A year ago, the pocket made the perfect environment for quarterbacks opposing Kansas University to study the defense, existentialism, rhetoric, physics, introduction to western civilization, thermal dynamics, anthropology and whatever other disciplines they might have been exploring in their classes that semester.
The pocket made the library seem like an AC/DC concert by comparison. Serene, unburdened by deadlines of any sort, time suspended.
Just one team failed to reach double digits in sacks during the nine-game Big 12 schedule in 2011. That would be the same one that in all games ranked last in the nation in points and yards allowed, the same school that allowed a conference-worst 8.6 yards per pass play and a 67.6 completion percentage in Big 12 action.
Clearly, the epic failure of the KU defense a year ago started up front, where the Jayhawks totaled just six sacks in conference play.
Naturally, everyone in Camp Charlie insists things will be better this time around because that’s what training camps are all about, getting better, and if you don’t believe you’re going to improve, you’re defeated before you start.
Sometimes, it’s not what people say that qualifies as the best indicator, rather how they say it. A year ago, defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt’s voice sounded heavy on hope. He sounds far more confident now. And he doesn’t have to dance around questions, doesn’t have to spin. He can give a straight answer because the truth isn’t as discouraging as in the recent past.
“I think our production in the sack area will increase,” Wyatt said. “I still don’t think we’re a great pass-rushing football team, but I think we have improved.”
Toben Opurum, who had half the team’s Big 12 sacks in 2011, returns and has improved, according to Wyatt. If Opurum can double his sack total and rank second on the team, we’ll know KU’s pass rush has gone from invisible to legitimate.
Transfer Josh Williams, who graduated last spring from Nebraska, ranks as the biggest igniter of Wyatt’s confidence. Wyatt has known Williams since the 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end played at Denton High in Texas and weighed 215 pounds. Nebraska changed coaches and Wyatt lost his job before he could finish recruiting Williams, but five years later he gets to coach him.
“Josh is a pleasant surprise; he really is,” Wyatt said. “He’s a really smart football player. He really picks up things quickly. He asks great questions in meetings. He’s a good leader out there on the field with the guys. He’s blended in with our guys real fast. They like him and they really look up to him.”
Head coach Charlie Weis said of Williams: “Nothing but the arrow up. He did great in the summer. He did great in his classes. He did great as a leader in the summertime. He gets it. I have nothing but encouraging things to say about Josh at this point.”
Opurum and offensive line coach Tim Grunhard both cited Williams for practicing at a “high tempo.”
“He’s been a great addition, if not one of the best additions on this team,” said Grunhard, whose linemen have been charged with keeping Williams out of the backfield during practice. “He’s a guy who has got a lot of different skills. He’s got a lot of different talents that he can use. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can do when the bullets are flying for real.”
KU left tackle Tanner Hawkinson forecasts a better pass rush, based on working against the D-ends in practice.
“When you bring a guy in like Josh, he’ll definitely be able to put some pressure on the quarterback and Toben, too,” Hawkinson said. “Toben, I think he’s improved every year. This obviously will be his best year.”
Williams has made an impression on guard/tackle Gavin Howard as well.
“He’s definitely a strong dude, for sure,” Howard said. “Good bull rusher on his pass rush, quick with his speed moves and real good about keeping his contain out there at the D-end. You can tell he’s definitely hit the weights and played a few downs.”
Asked about KU’s lean pass rush in recent years, Williams said, “I was aware of that and I felt like there was opportunity for me to come in and help out at that spot. I take a lot of pride in that. I’m still taking pride in working that craft, as well as other guys on the D-line. There has been that talk that there hasn’t been great-pass rushing and we want to change that.”
In one respect, pass rushers, more than any position, are eager for the season to start because the red shirt that quarterbacks wear in practice gives way to a jersey that looks like everybody else’s.
“Coming around that corner and you see the quarterback, you want to hit him, want to try to get that sack-fumble, but you can’t touch him,” Williams said.
Not until Sept. 1 at 6 p.m., when Kansas opens the season at Memorial Stadium against South Dakota State.