KU fans, Lawrence Journal-World readers and KUSports.com visitors know Matt Tait. The award-winning KU football beat reporter has covered the Jayhawks since February 2010, jumping straight into the Turner Gill era and now wrapping his arms around Charlie Weis’ regime.
I’ve worked with Matt a couple of times in the past on different platforms, and he was kind enough to take a moment to answer several questions as KU attempts to put itself back together after Gill’s multi-year demolition job. Weis’ attitude and new quarterback Dayne Crist’s talent have earned Tait’s attention, but there are several other pieces to the Jayhawks puzzle that bear watching, including the defense under new coordinator Dave Campo.
CurtisKitchen.com — KU fans are pinning their hopes for this season basically on the promise that Dayne Crist will be able to single-handedly put their team in positions to win. From what you’ve seen thus far, does he seem to possess those types of qualities?
Matt Tait — He does. Not only does he look the part – 6-4, 235, big frame, big arm – but he also walks and talks the part. He’s a smart guy, with great poise, who understands this offense almost as well as the man who invented it.
Like few QBs to play for Weis before him, Crist will have the freedom to change plays on the fly and already has the respect and trust of the entire KU offense. More than that, though, Crist, who has become the de facto face of the KU program, also has become a leader for the entire team. Voted by teammates as a co-captain just four months after arriving in town, it’s very clear that Crist, both as a player and as a leader, is a huge upgrade for the Jayhawks.
CK.com — I took some grief from KU fans for my Big 12 predictions because I had the Jayhawks going winless in the Big 12. I know they have a better quarterback and likely a better coach, but considering the short time to install and prepare, is that enough on its own to think KU will get a Big 12 win or two this season? What’s your record prediction?
MT — I think it is enough time, but I don’t know if that means it will happen. From a pure talent standpoint, the Jayhawks are still behind every other team in the league. The talent is improved, but you just don’t close the kind of gap that existed between KU and everybody else these past couple of years overnight. It’s going to take some time.
This season should be a step in the right direction, and KU should have a shot to win a couple of Big 12 games. But having a shot to win them is different than actually doing it. And until they actually do it, it’s hard to predict that they will. I haven’t finalized my prediction yet, but I’m leaning toward 4-8. I think they win their non-conference games and then find a way to get one in the Big 12. That said, I’ve gotta tell you that Weis just seems like the kind of coach who will find a way to win a game he shouldn’t every year. Call it a gut feeling, but I keep thinking that. We’ll see.
CK.com — Weis made some news immediately after his hire as guys like Keeston Terry and Darrian Miller both were dismissed from the team – though not for anything wrong necessarily. Terry was quoted as saying he didn’t like the new attitude that Weis was bringing in, which sounds more in the Mark Mangino arena than Turner Gill. In your experience in and around the team since then, is Weis’ style something necessary or is it something to keep an eye on? And, has fans’ mindsets decided that Mangino maybe wasn’t all that bad, perhaps…
MT — Just about everything Weis has done since he arrived has been absolutely necessary. The program was in bad shape when Weis got here – worse than ever was reported – and needed desperately someone who demanded accountability, discipline and hard work on and off the field. They got that guy in Weis and a lot of the guys who left or were booted simply did not live up to that standard.
As the Gill era went on, I think KU fans became more and more skeptical about whether the mean and grizzly game of football could be won with that kind of approach. As is natural, that probably led some of them to change their tune about Mangino and welcome a guy like Weis.
CK.com — Defensively, KU was, well, they were what they were. While much has been made of Weis’ coaching acumen as an offensive guy, what about the defense? What does Dave Campo bring to the table that may shock some folks come fall?
MT — Campo has coached all positions at all levels and also has worked with and around some of the best coaches in the game. His experience alone should help the KU defense tremendously. It’s not that he has some magic potion that he can sprinkle on these guys to all of a sudden make them better, but more the fact that, like Weis on offense, Campo should be able to figure out a way to exploit some match-ups that put the KU defense in a favorable position. He understands that the Big 12 is a different animal, and I don’t think he’s expecting to turn KU into a defensive force right away.
But, I do think being a middle of the road defense is within reach for KU, and, if he gets them there, that in itself will be a shock.
CK.com — In his press conference, Campo mentioned how he wants to make KU’s defense a turnover-creating machine. From what you’ve seen, is that a style that fits the current personnel, or will it take time for that mentality to become effective?
MT — I think it’s going to take some time. Typically, those types of defenses are created with guys who can fly around the field and create chaos. Campo has said that the Jayhawks are merely average in terms of team speed on defense, and, therefore, will be counting on a couple of guys who can run to play a lot of snaps. Many of those guys are new and undersized, so it remains to be seen how they’ll adjust to Big 12 football.
A couple of areas in which KU will see immediate improvement are: depth (Weis and Campo have said that they want to roll guys in at all positions), alignment (sorry Big 12 fans, no more 10-15-yard cushions from KU’s cornerbacks) and effort (if you don’t go all out when you’re out there, you won’t be out there long). While all of that sounds great, this season will more than likely just be the foundation for the future. If this group can do all of what’s asked, they might not win many more games, but they should be more competitive and may go down as the team that got things headed in the right direction at Kansas