A year after winning the Orange Bowl, the Kansas Jayhawks featured one of the best wide receiver tandems in the country in 2008.
Dezmon Briscoe ranked third in college football in receiving yards. Wingman Kerry Meier tied Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree for seventh nationally in receptions.
Yet in the four seasons since Briscoe and Meier departed, the position of wide receiver has been an utter disaster in Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks haven’t featured a top-20 receiver in the Big 12, much less the country.
But thanks to a key transfer and a key position change, Kansas could be on its way back to returning respectability to the position.
And maybe more.
This spring, the Jayhawks’ previously beleaguered receiving corps has gotten two major boosts. One from ex-Miami (Ohio) standout Nick Harwell; the other out of former Kansas running back Tony Pierson, who switched positions during the offseason.
“With both guys, you can see the rest of the group gravitating toward them,” said new Kansas wide receiver coach Eric Kiesau, who was hired to revive a position group that has come up with just three touchdowns catches combined since Oct. 22, 2011.
With such paltry production out of its receiving corps, the Jayhawks have struggled mightily on offense in recent years. Even though it featured All-Big 12 running back James Sims, Kansas still ranked last in the league in scoring by almost 10 points last season.
But even with Sims gone, the Jayhawks could be improved next season. Harwell and Pierson lined up at receiver is a big reason why.
Harwell arrived at Kansas last summer, after being dismissed from Miami earlier that spring.
In 2011, while the Jayhawk receivers were struggling just to haul in a touchdown pass, Harwell was the nation’s second-leading receiver, averaging almost 130 receiving yards per game for the RedHawks. He also caught 97 receptions and nine touchdowns that season.
Despite missing three games the following year as a junior, Harwell still finished with 68 catches and 870 receiving yards.
“He has something very valuable, and that’s experience at the college level,” Kiesau said. “He’s learning a new system, a new coaching style, and things are different for him. But he’ll progress fine. I’m not worried about him at all. He has all the intangibles you look for. He’s a great person, he has great work ethic, the other guys want to follow him. He has a lot of upside, and should really help us next year for sure.”
Harwell admits he’s had to shake off some rust this spring after sitting out last season due to transfer rules. But he says sitting out made him that much hungrier to make a difference.
“It was tough watching us go 3-9 last year, and be unable to make an impact. The most I could bring to the team was positive energy, and work hard on the scout team,” Harwell said. “This spring, I’m trying to bring leadership with the way I play. I’m trying to do everything right, and not give the coaches anything negative to say about me. I want to catch every ball thrown my way.”
Harwell, however, isn’t the only Jayhawk receiver out there with a track record of producing big plays. That’s because Pierson has joined the receiving unit full time after spending the last three seasons at Kansas primarily as a halfback, where he had a 6.2 yards per carry career average.
This spring, while Harwell has been refining his receiving skills, Pierson has been focused on developing his.
“He is very raw,” Kiesau said of Pierson, who has little experience running routes downfield or fighting off press coverage despite being a reliable receiver out of the backfield. “It’s not his fault, he just hasn’t had a lot of time practicing the position.
“But he’s a guy I’m really fired up about. He's such a bright-eyed kid who wants to learn, wants direction. Already, he’s gotten a lot better.”
Pierson and Harwell have challenged each other to be better.
“We compete against each other every practice,” Harwell said. “He pushes me, and I push him.”
The two have also been pushing the rest of their position group. Harwell vocally; Pierson quietly.
So far, the results have been conspicuous.
And with Harwell and Pierson commanding so much of the defensive attention, that has eased the pressure off the other receivers like Rodriguez Coleman, who has been finding himself open this spring like never before.
“When you line up in formation, most attention -- even our defense -- goes to Harwell first and Tony second,” coach Charlie Weis said.
“It's really not that complicated.”
Squeezing production out of its receiving corps has felt complicated for Kansas since Briscoe and Meier roamed the field. But with the new duo of Harwell and Pierson, those days could finally be at an end.
“Having two reliable guys that can get open and make explosive plays,” Harwell said, “that’s going to be a big positive for our offense this season.”