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April 30, 2009LAWRENCE, Kan. ? People atop famed Campanile Hill on the Kansas campus can hear the pads popping.
"That's it!" Kansas coach Mark Mangino screams. "Set your feet and hit him! Come on!"
The Jayhawks' linemen are conducting board drills on this April day. To win, a lineman must use short, choppy steps, stay low and drive his man off the board. It's a simple test of mental and physical will. And Mangino loves it.
He blasts his whistle, and two 300-pound mammoths violently engage. Linemen huddle nearby, hooting and hollering as if watching a playground fight. Finally, one hulk slings the other to the ground.
Mangino grins and jams his hands into the pockets of his letterman-style jacket and bites down on a whistle.
"C'mon! Let's go! Next!"
This is where it all begins for the 2009 Kansas Jayhawks. They already can feel the glare of the spotlight even though the season still is months away. The Jayhawks will be the favorite ? some say prohibitive favorite ? to win the Big 12 North. And, heck, maybe KU will win the Big 12.
It's time to dream big in Lawrence.
And why not? Check out quarterback Todd Reesing on one side of the practice field, throwing footballs through a hole in a net as part of a training exercise. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy will dominate the preseason Heisman hype, but Reesing just may end up as the Big 12's most productive quarterback. And if that happens, this could be a truly special season.
"You always have to replace guys on both sides of the ball and you want to get the younger guys competing for those spots a lot of reps," Reesing says. "You have a lot of guys that have stepped up this spring."
Reesing is surrounded by plenty of skill-position talent, headed by a strong group of receivers paced by Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier. The duo combined for 189 receptions, 2,452 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. Jake Sharp is capable of carrying a big load at running back if Jocques Crawford doesn't resolve off-field issues. The biggest offensive issue will be shoring up the interior of the line, which lost the starting center and both starting guards.
"We have the potential to be a pretty good attack," KU offensive coordinator Ed Warinner says. "There is a lot of potential here."
That potential as a blooming program stretches from new practice fields on the south end of Memorial Stadium to the new Anderson Family Football Complex a few hundred yards away.
Inside, the place screams "big-time program." There's a spacious locker room, expansive meeting rooms, a state-of-the-art weight room and a cutting-edge hydro-therapy room that would be the envy of any powerhouse program.
"We got a chance to tour several facilities across the nation, gleaning ideas we wanted to implement here," Kansas director of football operations George Matsakis says. "And we think we have incorporated the best of those into our building."
Mangino knows what you're thinking. Kansas is a basketball school. Kansas hasn't won a conference football championship since 1968. Kansas isn't this, Kansas isn't that.
"I have heard it all," says Mangino, who turns 53 on Aug. 26. "And I don't think any of those things are a big enough detriment to keep us from our goals.
"When we came here [before the 2002 season], there really wasn't a lot of talent. It was almost like a I-AA program."
The Jayhawks looked like an elite program in 2007. KU was 11-0 and ranked second going into the regular-season finale against No. 4 Missouri in a game that had national championship ramifications. The Jayhawks lost 36-28, but still earned the school's first BCS bowl bid, where the Jayhawks shocked many by defeating No. 5 Virginia Tech 24-21 to finish 12-1.
Last season's 8-5 record was a letdown, though KU did crush Kansas State, upset Missouri and go to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. KU capped the season by rolling past Minnesota in the Insight Bowl. Kansas has been to 12 bowls in its history, and Mangino is responsible for four of the bids.
KU's staff underwent significant changes in the offseason, with the biggest being the arrival of Bill Miller from Louisville to coach linebackers and serve as co-defensive coordinator. Miller brings a veteran presence that was missing last season after Bill Young departed following the '07 season to run Miami's defense (he now is at Oklahoma State). Miller has vast experience as a coordinator, so count on him offering input to Clint Bowen.
"Having him around has been great," says Bowen, who oversaw a unit that finished 89th nationally in total defense last season after finishing 12th in 2007. "It will help our defense."
An improved defense is the key to Kansas' hopes of playing in its first Big 12 title game. Pass defense was especially problematic last season; the Jayhawks ranked 114th nationally (273.6 ypg).
The Jayhawks will continue to use a 4-3 scheme, featuring a strong line and seasoned secondary while working in three new linebackers. Look for coaches to utilize more nickel and dime packages, a necessity in a league that features so many potent passing attacks.
Warinner always is tweaking the offense, looking to maximize an attack that has ranked among the best in the nation in recent seasons and has been the centerpiece of the program's rise under Mangino. Last season, KU's passing game ranked in the top 10 nationally. In 2007, the Jayhawks ranked in the top 10 in passing, scoring and total offense.
"We go through and evaluate every play on offense from the season and what we did," Warinner says. "We see what we think we need to improve on. We have thoroughly looked at, overhauled and tweaked every phase of our offense. We look at our protection, our three-step, five-step, run game inside and outside, and do an overhaul of our whole system."
After practice, Mangino sits in his office overlooking Memorial Stadium. This place has changed a lot in many since he arrived in 2002 and went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Big 12. Facilities have improved, talent has blossomed and people along Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence actually are talking KU football in the spring.
Mangino just waves his hand at it all. He knows if he gets caught looking back and reflecting on what he has done, he'll neglect what he needs to do today.
"We are getting there," Mangino says. "But we have a ways to go."
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.