad Weis is taking a firm stance on these kinds of issues. That’s a quick and easy way to show your players that you aren’t joking around when it comes to keeping yourself out of trouble- suspend your leading rusher and a sure-fire starter when he slips up off the field. Good for Weis.
Tony Pierson, RB**- Pierson is a true sophomore but I really like his upside. He’s a speedster listed at 5’11”, 170 pounds so he could really stand to add some weight to help him hold up as a potential feature back, but on only 71 carries he managed 396 yards and 3 touchdowns as a freshman (5.6 ypc). Brandon Bourbon will be his main competition for the starting job for the first three games, and Bourbon is more of a power back like Sims thanks to his 6’2”, 220 pound size and running style. Look for Pierson and Bourbon to both be mixed in a lot for those first three games, with Bourbon handling short yardage and the Jayhawks trying to get Pierson in space as much as possible. He showed impressive shiftiness as a runner last year and ripped off an 88 yard touchdown run in the Jayhawks’ Spring Game, so look for him to make plays even though he is still young.
Daymond Patterson, WR- Patterson was injured for most of the season last year and chose to take a redshirt so he could come back healthy for one last go-round as a Jayhawks receiver. I’m glad he did, because he is going to be a part of a very intriguing offense this year. They have three returning seniors at receiver in him, Kale Pick and DJ Beshears who have all shown they can produce, they have an intriguing 6’4” target Andrew Turzilli who is just a sophomore, and they have three productive running backs at their disposal. If the offensive line holds up and Crist gets comfortable this could actually be a productive offense. Patterson would play a big role in that, as he had 60 receptions for 487 yards and 2 touchdowns as a junior, his first as a receiver after being converted from corner. He doesn’t have a NFL future at corner, but his unique experience playing corner and his familiarity with tackling will make it easier to play special teams as he fights for a NFL roster spot next year. He’s got pretty reliable hands and the 5’8”, 178 pound receiver has some speed and shiftiness to him. He should be Kansas’ top receiver this year, but he won’t be alone by any means.
Kale Pick, WR- I like Pick a lot, and like many players on Kansas he started his career playing a different position. Pick used to be a quarterback, but last year was his first as a receiver and all the 6’2”, 205 pounder did was catch 34 passes for 344 yards and 2 touchdowns. Not bad for your first season at a totally new position, especially in only 7 starts. Pick figures to be Kansas’ #2 target this year behind only Patterson, and his emergence should allow Beshears and Patterson to play in the slot more. I didn’t see much of Pick last year, but he showed me reliable hands, solid route running and some shiftiness with the ball in his hands. He’s not polished yet, but I think he has a chance to stick as a NFL receiver. I am looking forward to watching him this year.
DJ Beshears, WR- When I saw Beshears catching a pass in the slot I thought he was a running back split out, I didn’t realize he was a slot receiver. He is listed at 5’9”, 185 but may only be 5’8” and his lower body looks more like Maurice Jones-Drew than any receiver I have ever seen. He’s got some burst and solid hands, and while I don’t think he’s draftable at this point it should be interesting to see what he can do in Weis’ offense. He led the team with 40 receptions for 437 yards and 3 touchdowns last season but with Patterson and Pick emerging I think he will be more of a complementary target this year.
Andrew Turzilli, WR**- Turzilli is a sophomore this year and obviously won’t be declaring for the draft, but he presents some very intriguing size and athleticism for Kansas that they haven’t really had in a while. He is listed at 6’4”, 185 pounds and has the size and speed to threaten defenses vertically unlike any other receiver on Kansas’ football team right now. He is behind three senior receivers this year, but that should give him a chance to sneak up on people and create some big plays down the field without getting much attention from defenses. I would be surprised if Weis elected not to use him since he is an intriguing weapon, and a four WR set with Pick and Turzilli on the outside with Patterson and Beshears in the slot sure would be intriguing, and not many defenses in the Big-12 could take that away easily. He’s unproven right now, but I like Turzilli’s upside.
Mike Ragone, TE- Ragone is yet another transfer from Notre Dame that Weis used his former coaching job to pull. Ragone is a senior and has plenty of size at 6’4”, 250 pounds. Like Crist, he has struggled with injuries and Notre Dame just keeps churning out top NFL talent at tight end, most recently Kyle Rudolph and now Tyler Eifert has a shot at the 1st round. That all contributed to Ragone following Weis to Kansas, and he figures to be the starter for the Jayhawks this year. He only has 11 career receptions for 109 yards, so he is far from a proven commodity, but part of that is due to his struggles with injuries and the two NFL players he has been stuck behind. He’s an undrafted free agent at this point for obvious reasons, from a lack of production to injury issues, but it will be interesting to see if Ragone can stay healthy and get some targets in this offense. There’s a very real possibility that if he earns the starting job that he could double his career production in just one season, and it would be really cool to see him score his first collegiate touchdown with his last chance at Kansas.
Tanner Hawkinson, OT- Tanner Hawkinson is likely Kansas’ top NFL Draft prospect at this point, and he has been a mainstay on the offensive line for the Jayhawks, entering his senior season with a remarkable 36 career starts. He started his first 24 at left tackle before moving to the right side last year, but now he is back at left tackle for his senior season. He’s listed at 6’6”, 295 pounds and he moves well for a man his size, and you can tell that he is a former tight end. I’m not sure he will be able to stick at left tackle, but there is some potential for him to do so. He is athletic and his biggest problem is his lack of lower body strength and ability to anchor in my opinion. If he can get even stronger (to be fair, he has added 70 pounds of weight since arriving at Kansas) in his lower half it would help him anchor better versus bull rushes and generate more push in the run game. Right now he’s a late round prospect, but NFL teams might look at his athleticism and see an unfinished product despite the possibility he will leave Kansas with 48 career starts.
Duane Zlatnik, OG- Zlatnik is probably the second best offensive lineman after Hawkinson, but while I am hoping Hawkinson can get stronger that isn’t a problem with Zlatnik. He is listed at 6’4”, 311 pounds and is considered to be the strongest player on the team. I’m not that familiar with him from a technique standpoint, but now that I have uncovered all of this talent on Kansas’ football team I will likely be watching much more of them this season. He enters the year with 21 career starts, 20 of them coming at right guard, but he will be at left guard next to Hawkinson this season.
Toben Opurum, DE- Opurum is a captain and I listened to an interview he did during the spring and I was impressed with what he had to say. He’s a hard worker, a leader, a team captain and seems like a nice kid. Like so many Jayhawks, he started at another position and for Opurum it was running back. He moved to defensive end, bulked up and after transitioning to DE as a sophomore he produced 45 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4 sacks, one forced fumble, and a pass break-up as a junior. He’s Kansas’ top returning pass rusher, and was also credited with 7 QB hurries (I don’t like to list those because they are so subjective and usually poorly recorded). Opurum is listed at 6’2”, 245 pounds and likely won’t be a 4-3 DE at that size. It’s tough to make it as a 4-3 DE when you’re 6’2” or under, and few are productive if they get the chance. Opurum’s best bet is probably as a 3-4 OLB where his size wouldn’t be as problematic and his athleticism may be better utilized. Opurum has impressive burst and speed, and while he is new to the position I think he has a shot to double his TFL and sack production from last season. I think he has 10+ TFL and 8 sacks in him, I really do. I like Opurum and I’m really rooting for him to have a great season and get drafted, and I hope to see him at the East-West Shrine Game this year.
Darius Willis, MLB*- Willis is a junior middle linebacker who has NFL size at 6’2”, 243 pounds and is the team’s 2nd leading tackler who is returning this year. He had 81 tackles, 7 TFL and 1 sack last season, his first with the Jayhawks after transferring from Buffalo and sitting out the 2010 season. He has 14 career starts including his two starts as a freshman at Buffalo, and still has two years of eligibility remaining. The Jayhawks are amassing some talent along the defensive line, so it will be interesting to see how Willis builds on his impressive sophomore season. I particularly want to see how he does in coverage.
Tunde Bakare, OLB/SS- Bakare is a hybrid player that I’m not super familiar with, but I do know that in 7 starts last year the 5’10”, 205 pounder amassed 51 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 pass break-up. The most impressive thing about Bakare is that, according to Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, he has 4.35 speed. That’s blistering, and while he’s not much of a NFL prospect at this point that sure would get the attention of NFL teams and it could help him get a roster spot as an undrafted free agent if he shows up on special teams.
Tyler Patmon, CB*- Patmon is Kansas’ top corner in my opinion, and the junior is listed at 5’11”, 180 pounds. As a freshman he started 9 games and had 45 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack, 10 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown. He followed that up with 7 starts as a sophomore, producing 43 tackles, 2 TFL, four pass deflections and another interception. I haven’t seen him play much so I am interested to see if he can continue his playmaking ways as a junior.
Greg Brown, CB- Brown is another solid corner standing at 5’11”, 185 pounds. He had 6 passes defended as a sophomore and had 43 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 pass deflections and 2 interceptions as a junior. I haven’t seen him play much either, so I want to see if he’s draftable. At this point I don’t have him graded as much more than an undrafted free agent, but a good season this year could help change that.
Bradley McDougald, FS- McDougald is the Jayhawks’ leading returning tackler, producing 89 tackles (68 solo), 4 TFL, 1 sack, 5 pass break-ups, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble as a junior last season. He is another position convert, previously playing wide receiver before transitioning to strong safety during the season as a sophomore and starting 2 games. He started all 12 games last year and even returned 2 punts for an average of 11 per return. The 6’2”, 214 pounder has a unique skill set thanks to his ability to contribute as a receiver early on in his career (he has 52 career receptions for 558 yards and 1 touchdown, so he can catch) and he is a reliable tackler and has shown the ability to make plays in coverage. He’s underrated, and I really think he has a chance to get drafted. If Kansas’ front 7 can improve their back end could make some plays this year, headlined by McDougald.