The days of Kansas University cornerbacks, short to begin with, shrinking in the rear-view mirrors of tall Big 12 receivers are gone.
The size and skill of cornerbacks Dexter McDonald, a returning starter, and Kevin Short, a junior-college transfer forced by the NCAA to sit out last season, stood out as much as anything during Saturday’s annual spring game in Memorial Stadium.
If they can stay on the field together all season, they have a shot to take opposing receivers out of the game, opening up play-making opportunities for the rest of the defense.
McDonald, a 6-foot-11⁄2, 205-pound senior, came into spring dedicated to refining his fundamentals and came out of it looking like a candidate for first-team All-Big 12 honors. Short, a 6-2, 190-pound junior who moves really fast while looking as if he’s out for a stroll, plays with a confident style similar to McDonald’s. Academic shortcomings have held back Short in the past. If he can keep that from happening again, he’ll be a big difference-maker for coach Charlie Weis’ third Kansas team.
Strong safety Isaiah Johnson, who had five interceptions last season, picked off another Saturday, and it wasn’t a routine one. A former receiver, he didn’t move to the other side of the line of scrimmage because his hands weren’t sure enough. Johnson’s nose is even better than his hands. He has a great feel for where the ball’s going and gets there before it arrives. Free safety Cassius Sendish doesn’t have the same anticipation skills and play-making ability, but you never see him getting an earful from coaches for being out of position, which must mean he carries out his responsibilities as assigned.
Greg Allen pushed JaCorey Shepherd hard throughout the spring at nickel back. The coaching staff also is high on junior-college newcomers Anthony “Fish” Smithson, a safety, and cornerback Ronnie Davis.
Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen has a defense built to stop pass-happy Big 12 teams, and it could work, provided KU can bring pressure without needing to blitz constantly to do it.
Senior Michael Reynolds gives opponents one edge rusher to try to keep in check. If one of a handful of newcomers is ready to fly toward the quarterback from the opposite side — a big if given the inexperience factor — the Jayhawks could become a turnover machine and give the offense better field position than in recent years.
Seniors Keon Stowers, a nose tackle, and Ben Heeney, a middle linebacker, give the defense a nasty edge, a must.