* Ever wonder if Charlie Weis uses the fact that the team he inherited has won a combined five games during the past two seasons as...ah...motivation?
He does - and the 2010 season-opener in particular. Fans may remember - if they haven’t scrubbed it from their memories - that as the game the Jayhawks fell to North Dakota State University in what was thought to be merely a warm-up game for the following week’s tilt with Georgia Tech.
“I’m always jabbing them about a whole bunch of things,” Weis said. “I live in the present and future and I don’t really live in the past. But I think that bringing back moments from the past both good and bad are always good teaching points.”
Weis prides himself on his ability as a psychological motivator - a man capable of finding out what makes an individual tick and then pressing the right buttons to most effectively motivate them. That’s why it’s not all stick when he’s working on his team’s focus. There’s plenty of carrot, too, such as the memory of the 2007 Orange Bowl; evidence of the heights to which the program is capable of ascending.
Needless to say, overconfidence or a lack of focus isn’t likely to find its way into his pre-game speech Saturday.
“I don’t think we’re worrying about being overconfident,” Weis said. “We just lost 100 in a row. I don’t think there’s any overconfidence on our part. I think we’re just trying to win one, and the one we’re trying to win is this one.”
* It’s not unreasonable to think that a head coach might lose a little sleep the night before his season opener, particularly when that season opener represents his first game with a new program.
Not Charlie Weis, though he doesn’t sleep much anyway.
“I don’t get nervous, I don’t really get anxious,” he said. “I’m really excited for our team to see how they’re gonna play. More than anything else we’ve been talking about this stuff forever, and it’s time to play and get an opportunity to see where we are.”
He doesn’t expect the players to possess his same sense of calm, however - at least not before The Opening kickoff. Pre-game jitters are natural and there will be a great deal of build-up to that moment.
But Weis is a big believer in a team adopting the demeanor of their coach. So rather than let them have it for mistakes as he might during practice, he’s Mr. Freeze on the sidelines.
Except where the officials are concerned, but as he says with a smile, the deserve it - as do any of his players who commit a mistake as egregious as a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct or something similar.
“But other than that I’m usually very calm and cool,” Weis said. “And I think that even if they are nervous, which I’m sure there will be a fair amount of that, they usually follow your lead.”
* The Week One depth chart was released Tuesday and included a handful of surprises.
Chief among them was the presence of junior college transfer Jordan Tavai as the starter at nose tackle. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound athlete didn’t arrive on campus until a handful of weeks ago, but he has quickly made his mark.
Part of what Weis seems to appreciate about him is his versatility, as he said they can slide Tavai to either defensive end position “effortlessly.” One of their goals as coaches and recruiters is to build inherent depth and interchangeable parts wherever possible, and Tavai gives them that edge.
“He’s been one of our best guys in his brief time here,” Weis said, simply.
Also making waves from the JUCO ranks is right guard Aslam Sterling - another relatively recent arrival. A mount of a man who entered camp at 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds, he’s put in hours both early and late with strength coach Scott Holsopple to cut 20 pounds from his frame in a hurry and earned the starting nod.
Weis moved Sterling from tackle when fellow lineman Riley Spencer went down briefly with an injury, and the pieces fit.
“Right now we’ve settled the offensive line down,” he explained. “Instead of there being roving parts, we’ve settled it down. Gavin (Howard) and Riley have settled down the right tackle and Aslam and Randall (Dent) have settled right guard. I think that you should expect to see all four of those guys playing in the game.”
* Some coaches may play things close to the vest in a Week One match-up with an FCS foe, but Weis isn’t worried about what’s down the road or who may be watching.
He just wants to win.
“I think it’s important for us to win the first game,” he said. “We’ll worry about the second game after the first game. Most people say ‘Well, let’s be really conservative.’ I don’t think that’s the way we have to approach the game. I think we have to go win this game.”
* When Anthony McDonald chose to transfer from Notre Dame following graduation in May to play out his final year of eligibility at Kansas, many penciled him in as the starter at middle linebacker.
After all, why else would he rejoin Weis in Lawrence, if not to play? Unfortunately, nagging injuries have kept him off the practice field and on the exercise bike, and while he would play if it were the last game of the season instead of the first, Weis is comfortable holding him in reserve for now.
His game centers around physicality and delivering the big hit, and right now he can’t turn the internal dial up to 11.
“He’s not the fastest guy in the whole world,” Weis explained. “His whole game is physicality. And I think that right now I just don’t see him being able to turn it loose right now. That’s why I have Schyler (Miles) and Jake (Love) backing up behind (Ben) Heeney at that position.”
Indeed, the middle linebacker slot looks substantially different than it did a season ago. Hutchinson, Kan. native Ben Heeney, a special teams star who showed flashes last season, was moved over to the starting spot when McDonald was limited, and the sophomore has solidified his grip on the spot. Behind him are freshman Schyler Miles and sophomore Jake Love, both of whom have their strengths and will likely see playing time.
Love - not a household name even among Kansas fans - is cut from much the same cloth as Heeney; a fast, physical player who loves to hit. He’s shown enough for Weis to want him in the mix, as has Miles - the highly-touted freshman from Tampa, Fla.
The MIKE position is one of three defensively where an “OR” notation exists at the second spot on the depth chart, indicating that healthy competition is ongoing. And contrary to what one might expect, Weis loves to see them. It means they’ve got more quality options with which to work.
“You want Schyler to play knowing that he’s got great instincts,” hesaid. “You want Jake Love to play because he’s shown athleticism on special teams to warrant you wanting him to be out there more. The “OR” on second-teamers is always a good thing. When you start running out of those, you’ve got yourself a problem.”
* Fans can expect a three-back rotation to make its way into the offense Saturday, featuring Tony Pierson, Taylor Cox and Brandon Bourbon.
However, in the early-going at least, Pierson and Cox will be the primary ball carriers, for the sake of simplicity.
“You can’t go into a game rotating three guys to start a game,” Weis said. “You can, but you get no continuity. It’ll be Tony to start, then we’ll get Taylor in there and then we’ll go for a while and see how that goes.”
Though he’s not a newcomer, Pierson has generated considerable excitement during the off-season. With his elite speed and quickness he’s a true home-run threat, and Weis expects to get him the ball 10-15 times per game.
How that ball will get into his hands is still unclear to all but those in the Kansas football inner circle. When asked if Pierson would be used as a weapon in the passing game, Weis chuckled and asked ‘Why would I answer that question?’ before shedding a little light on the elusive speedback’s role.
“Tony can catch the football,” he said. “Tony’s got good hands and Tony has got breakaway speed. So the answer to that question is do you want to involve him in the passing game? Absolutely you want to involve him in the passing game.”
* Part of the reason Weis is so excited to see what his team is capable of is because of the presence of the unknown.
It’s the first game, and they have yet to face anyone in a jersey other than crimson, blue or white. How can one know how they’ll respond to live competition? Really know? And Weis has been around long enough to know that even certitude prior to kickoff can be little more than fool’s gold.
“There’s been times when I’ve said we’re gonna lay a whooping on them and we’ve gone and laid an egg instead,” he recalled. “And there’s other times I’ve gone our there and said we’re not ready to go, and everything has gone right. You think you’ve got your finger on the pulse of how things are going to go, and a lot of times it doesn’t play out.”
Still, he does maintain base level expectations for his squad - things they can control on each and every play.
“The things you put in competitively,” Weis explained. “To go fight your butts off for 60 minutes, you expect to see that. You expect to not be the Bad News Bears when you get out there. You expect to get in and out of the huddle and not have to call a bunch of timeouts for not being able to get lined up. Those are the things you expect to see.”