During his first season in charge of Charlie Weis’ defense, Kansas University assistant head coach Dave Campo was forced to play with half the deck.
Because the Jayhawks, in several spots throughout the defense, lacked in terms of both talent and depth, Campo and crew were forced to get the best they could out of their front-line guys and hope like mad that it would be enough.
It wasn’t. For the third straight year, the Jayhawks finished at the bottom of the Big 12 in most defensive categories and were among the worst defensive teams in the country, even if there were signs of progress in the areas of organization, effort and intensity.
As Campo sets for his second season at Kansas, he appears to be shuffling a completely new set of cards, one that significantly could enhance what the Jayhawks’ defense is capable of doing on the field in the ultra-fast, offensive-minded Big 12.
“This year, our depth is the best that we’ve had as a defense since I’ve been here,” junior linebacker Ben Heeney said. “And that’s definitely gonna help us out against those spread teams.”
Heeney is without question the face of this KU defense. The third-year player from Hutchinson finished third in the Big 12 in tackles (112) last season, and his relentless and rugged style has become a symbol of the way Campo and company want their defense to play.
Two springs ago, Weis joked that he was worried about the mindsets of Campo and defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt, who had very little to work with on the D-Line and were desperately awaiting the arrival of a handful of newcomers.
That’s not the case any longer. Although KU’s defensive line took a hit with the dismissal of defensive end Chris Martin, who was arrested and charged with armed robbery in the offseason, there remain plenty of impact players up front who could improve KU’s woeful pass rush, thus making life easier on everyone on the Kansas defense.
The most notable name is defensive tackle Marquel Combs, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound junior-college transfer from Pierce College in Los Angeles, who was ranked by ESPN.com as the top juco prospect in the country last season. Combs’ explosive motor and colorful attitude will be complemented well by returners Keon Stowers (6-3, 297) and Jordan Tavai (6-3, 295) and newcomers Ty McKinney (6-3, 302) and Tedarian Johnson (6-2, 288).
On the edge, where the coaching staff expected Martin to be a menace, KU will look to returner Ben Goodman, a 6-3, 255-pound sophomore who showed flashes during the spring and could be poised for a breakout season.
As for that depth and experience that Heeney spoke of, seniors Kevin Young (6-3, 287) and Keba Agostinho (6-2, 277) as well as sophomore pass-rush specialist Michael Reynolds (6-1, 240) all could factor into some kind of rotation as well, along with Darius Willis, a senior who transitioned from linebacker to the "Buck" defensive line position in the offseason.
Joining Heeney in the middle of the KU defense are a couple of players who got their first taste of consistent snaps in 2012 and a few newcomers who are dying for theirs.
Junior Jake Love (36 tackles in 12 games and five starts) and sophomore Schyler Miles (nine tackles in 11 games) are two players made from Heeney’s mold, and fellow-returners Prinz Kande, Victor Simmons and Courtney Arnick bring one thing Campo and Weis have been trying to add since the day they arrived — speed.
“Ever since I’ve been here (Big 12 football has) been more of a hurry-up, no-huddle, quick-paced game and all of that wears you down,” Heeney said. “In this league, you need speed to have a chance on defense. I’m not the biggest linebacker in the league, I’m not the hardest hitter or anything like that, but I have a nose for the ball and I can run a little bit.”
Like the D-Line, KU’s linebacking corps lost a player in the offseason. This time to injury, as juco transfer Marcus Jenkins-Moore suffered a knee injury in June and is expected to miss significant time.
Fellow juco transfer Samson Faifili, a hard hitter with a downhill motor, will look to fill some of the void left by Jenkins-Moore’s absence.
Of all of the positions where Weis upgraded with junior-college talent this offseason, defensive back figures to be the one that puts the most players onto the field immediately.
Juco cornerbacks Kevin Short and Dexter McDonald (a former Jayhawk who turned things around academically and was welcomed back by Weis) have big-time cover skills and size, and safeties Cassius Sendish, who reported to campus in time for spring ball, and Isaiah Johnson bring both speed, smarts and physical play to the position.
“Remember now, we have defensive backs coming in,” Weis said this spring. “The change from last year’s secondary to this year’s secondary will probably be as dramatic as any position on the team.”
With KU changing to a base nickel defense, returner Dexter Linton remained on the top of the depth chart throughout the fall at the other safety position alongside Johnson.
Junior corner JaCorey Shepherd — a former wide receiver — and safeties Tevin Shaw and Greg Allen also figure to push for playing time.