Keegan: Pressure key for KU 'D'

Monday, April 17, 2006

Even though the 2005 Kansas University football defense gave the highlight-film editors so much to work with, the plays that trigger the biggest ovations at alumni gatherings are easy to recall.

Brandon Perkins hurrying Nebraska's Zac Taylor into throwing an interception into the arms of Kevin Kane, who took it 40 yards for a touchdown, thanks in part to Perkins flattening Cory Ross with such a punishing block.

Charlton Keith intercepting a pass that didn't seem reachable in the Fort Worth Bowl bullying of Houston.

Nick Reid closing in on the running back and slamming him into another area code and another state of consciousness. Oh, that's right, there was one of those every week.

Those guys were smart, vicious and hungry, so it didn't necessarily matter that Reid and Keith weren't so big for their positions and Perkins wasn't quite large enough to be an ideal defensive end and wasn't quite fast enough to be the guy you'd want dropping into pass coverage.

All three had a quality so important to a football team's success. All three got in the quarterback's face and stayed there throughout the entire afternoon.

The defense that opens the 2006 season Sept. 2 at Memorial Stadium against Northwestern State will be faster in some spots than its predecessor and bigger at most positions.

The only way it can be better, or even close to as good as the defense of the Fort Worth Bowl champs, is if somebody who isn't now an obvious candidate emerges as terror coming from off the edge, the way Perkins and Keith did, to knock quarterbacks silly and hurry them into mistakes.

The Jayhawks should have enough playmakers at other positions to take advantage of a quarterback's panic-driven mistakes.

Cornerback Aqib Talib has the potential to earn first-team Big 12 honors as a sophomore and, because he's taller and faster, is a better NFL prospect than prematurely departed Charles Gordon, who has CFL written all over him.

Safety Jerome Kemp is short and not particularly fast for his position, but he has a way of giving pass receivers who come over the middle for catches a stinging Wichita welcome. A safety who can creep close to the line of scrimmage and support the run defense is so important the way coaches scheme things these days, and Kemp's made for that.

Mike Rivera, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker, is bigger and faster than Reid and tackles with similar violence, though he obviously is not as experienced. Many believe he'll play on Sundays.

Defensive tackles James McClinton and Wayne Wilder are two big reasons KU coach Mark Mangino is so confident in the Jayhawks' ability to stop the run. The Jayhawks finished third in the nation in rushing defense and could duplicate that.

Despite the inexperience at linebacker, the defense looks rock solid. But will it be special? Only if someone from a pool of defensive ends surprises with a stellar season.

Maybe Paul Como, quick and driven, can become that guy during his senior year. If he or somebody else can evolve into a sack monster, the schedule that doesn't have Texas, Oklahoma or Texas Tech looks mighty inviting.