Call the Kansas football team's 24-17 victory over Indiana State a good first step in the Jayhawks’ quest to replace the sizable hole left in the lineup by the departures of Joe Dineen and Daniel Wise.
Full of new faces and unproven players getting their first taste of the big time and first chance to break out, KU’s defensive linemen and linebackers on Saturday made enough plays to get noticed and left plenty of room for improvement, as well.
“I thought they played great for the first game,” sophomore cornerback Corione Harris said of the group playing in front of him. “And I think they’ll be even better once we all get the feel for each other.”
KU coach Les Miles summed up Saturday’s outing with just one word while praising the group’s effort as a whole.
“Imperfect,” he said. “I can tell you specific and strategic misalignments. But I can also tell you that those things will be corrected pretty quickly. We have some guys in there that are playing hard and playing good, old-fashioned, knock-back defense.”
Although Miles clearly enjoyed the physicality of his defensive players up front, his claim of imperfection stemmed from the fact that ISU outgained the Jayhawks in both rushing yards and total offense. And there's no telling what the numbers — or the outcome — might have read had Sycamores tailback Titus McCoy not been carted off in the second half because of an injury.
Leading an offense that was held to 3.9 yards per carry, McCoy gained 88 yards on 14 carries for a clip of 6.9 yards per rush.
But evaluating the play of KU's defensive front has to go beyond the numbers.
The stat sheet showed that hybrid linebacker Azur Kamara finished with three tackles and a sack against the Sycamores. Not bad. Not great.
However, the senior’s Pro Football Focus grade (73.7) had him as the second most productive player on the entire Kansas defense.
And the eyes told you he’s exactly the kind of disruptive force the Kansas defense needs, a player who believes in himself and can collapse the pocket and play in space when necessary.
Kamara’s open-field tackle of ISU quarterback Ryan Boyle midway through the third quarter ended a promising drive for the Sycamores and helped Kansas maintain control.
Kamara was hardly alone in showing solid flashes in the opener.
Fellow linebackers Dru Prox and Kyron Johnson also made a memorable impact, with Prox flying all over the field to the tune of nine tackles (eight solo) and a sack, and Johnson (three tackles) using his speed to make plays all afternoon.
Those three, along with teammate Najee Stevens-McKenzie, all placed in the top 10 of PFF’s postgame grades.
Their steady play and emergence was particularly critical because of the limited roles of freshmen Steven Parker and Gavin Potter at this point of the season. Both will only make more noise from here, but neither recorded a stat for KU's defense in the opener.
That’s where guys like Darrius Moragne come in handy. Not only does Moragne have more experience than the younger players, he also has seen what works and what doesn’t at this level. His name was one that came up multiple times on Monday and the reason was simple.
“His effort,” said sophomore Caleb Sampson. “He’s always out there going 100%. Even if he messes up a play, he’s going to try to make up for it. And I try to go off of his energy.”
Added Prox: “He was balling. Dude had seven tackles and I really think he had more if you go back and watch the film. It definitely helps me out because he’s causing all kinds of destruction up there.”
Perhaps the best thing about the play of KU's defensive front in Saturday’s victory did not come from any one individual. Instead, the group as a whole did something that made Miles beam with pride while looking back on Monday.
“How many missed tackles did you see?” Miles asked. “I didn’t see many. Not many.”
That’s because with this group there’s only one thing that matters.
“We’re striving to make a name for Kansas, not just as individuals,” Prox said. “Because if we do better as a team that’s just going to give all of us recognition. We’re trying to earn everybody’s respect and show that we’re a good team and when we get to that point where we’re all doing it together, that’s when it’s really going to show what we can do.”