LAWRENCE — Just as his offensive line began to show some stability, Kansas coach Charlie Weis decided to shake things up again.
He replaced left tackle Pat Lewandowski with Riley Spencer and right guard Mike Smithburg with Damon Martin heading into Saturday’s game at No. 15 Oklahoma State. That leaves Ngalu Fusimalohi as the only offensive lineman to start every game this season.
“We’ve been talking for the last three or four weeks about continuity and cohesiveness,” Weis said. “That goes right out the window if we’re not playing very well.”
For the past four games, Weis had started the same five offensive linemen, a marked changed from the three different lines he used the three previous games. Seemingly, a line that spent the first third of the season in near disarray was finally meshing.
Last Saturday’s game against Texas disproved that belief, and one huge mistake in the third quarter effectively ended any chance for Kansas (2-6, 0-5 Big 12) to pull off the upset.
With the Longhorns leading by eight, two Texas defenders rushed past their blockers to converge quarterback Jake Heaps and force a fumble that was returned for a touchdown to jumpstart a 35-13 victory.
The broken play wasn’t the only gaffe, and Weis felt he had to make more changes this week.
“Damon is a physical, physical presence,” Weis said. “One of the strongest guys we have. His issue never has been whether or not he can play or not. His issue has always been one of consistency. Actually, if he wasn’t playing more consistent, then he wouldn’t be listed as first.”
When Martin steps on the field against the Cowboys (7-1, 4-1), he’ll be the ninth different offensive lineman to start a game for Kansas this season.
When the season began, Lewandowski started at center, Aslam Sterling was at left tackle, and the current center, Gavin Howard, wasn’t even on the two-deep.
After three games, Dylan Admire replaced Lewandowski at center. A week later, Lewandowski shifted to left tackle, Sterling shifted to right tackle, and Howard replaced Admire.
Keeping it all straight?
Even Howard was a little surprised when offensive line coach Tim Grunhard sent him a text message before the TCU game a few weeks ago giving him the starting nod.
“I was like, ‘Oh, all right,’” Howard said. “I was actually in Wichita interviewing with Koch Industries. I came back Tuesday from Wichita and got some snaps from Jake.”
For now, it appears that decision is at least paying off. Weis was running out of options, and Howard didn’t have much experience playing center. He said he practiced snapping for three spring practices and occasionally for fun before practices in the fall.
Still, Howard was better than whoever else was available.
“I never go into a situation thinking I’m going to be bad at something,” Howard said. “If you’re not noticing the guy at center that’s probably a good thing. I haven’t been called out too much by other people.”
All the changes have resulted in some much-needed signs of life for the offense. Kansas has gained 614 yards in the last two games combined, a big increase over the 399 yards the previous two games. The Jayhawks also completed more than half of their passes for the first time in four games.
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems — hence, more changes to the offensive line.
For one thing, Kansas isn’t finding the end zone any more frequently, and still hasn’t broken the 20-point plateau since scoring 31 points in in its season opener.
Heaps realizes putting more points on the board goes hand-in-hand with improved line play.
“I think there’s been a lot of changes because we’re trying to find the right matchup,” he said, “and trying to find a group of guys that work the best together.”
Until that happens, Weis has no problem with continuing to shake things up.