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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Keegan

Column: Kansas football’s potential on defense intrigues

Kansas University defensive lineman Andrew Bolton stretches during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, at the Jayhawks’ fall camp. Bolton, a juco newcomer, has star potential once he knocks off some rust, according to his coach on the KU defensive line, Buddy Wyatt.

Kansas University defensive lineman Andrew Bolton stretches during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013, at the Jayhawks’ fall camp. Bolton, a juco newcomer, has star potential once he knocks off some rust, according to his coach on the KU defensive line, Buddy Wyatt.

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Clint Bowen, in his second stint as defensive coordinator for the Kansas University football team, has coached in the Big 12 long enough to know that better is not good enough.

Multiple sources have told me that Oklahoma State wanted to hire Bowen away from KU. He didn’t stay put with the intention of coordinating the defense for a “better” last-place team.

He candidly challenged the defense during a recent session with the media.

“I don’t think we’re where we need to be right now in terms of our mentality of what it takes to be good,” Bowen said. “If you’re not going to play hard and don’t have good fundamentals, the rest of it doesn’t matter until you get those two fixed. I don’t feel we’re playing as hard as we need to play right now.”

If Bowen and the position coaches can draw maximum effort and attention to detail out of the players, KU should field a competitive defense this coming fall. The blend of talent, experience and depth is the best it’s been in years.

KU’s base defense will feature three down linemen, a buck (hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end), two inside linebackers and five defensive backs.

Starting up front, where depth and experience are the least proven and working back to the secondary, the team’s deepest area, here is a unit-by-unit look at the defense:

D-line

“I spend a lot of time watching the positions that I think are the biggest question marks,” head coach Charlie Weis said. “I watch the offensive line. I watch the defensive line. I watch the wide receivers. You want to spend your time where you have questions yourself that you’d like to know what the answers are.”

One D-line question centers on junior college transfer Andrew Bolton, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound athlete who red-shirted last year while coming off a knee injury. Once healthy enough, he played for the scout team. The question: Bolton looks like an NFL defensive end. Some guys with that appearance are good football players, others look the part. Into which category does Bolton fit?

“I would say that Bolton is probably not as natural, instinctive as, take Keba (Agostinho),” D-line coach Buddy Wyatt said. “Keba was very instinctive. Now Bolton’s bigger than Keba and as strong and fast as Keba was, he’s just not as instinctive at this point in his career. A lot of that is lack of having played. He played one year in junior college and got hurt. He played a couple years in high school.”

Learning basics at the Div. I level isn’t ideal, but it’s clear that Wyatt is bullish on Bolton’s potential.

“He’s been used to making plays just on his athleticism, instead with his technique,” Wyatt said. “You get to this level, your stance has to be correct. You have to take the proper steps if you want to have a chance to be successful, and that’s what we’re working on with Andrew.”

The race is on as to which will come first, the season-opener or Bolton developing sound fundamentals.

“He’s still breaking those bad habits,” Wyatt said. “The good thing is he’s a hard-working kid. He wants to be good and when he does something wrong, he’ll be upset about it. Sometimes he’ll be too upset about it. You’ve got to forget about it and get ready for the next play.”

Wyatt said there were times last season when Weis would say in staff meetings, “He’s a load.”

Senior Keon Stowers is the most proven player up front and brings contagious enthusiasm. Less-talented but equally driven Tedarian Johnson is in the mix, as is 6-3, 310-pound Ty McKinney. Former buck Ben Goodman, 6-3, 250, has moved to defensive end.

“We’re not as big and physical as the group I had a year ago, or as experienced, but we’re a lot more athletic,” Wyatt said.

But not as deep, which is why recruits will be given every chance to get into the mix, as will third-year sophomore Tyler Holmes, lagging behind older players in terms of developing his strength.

California juco defensive end Kapil Fletcher (6-4, 255), to the delight of Wyatt, has been wearing out his position coach’s phone, asking playbook questions, seeking technique advice and wondering what else he can do to arrive as prepared as possible. Damani Mosby, 6-3 235, and Anthony Olobia are other juco transfers who will try to get in the D-line rotation.

D.J. Williams, 6-3, 244, was ranked as the fourth-best high school defensive tackle in Texas, which made the three-star defensive tackle a huge recruiting victory. Two-star Texas recruits Lay’Trion Jones, 6-3, 285, and Daniel Wise, 6-2, 244, were not as heavily sought after as Williams.

Depth is a must up front, which makes that issue the biggest concern for the KU defense.

“Big guys get tired faster than the small guys,” Bowen said. “A DB can play more snaps that a defensive lineman, so that’s the spot you need more of them to play. Those guys need to come out. You can’t leave a 300-pounder out there for a 12-play drive and expect him to live.”

Overall, Wyatt said, “We’re not as big and physical as the group I had a year ago, or as experienced, but we’re a lot more athletic. Where we are with that group, because of how many guys we lost this past year, we have to take a strong look at every one of these kids coming in. Hopefully, some will step up and play right away.”

Bucks and linebackers

They are coached by Bowen. An argument could be made nobody can elevate the defense more than talented senior pass-rusher Michael Reynolds. Weis had been critical of him in the past. Weis liked his ability, but wanted to see it show up more consistently.

Senior urgency appears to be having a good effect on Reynolds, a quick and fast Wichita native. A year ago, Reynolds led the Jayhawks in sacks (6.5 for 44 yards) and ranked second to middle linebacker Ben Heeney in tackles for loss with 10 for 51 yards.

“He had a good year and he’s picked it up,” Bowen said. “He’s matured, gotten himself to where he’s a dependable, every-down guy, plays physical, plays with some toughness. We’re happy with where he’s gotten himself.”

Victor Simmons, moving in from the secondary, backs up Reynolds.

Heeney and sidekick Jake Love are experienced, fearless inside linebackers who make their tackles hurt, especially Heeney, a second-team All-Big 12 selection. Heeney was the best player on the defense a year ago.

“I think he can make another jump,” Bowen said of Heeney. “Even a year ago, I think he left a lot of plays on the field, stuff that we’ve talked about. I’ve compared him many times to the dog that sits on the porch. When the car goes by, he can’t help himself, he runs and bites the tire. But sometimes if he (the dog) would just slow down a little he might not get run over.”

Bowen said if Heeney can play “a little bit smarter, a little better at reading and reacting, he could even show up on a few more plays. I think he could even have a better year than he did a year ago.”

Secondary

Both starting cornerbacks, Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, return for their senior seasons, as do starting safeties Cassius Sendish and Isaiah Johnson (five interceptions). Some believe Kevin Short, academically ineligible last season as a juco transfer, could be the most athletic one of the bunch. He’s the man to beat at nickel back.

“I’m happy with how Dexter has matured and is working on his game,” Bowen said. “He’s taking the small things into consideration a lot better than he did at this time a year ago. You can see a bigger emphasis from him on being a better fundamental player.”

Shepherd’s evolution from wide receiver isn’t complete, but he came on strong at the end of the year and is primed for a big season.

“The two safeties are doing a much better job in being able to read and react to plays correctly more often than not,” Bowen said. “I always say in the Big 12 safety is the toughest position to play because the run-pass conflicts offenses put those kids in all the time. Their reads and reactions have to be great and I think those two have picked up really well.”

Newcomers Anthony “Fish” Smithson, a safety, and Ronnie Davis, a cornerback, also are in the midst of strong springs. Weis also praised the spring work of sophomore Greg Allen at nickel back.

To a large extent, a secondary is only as strong as the pressure the pass-rushers apply, one reason why Reynolds is as big a key to this defense as anybody.

Comments

Doug Cramer 5 months ago

Kool-Aid !!! Directed into the coratid of KU fans.

C'mon Keegs.

We bring back one of the worst defensive lines in college football, and our defense intrigues???

Buddy Wyatt says "we're not as big and physical as we were a year ago"....and this is supposed to excite us?

Bolton has played one year of Juco ball and isn't as instinctual as augustinho...but the article makes him out to be the 2nd coming for the KU football program. Sat in Memorial Stadium for 4 years and watched Augustinho not do a dam thing, except get MANHANDLED by superior big 12 linemen.

We see these articles every off season...and it builds the hopes up of many KU fans. But the root cause of being the worst BCS conference football team the past 4 seasons was due to our administration making some awful coaching decisions that date back to 2009.

We as fans get to pay the consequences of what used to be one hell of a good time coming back to campus every fall season.

Hope our receivers catch some balls this year with our new found hand positioning skills. What a joke.

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Ashwin Rao 5 months ago

I agree... enough of 'positive talk'... now is the time for action. I am not raising my hope to be dashed later this year. This is Weiss's 3rd year, and he needs to take us to a bowl... (and no, not the toilet bowl)

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Aaron Paisley 5 months ago

Did you actually read the article or are just assuming what it says based on Doug's comment?

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Ashwin Rao 5 months ago

Aaron, I did read the article... and I am one of the strongest fan of the program. But being a fan does not mean that you can't be realistic... or can have higher aspirations. I know that we don't give up after half-time like during the Gill days, but I would like to see some more victories (losses hurt even after 4 yrs of those!). I will back the team, but will not assume that they have improved until I see the results on the field. My comment was on the state of affairs, that got triggered by the article. Not speaking against the article, which, I feel was well written.

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Aaron Paisley 5 months ago

Let's talk what's realistic then. Is it realistic to expect a defense to go from having absolutely no depth and minimal talent which is what Weis inherited, to a defense loaded with talent and depth in just two full offseasons? No, it's not and that's because it takes time to build up the necessary depth and it takes time to develop that depth. There is no short cutting this process no matter how much we want Weis to do so. The coaches that have been successful at KU are the ones who have been given the necessary time to build that depth and develop it. I don't think anyone can realistically say that KU's defense was not better last year than it was in year one. The big question for the defense, and the team in general is can they continue building off of the improvements of last season and keep trending upwards. And if KU takes a step backwards, it certainly won't be for a lack of effort on Charlie's part as he is doing any and everything he realistically can to turn KU around.

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Ben Kliewer 5 months ago

I was going to comment that the reality-based assessment of all the guys, basically saying that they're talented athletes, but really not that great and in dire need of improvement, was a breath of fresh air compared to all the hype we've had in recent years. Doug and Ashwin, did you read the same article I did? It did not paint a rosy picture of this defense.

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Josh Youle 5 months ago

Yeah shocking a KU writer isn't more negative in the offseason... This will be the best team we've had in the last 5 years, how good, who knows, but extra negativity isn't going to help anything. As confidence grows who knows what these kids are capable of, but it can't help before the season starts for their own fans to tell them they suck. The only joke is that you claim to be a fan.

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Chris Bailey 5 months ago

With issues at 4 key positions we won't win a game in the Big12. WR, OL, DL, and QB. Not gonna happen. Support doesn't mean we should settle and be happy with losing. People can't pound their chest's about wanting us to support but being a fan and grad I can support but I also feel I can be critical. We are not winning. Something needs to change. Hope things get better before the fall.

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Erich Hartmann 5 months ago

Chris Bailey, you gonna let the actual games play out, or you got this thing already predicted out down to a tee? If so, please give me some betting tips on KY/Wisc/FL/UConn Final 4, I'll bet the farm, the wife, and the Ferrari on your clairvoyance?

We had drive after drive killed by critical 3rd or 4th down drops by the WRs (or TE). Fix that, and I'd like to see what the offense can do. Cox+Bourbon+Pierson is a helluva 3-headed changeup. OL play will be critical. I think the most serious concern is obviously DL. Need to improve kicking game incrementally. Pardula started off well, but then faded. Fix that.

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Chris Bailey 5 months ago

Well if you have a Ferrari I'd like a ride. I'm not saying I know what will happen. What I'm saying is I'm tired of predictions. You are 100% spot on saying we have some talent at RB and K, We also have glaring holes at OL and DL and QB for that matter. Our receivers were terrible at best the last two seasons. We have Nick Harwell so I'm optimistic we can improve. But I'm done listening to the predictions and all the hype. We aren't a good time YET. I hope we can get to that point and soon. Anyway, don't take my comment as bitey. Just stating my opinion.

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Mark Lindrud 5 months ago

Our D wasn't bad last year, but if words like smaller and less physical are being used then our defense will be bad this year. This will pit even more pressure on the offense to improve and show consistency to stay on the field and be able to score points.

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Aaron Paisley 5 months ago

Hooray for reading comprehension and giving and opinion based on the article instead of repeating the same line in every article.

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Brett McCabe 5 months ago

Intriguing: rousing one's curiosity or interest; fascinating. Yes, this is neither positive or negative. Journalists are typically choosy about their words.

My takeaway was that we are in the third year of the program, we've gotten stronger in the secondary and we have work to do up front.

My personal opinion, unrelated to the article, is that it's Charlie's last chance. Home crowds will be light and these kids and coaches are going to have to get it done or I would expect a coaching search of some sort. On the plus side, we actually seem to have a real coaching staff now, which should certainly help.

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David Williams 5 months ago

IMHO I believe that we may already have the successor to Weis on the staff. If not a great year, then theoretically Weis will "retire", to be succeeded by the person on staff.

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Aaron Paisley 5 months ago

I don't necessarily believe thisSnyder's make or break season for Weis as long as he doesn't take a huge step backwards this year. Zenger comes from a football coaching background and specifically being part of Snyder's staff in the beginning at KSU which gives him a unique understanding of what it's like to turn around a program in the state the KU's was when Weis took over because KSU was on the same boat back then of being a laughing stock. As long as Charlie doesn't take a huge step backwards, I don't see a legitimate reason not to give him his full 5 years and then evaluate again at that point.

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Aaron Paisley 5 months ago

What part of this article is supposed to be hyping up this defense as Doug claims it is? I'm going to assume Doug didn't actually read the article and is just complaining about something like he always does. Where's the so called Kool aid in this article Doug?

All I see in this article that gives an assessment of where the defense is at with quotes from Bowen and staff about the defense. There's also mention of Okie St. inquiring about Bowen this offseason. I see multiple statements about the defense needing to play harder and the only prediction for the defense as a whole is that if they play as hard as possible, they can be competitive. Competitive means average so TK is implying that this defense's ceiling is average.

TK says that Bolton is the key for this defense this year because of his size and does talk about his potential. Buddy Wyatt then talks about Bolton still working on breaking bad habits and that he still has a tough time forgetting about the previous play, that's real positive and uplifting stuff. TK then drops the quote about the DLine depth being the biggest concern on the defense and then gives a quick bio about they guys coming in this summer to try and earn some reps. I know I'm not the smartest person ever, but can someone show me where the Kool Aid is in that section.

As for the Buck/LB's, I see Bowen saying the light bulb is finally coming on for Michael Reynolds and that his pass rushing will go a long ways in determining the secondary's fate this year. He also says Ben Heeny still has work to do to get better.

Bowen basically said the secondary needs to keep building off their successes from last season and keeping putting the work to get better.

I'll grant the sections about the LB's and DB's could be Kool Aid-ish, but given how those two units performed last year and that all those players are back with another year of experience, there's not a legitimate reason to believe those two units won't improve this upcoming season.

All in all, this not a puff piece hyping the defense, it's a lot more of a realistic take using direct quotes from that staff that say this defense can be competitive this year if they play to maximum effort and if that doesn't happen, this defense will not be competitive.

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Doug Cramer 5 months ago

Aaron - you're upset because last year you fed off of the pre-season articles that hyped up Weis and this program. And everytime you responded, I called out the fact that we would do no better than 3-9, and that our play in the trenches will continue to under perform. You're reaction was always to come back swinging that "I'm not a fan, and my analysis of our talent and coaching potential was false".

Being realistic doesn't mean I'm not a fan. I bleed the crimson and blue, a KU Atmo Science of 2000...and want nothing more than a football program that succeeds and is exciting to come back for.

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Aaron Paisley 5 months ago

Now you're talking out of your rear saying stuff to try and fit your argument. I have never been a person that expected this turnaround to happen overnight. Last year, my prediction for the team in the preseason was 5 wins at best and I thought they would end up 4-8. I also have never said that you were not a true fan, just that you say the same thing on every football article. We get it, you think the DLine sucks. How about contributing some actual discussion about the specific content of the article instead of the same thing every article. Ask questions about why you think the things you do on here. Doing things like that can get an actual discussion about the state of program going while still putting your opinion out there.

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Suzi Marshall 5 months ago

I don't know about everyone else, for me it's really hard to catch up on Kansas football when the CBB season draws to an end. However, it's worth the effort to attempt to fill the void left by the early exit of our guys.

I can't begin to get excited about the football team's chances for success until the O-Line becomes competitive. With an uncompetitive OL everything breaks down and leaves the D on the field facing 100 plays from high octane Big 12 offenses. Even dramatic improvements from last year's pretty good D performance will allow 40 points in this league trying to defend 90-100 plays.

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Armen Kurdian 5 months ago

I'm very surprised that the pundits on sports radio, ESPN, etc., aren't talking about KU as the likely national champion this season. It's common knowledge. Maybe that's why, they just figure everyone already knows we're going 12-0. Guess that's why.

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Erich Hartmann 5 months ago

Clearly you like sarcasm, but what purpose did it serve? Were you venting frustration or something, because "national champion" talk is just strange. Is any BigXII team a 'common knowledge' shoe-in for natl.champ? That's a pretty hard-sell, buddy. Since football's success (Div.1 or NCAA) depends SOOO much on all the little details of 3 parts (offense, defense, spec.teams), and the execution and proper positioning--> how about watching the new KU season for yourself, with an analytical approach and judging the product and improvements game by game? You do understand we are in a rebuilding project, right?

I cant think of any poster in the last 4yrs who has said "12-0". Uh, try your 2nd guess, please.

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Jay Beakum 5 months ago

“We’re not as big and physical as the group I had a year ago, or as experienced, but we’re a lot more athletic,” Wyatt said.

This quote is a bit baffling to me. We are returning Stowers, McKinney and Johnson, who all just completed their first full season on the defensive line in Division 1 football, and who are preparing to embark on their second full season at the same position. Would that not make this group MORE experienced? Plus another year of Holsopple. More physical?

We lost Kevin Young (287 pounds) and Keba Agosthino (277 pounds) Those guys are being replaced by Bolton (285) Holmes (280) A little less experience here, but Kevin and Keba hadn’t really been playing DL that long. They were force-fed to get up to DL weight, only to end up playing a little over a full season in the middle.

I suppose since they are calling Goodman and DL now, that could be what Wyatt is talking about, but I can’t see him regularly lining up against 300 pound guards in the Big 12. He will still, almost certainly, play toward the edge on most downs.

So I don’t see this group being less experienced OR less physical. What am I missing?

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Lucas Town 5 months ago

I went through the roster and there are a lot of seniors (24) that have played 2 and 3 years and will play a huge roll with this years team. These guys are household names, they are talked about in the news, this website and commentators have talked about a lot of these guys during ball games as well. This group went from 2 wins as freshmen, to 1 win as sophomores, to 3 wins as juniors. The schedule is not any easier. What will our team look like next year with the departure of so many players? I think we are in for a rude awakening for the 2015 season as being a very inexperienced team. When will we get our heads above water?

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Jim Stauffer 5 months ago

Where Doug consistently goes wrong is not when he quotes our record for the last 5 years, but when he attributes it to the defense. If our offense had given our defense just a little rest and field position last year, it would have ranked much higher nationally.

No, we don't have a nationally prominent defense, but it is one that can help improve our overall record if the offense can possess the ball and score like a Big 12 offense should.

Anyone who equates great defense automatically with size should watch a replay of the OU-'Bama game to see what the smaller faster guys did to the big boys.

Yet, if OU's offense had not played up to par, the 'Bama O-Line would have eventually wore down the OU defense. Quickness and speed are very effective defensively, especially in the Big 12 with the spread offenses.

Looking forward to see what our defense can do if John Reagan is able to produce some offense and points.

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