Aditi Kinkhabwala
Wednesday October 31st, 2007

The snake wrangling bit was supposed to be a joke. Kansas' sports information folks had given quarterback Todd Reesing a super-long personal history form and by the end of it, he was kind of tired and kind of unimpressed with the person he'd described. So next to "hobbies," Reesing figured: why not?

"I guess I thought it would be pretty cool if people thought I could pick up snakes with my bare hands," Reesing said. "Like I was tough or something."

Maybe a quarterback who's listed at 5-foot-11 ("He'd be 5-11 if he was Austin Powers and wore those platform shoes," Jayhawks fullback Brandon McAnderson said) and 200 pounds ("If he weighs 200 pounds," Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins said, "I'll give you my left foot.") has to worry about that.

But not this one. Not today. Led by Reesing (1,985 yards, 17 TDs), Kansas is 8-0. Usually at this time of year the talk in Lawrence has turned to basketball, but there was Jayhawks hoops coach Bill Self on Monday, drawing fewer reporters to his press briefing than football coach Mark Mangino did to his. Of course, Mangino has Reesing, a sophomore out of Austin, Texas, who threw for 6,500 yards and 70 touchdowns as a high-schooler, but only ended up a Jayhawk because his godfather's son's wife's dad slid a tape into Mangino's VCR.

In a season of crazy upsets, Reesing and these Jayhawks have cobbled together one of the craziest seasons and are one of four unbeaten teams in the nation. The Jayhawks knocked off Texas A&M in College Station last week, they're in the driver's seat in the Big 12 North and they're doing it all behind a kid who thought he'd have to fake being tough.

"That's crazy," McAnderson said. "He's a smaller guy, but of everybody on our offense who has to take hits, Todd Reesing definitely takes them the best."

Then again, that may be because most of the Jayhawks don't take hits so much as deliver them. Especially McAnderson. A chubby teenager, he spent his first three years at Kansas as a fullback. This year he's Mangino's leading rusher, ringing up 183 yards and two touchdowns last Saturday at A&M, pushing like a bulldozer, flinging Aggies every which way. And just like Reesing, McAnderson was never supposed to dice up Big 12 teams.

"I think that stuff's a long time ago now," McAnderson said of the recruiting interest (read: none) he drew at Lawrence High. He knows he ended up at Kansas pretty much because Mangino's son was his high school teammate and the coach couldn't ignore him, but hey, he said, "It all worked out, right?"

This Kansas team is full of stories like this, players Mangino took a chance on. Just like he takes chances on gameday. Already this year, Mangino's sent Reesing down as a gunner on a punt and put in his backup quarterback as a punter. He played a whole series a couple weeks ago with a four-wideout set where the four wideouts were a corner, a backup QB and two back-up receivers. Every game, it's some funky tweak and his players, Reesing said, "think it's fun."

"If you've got athletes, use them," McAnderson said, also shrugging at the suggestion that some of those formations are just a tad loopy.

And yet, the real point here is that Kansas doesn't actually have a ton of those uber-elite, five-star athletes. This isn't 22 blue-chippers overwhelming opponents with their athleticism. Corner Aqib Talib could be an All-America and Reesing was just named an O'Brien semifinalist, but the Jayhawks haven't once this year had the Big 12's offensive or defensive player of the week. There aren't any real stars and if anyone actually acts like one, well, we all know what Mangino thinks about that.

(As an aside, when Reesing was asked if he and his teammates sat in their dorm rooms, replayed that video and maybe laughed, the quarterback sighed and said, "I don't want to get myself in trouble. Can we just say it wasn't a big deal?")

Really, these Jayhawks play the kind of team game Self, the basketball coach, would salivate over. The defense is undersized, but has held opponents under 100 yards rushing in four straight Big 12 games. There's three receivers within four catches of each other, two backs within three carries of each other, and team's averaging just four penalties a game.

A year after coughing up four fourth-quarter leads, this year no one gets up on Kansas; the Jayhawks have trailed for just 20 of 480 minutes this season. Sure they opened up against less-than-stout teams, but they annihilated those four teams -- Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International -- 214-23. They won at Colorado -- the week after Oklahoma fell there -- for the first since 1995. They won at K-State -- a week after the Wildcats knocked out Texas -- for the first time since 1989. This weekend's Nebraska game is sold out, and not because of traveling Nebraska fans, and in the end, there's nothing fluky about any of this.

Mangino put in time on program-builder Bill Snyder's staff at Kansas State and he apprenticed for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. He took over a team six years ago that had a string of six losing seasons and he's been operating the same way since he came to Lawrence. It's the same way he's been operating since these wins started piling up. Tough.

"I think if you saw us practice, you wouldn't know if we were an 8-0 team, or an 0-8 team," Reesing said. "Coach hasn't changed."

Ultimately, the biggest spark this year may be Reesing. In him, Mangino finally has the poised, confident leader he's been desperate for. Before Reesing, Mangino cycled through five quarterbacks in three years. Heck, Reesing's own launch may have been because of the helplessness that comes out of that kind of merry-go-round. Mangino was eight-and-a-half games into last season when he looked across the locker room with Kansas trailing Colorado 9-0 and told Reesing he was burning his redshirt.

Reesing threw a pick almost right away, but then he threw for two touchdowns, ran for another and Kansas had a comeback win. He got spot duty the last three games, won the job this spring, and last week he had Texas coach Mack Brown saying, "Anybody that didn't recruit him, including us, made a mistake."

Not that the kid's getting a big head any time soon. Mangino's saddled him with the less-than hip nickname "Sparky" ("He's the boss. I have to answer," Reesing said). A straight-A student who graduated in the top one percent of his high school class, Reesing's suffered several Bs in college ("My mom's been okay about it. But I think if I got a C ..."). He gets teased about the height thing, and now it's out that the snake-wrangling his media guide bio says he does is just a lie.

"It really was just supposed to be a joke," he said. "Maybe I should've just gone along with it."

Maybe. After all, it's not like people wouldn't believe it now.

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