The frustrating ineptitude of the Kansas University football team’s offense has overshadowed signs of progress on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And the signs are as real as they are encouraging.
The Kansas offense ranks 117th among 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 305.4 yards per game. The defense checks in at 69th with 399.4 yards allowed per game. But that’s a misleading statistic because the abundance of three-and-out series from the offense puts the defense on the field for an excessive number of plays.
A more true indicator of performance lies in tracking yards per play from scrimmage. In that statistic, the offense ranks 119th with a 4.43 average, the defense an impressive 35th with 5.13 yards allowed per play. A year ago, the national average was 5.5 yards per play.
KU ranked 116th last season in total defense and 122nd in yards per play (6.78) among 124 schools.
That’s a great deal of improvement in one year. It’s a reflection that a whole lot right is happening on that side of the ball for the Jayhawks.
Player development — proper teaching of football techniques and strength and conditioning — ranks as a key factor. So does the recruitment of three junior-college players starting in the secondary. Head coach Charlie Weis’ decision to juggle assignments from his defensive staff also has had a positive impact. Plus, KU is about to enter the toughest stretch of the schedule, so look for the numbers to get worse, but that doesn’t taint the amazing turnaround.
The best news: Just two of the 11 starters are seniors.
Every unit of the defense has at least one player who has made significant strides, a sign the defensive coaches quietly are doing a nice job of coaching up the talent.
Up front, seniors Keba Agostinho and Kevin Young and juniors Ben Goodman and reserve Michael Reynolds without question are having their best seasons. That’s the way it’s supposed to work in college football — players improving from year-to-year and contributing as upperclassmen — but it’s not always the case. Clearly, defensive-line coach Buddy Wyatt knows what he’s doing.
Junior middle linebacker Ben Heeney is better than ever, and his backup, Schyler Miles, has grown under position coach Clint Bowen.
In the secondary, junior Victor Simmons, seldom used a year ago, has stood out at nickel back. His backup, red-shirt freshman Courtney Arnick, shows promise and figures to improve as his body grows. Converted receiver JaCorey Shepherd, a junior cornerback, is coming off his best game and will continue to improve under Dave Campo, one of the planet’s most respected teachers of defensive backs.
Cornerback Dexter McDonald, originally recruited to Kansas by Turner Gill and re-recruited by Charlie Weis after a year at Butler County Community College, has performed like a candidate for all-conference honors.
The two big-name junior-college D-line additions before they became distractions and subtractions, Marquel Combs and Chris Martin, didn’t work out, but juco recruits have been the salvation of the secondary. Cassius Sendish is undersized by safety standards, but since that’s where the biggest need was, the versatile athlete has been used there. Isaiah Johnson, a sophomore, has two interceptions and is hitting harder each week.
KU ranks second in the nation in passes defended (pass break-ups, plus interceptions). Although Tulane ranks first, it’s a statistic usually dominated by perennial powerhouses who have the best athletes and tend to have teams playing in catch-up mode. (Ohio State, Oregon, Alabama and LSU were four of the past six national leaders). McDonald and Shepherd are among 15 players tied for 10th in the nation in passes defended with an average of 1.8 per game.
Weis’ decision to have Bowen coordinate all three levels of the defense from the middle also has worked out well. Bowen’s experience defending spread offenses and the lack of ego and selfishness from Wyatt, Bowen and Campo has resulted in a defense maximizing its ability and staying upbeat despite having so much pressure placed on it by the offense.
Believe it or not, this football team isn’t half bad. The other half? Sorry, I need a break from writing about that.