All the intrigue centered on quarterbacks in Thursday’s compelling first round of the NFL draft, with the Chiefs trading up to select project Patrick Mahomes II, two picks before the Texans moved up to take born winner Deshaun Watson.
That carried the day, but on the undercard was an undeniable theme: NFL teams greatly value defensive ends blessed with the sort of speed that enables them to get into the backfield to blow up plays.
Six defensive ends were selected in the first round:
1 - Myles Garrett (Texas A&M), 6-4, 272
3 - Solomon Thomas (Stanford) 6-3, 273
14 - Derek Barnett (Tennessee) 6-3, 259
17 - Jonathan Allen (Alabama) 6-3, 286
26 - Takkarist McKinley (UCLA) 6-2, 250
28 - Charlton Taco (Michigan) 6-6, 277
Kansas State’s Jordan Willis, 6-4, 255, defensive player of the year in the Big 12, did not go in the first round.
It’s possible that Dorance Armstrong, listed at 6-4, 246, will generate enough of a buzz during his junior season that he will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
Armstrong handles that question the way he does all others, with an answer that shows his focus is where it should be and one that reveals how excited he is for the upcoming season.
“I’m not really thinking about that right now,” Armstrong said. “I want to actually experience what winning in college feels like. That’s what I’m looking at right now.”
He honestly believes Kansas is ready to go bowling.
“I really do,” Armstrong said.
He has felt that way since, “before the Texas game,” he said.
“We didn’t put the pieces all together that we needed to,” Armstrong said. “Now that that season’s over we’re all on the same page in knowing what we didn’t do last season and what we need to do this season in order to win games, so I’m pretty confident on that.”
Many who never took up golf cling to the false notion that it takes no toughness to play it. Some even maintain it’s not a sport because it doesn’t feature contact with other humans.
Anyone who thinks that should watch the best Kansas golf team since 2000 compete. These guys aren’t just golfers, they’re grinders. If they had their druthers, they would play the NCAA regionals in Siberia. Unfortunately, there isn’t a regional there so they’ll prepare to go where the NCAA sends them when the field is announced next Thursday.
Wind and cold made Prairie Dunes, a tough golf course under the best of conditions, a severe test of mental toughness during the Big 12 Championships played Monday through Wednesday in Hutchinson.
Kansas coach Jamie Bermel loved hearing what senior Chase Hanna, who by the way would not be intimidated by putting on Siberian ice, said as he walked off the course after the third round on his way to dinner: “I hope it’s blowing 40 tomorrow.” Half of Hanna’s wish was granted. Winds reached 20 mph and the senior from Shawnee Mission East High birdied four of five holes from 13 through 17 to become the school’s first conference champion since 1995.
Slade Adams, who died last October, was Big Eight tri-champion in 1995. Adams made the cut at the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional. Matt Gogel, retired from the PGA tour, on which he won an event and now is an announcer, won the outright Big Eight title in 1991.
Hanna has an impressive trophy case. He won three Sunflower League titles, the Kansas Junior Amateur and the Missouri Junior Amateur. He became the first amateur to win the Tom Watson Challenge, defeating Watson in the summer of 2015, and won the prestigious Kansas Amateur.
“I’d put this at the top,” Hanna said, “because I was competing for Kansas.” Spoken like a true third-generation Jayhawk.
In college golf tournaments, five golfers compete and only the four best scores count toward the team total. Nobody shot worst than a 75 for Kansas on the final day. Texas won the conference championship and had an 83 tossed out the final day. Oklahoma State finished second by a stroke, 1,168-1,169, and had a 78 tossed out the final round. Kansas finished four strokes behind Teas.
Hanna and freshman Andy Spencer were high school teammates. Danie Hudson’s from LaGrange, Ill. Daniel Sutton’s from Birmingham, England, and Charlie Hillier’s from Te Puke, New Zealand.
“These guys are all used to playing in the wind and cold,” Bermel said. “Those were good conditions for us.”
The NFL draft starts Thursday night and concludes Saturday, by which time it is likely that for the seventh time in the 21st century, no Kansas player will be selected, unless safety Fish Smithson is snagged with a late-round pick.
Sixteen Jayhawks have been selected this century. By position: Offensive line (four), cornerback (three), wide receiver (three), defensive line (two), linebacker (one), running back (one), safety (one) tight end (one). By round: first (one), second (none), third (none), fourth (six), fifth (four), sixth (four), seventh (one).
A complete list of 21st-century selections from Kansas, with position NFL team, round and overall selection:
2001: Moran Norris RB Saints (4/115);
2002: Nate Dwyer DL Cardinals (4/113), Justin Hartwig OL Titans (6/187);
2004: Adrian Jones OL Jets (4/132);
2005: David McMillan DL Browns (5/139);
2008: Aqib Talib CB Buccaneers (1/20), Anthony Collins OL Bengals (4/112), Derek Fine TE Bills (4/132), Marcus Henry WR Jets (6/174);
2010: Darrell Stuckey S Chargers (4/110), Kerry Meier WR Falcons (5/165), Dezmon Briscoe WR Bengals (6/191);
2012: Tanner Hawkinson OL Bengals (5/156);
2015: Ben Heeney LB Raiders (5/140), JaCorey Shepherd CB Eagles (6/191), Dexter McDonald CB Raiders (7/242);
Interestingly, 7 of 16 selections played in KU’s 24-21 Orange Bowl victory vs. Virginia Tech. Six were starters. Meier caught two passes as a reserve. Henry, Briscoe and Dexton Fields were KU's three starting receivers.
That team also featured undrafted, record-breaking quarterback Todd Reesing. All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris was a freshman starter in the Orange Bowl and was bypassed in the draft after three more seasons at KU.
No hitter ranked in the top 10 in Big 12 play in on-base percentage or slugging percentage. Last in the conference by a long shot with three home runs and last with four stolen bases.
Also, last in the Big 12 with a .963 fielding percentage.
So the Jayhawks aren’t particularly good at hitting, hitting with power, fielding or running. No wonder they were a safe pick to extend their streak of last-place finishes to three years. An 11-13 finish in non-conference play did nothing to change anybody’s opinion.
Yet, a look at the standings shows Kansas alone in fourth place in the nine-team league with an 8-7 record.
How is that possible?
For one thing, young players are getting better, even as the competition stiffens. Second baseman James Cosentino, named Big 12 co-newcomer of the week a week ago, is batting .389 in Big 12 play to raise his overall average to .273.
For another, the pitching has come on, led by power pitcher Jackson Goddard’s move to the starting rotation.
Goddard, the Saturday starter, has two walks and 20 strikeouts in 13 innings in his past two starts. KU is 4-1 in his Big 12 starts. He had a 7.60 ERA last season, 4.61 and shrinking so far this season.
Maybe the biggest factor in KU having a winning record in conference play has been playing well in close games, a clutch quality.
Until losing a late lead Sunday and falling 7-6 to Oklahoma in Norman, KU had been 4-0 in one-run conference games.
Stephen Villines, second-team all-conference as a junior, didn’t protect the lead in that one, but has been a reliable closer. He has 11 saves, five in Big 12 play, and on the season has four walks and 40 strikeouts.
The ability to communicate in terms that are easy to understand is a trait successful coaches in all sports share.
First-year Kansas offensive coordinator/receivers coach Doug Meacham does a nice job of sifting through the alphabet soup that comes with spread offenses favored by so many college football coaches to explain the ideal traits of players at each of the four receiver positions.
Outside receivers are X and Z and inside receivers are H and Y.
“X is your super fast, post guy,” Meacham said. “H is your punt return (type), quick-twitchy guy. Y is the other inside guy. He’s your bigger, more physical, bang off 'backers, safeties guy and Z is probably your best overall, do everything guy: (Texas Tech's) Michael Crabtree, Justin Blackmon and Dez Bryant (both Oklahoma State), (TCU's) Josh Doctson.”
By the end of the spring, the top of the Kansas depth chart had Steven Sims at X, LaQuvionte Gonzalez at H, Ryan Schadler at Y and Daylon Charlot at Z. Gonzalez, by the way, spent much of the spring working with third-stringers but worked his way back to the top.
Typically, when a tight end or second running back is on the field, one of the inside receivers comes out of the game.
Does playing receiver in the Air Raid offense require a higher football IQ than in other offenses?
“Not if you’re really fast,” Meacham said.
“The inside guys, there are a lot more little details of it. Outside guys, it’s a little simpler because you’re just dealing with corners pretty much all day long,” Meacham said. “The inside guys, it can be a nickel, it can be a safety rolling down on you, it can be a linebacker. There are a lot of different variations and looks you can get in there and you have to see a lot more of the rotation of the coverage than just routes.”
Tyler Patrick had a solid spring and supplies depth as an inside receiver.
Meacham explained what it takes to be an outside receiver.
“It’s not quite as stringent mentally, probably, but you have to be longer and you have to be a fast guy who when you get single coverage, you can throw the fade and score. You have to have those kinds of guys somewhere.”
Long, fast Chase Harrell had an impressive spring game and could be on the verge of a break-through season at outside receiver.
"Usually, what it comes down to is your best receiver catches the most balls," Meacham said. "I've had an H receiver that's had 100-plus catches. I've had a Z that's had 120-some catches in a year. I've had Ys that caught over a hundred a year."
The Bill Self statement that resonated most loudly at the team banquet came in reference to Malik Newman, who practiced with Kansas last season after transferring from Mississippi State.
“I’ll be disappointed if Malik’s not an all-league or All-American player next year,” Self said.
The KU coach ought to know an All-American when he sees one.
Kansas has had a remarkable run of Associated Press All-Americans since Sherron Collins became Self’s first Kansas recruit to earn the distinction with third-team honors in 2009.
That started a run of 12 All-Americans in the past nine seasons, a run in which at least one Jayhawk was named first, second or third-team All-American by AP in every season except 2015.
Devonte’ Graham also has the potential to land on an All-American team as a senior.
Of the 12 Self Kansas recruits honored by the AP, five were seniors (Collins, Tyshawn Taylor, Jeff Withey, Perry Ellis, Frank Mason), four juniors (Collins, Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Thomas Robinson), three freshmen (Ben McLemore, Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson).
A year-by-year breakdown of All-Americans in Self’s 14 seasons:
2017: Mason, first team; Jackson, third team.
2016: Ellis, second team.
2014: Wiggins, second team.
2013: McLemore, second team; Withey, third team.
2012: Robinson, first team; Taylor, third team.
2011: Marcus Morris, second team.
2010: Collins, second team; Aldrich, third team.
2009: Collins, third team.
2005: Wayne Simien, first team.
2004: Simien, third team.
Sophomore safety Mike Lee is the lone returner in the five-man secondary, so opponents will look to shred Kansas with the pass.
Or will they?
The Jayhawks have allowed higher than a five-yards-per-carry average and ranked outside the top 100 among 128 FBS schools in that statistical category. So unless the Kansas linebackers can do a better job of shedding guards with big size advantages, teams might try to hammer away with the run, rather than have quarterbacks under duress from a strong pass rush exploit an inexperienced secondary.
The emergence of 6-foot-2, 225-pound Keith Loneker, Jr., who came on late last season as a sophomore and had a strong spring, should help. Loneker played a huge role in the 24-21, overtime victory against Texas and looked faster and more impressive in pass coverage during the spring game. He has that fearless trait necessary to play linebacker and it comes in handy against the run.
Coming out of Lawrence Free State High, where he excelled as both a receiver and linebacker, Loneker graded out as either too small or not quite fast enough to merit a Big 12 scholarship, just the sort of football player his father's coach, Glen Mason, relied on heavily during his successful tenure at Kansas. Rather than walk on at Kansas, Loneker attended Baker University in nearby Baldwin City, earned freshman All-American honors, and then transferred to KU, paying his own way his first season and earning a scholarship for the next two
The fast, 6-1, 230-pound junior Joe Dineen, Loneker’s high school teammate, joins him as a first-team linebacker. Dineen missed enough of last season to maintain the year of eligibility and heads into junior season two years older than his last full season, when KU allowed 5.67 yards per carry, ranking 106th. The added experience and weight should enable Dineen to do a better job of shedding tacklers and making more stops closer to the line of scrimmage.
Lee (six unassisted) and Dineen and Loneker (each with three unassisted and two assisted tackles) led the team in stops during the spring game.
The Jayhawks did improve by half a yard and 17 spots in the national rankings in yards-per-carry allowed, but must do better than that this coming season, especially considering the defensive line projects to be among the best, if not the best, in the Big 12.
Based on the spring game, Osaze Ogbebor, a 6-1, 220-pound junior from Lorton, Va., and 6-1, 215-pound redshirt freshman Dru Prox from Kaufman, Texas, are the first linebackers supplying depth. Maciah Long has moved from linebacker to defensive end.
Not particularly tall, broad or mobile, Kansas junior quarterback Peyton Bender doesn’t need to be any taller, broader or more mobile to become the best prospect the Jayhawks have had standing in the shotgun since Todd Reesing.
Bender need do no more than he did in Saturday’s spring game to clear that bar. He completed 11 of 15 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns and didn’t throw an interception.
“I thought I did fine,” Bender said afterward. “I did what I was supposed to do. We kept the play-calling pretty simple.”
Bender looked comfortable and in charge.
As for how his spring has gone in general, Bender said, “I’ve been pleased. There’s room for improvement. There are plenty of mistakes I’ve made. I just have to continue on the learning process of the offense but so far I think it’s going pretty well.”
Bender ran an Air Raid offense in high school in Florida, during a redshirt season and his redshirt freshman year at Washington State and as a sophomore for Itawamba Community College in Mississippi.
Every version of the Air Raid is a little different, including the one offensive coordinator Doug Meacham installed this spring.
“The Air Raid offense tends to be a little bit easier on the quarterback,” Bender said. “It’s fairly simple, but it’s a more complicated version of the Air Raid than I’ve run in any other system. It’s been a little bit more on my plate, but I think I’ve handled it well. I’m definitely learning it.”
Both Bender and redshirt sophomore Carter Stanley get snaps with the first string offense during practice and head coach David Beaty has not named a starter.
Still, I would be surprised if Bender doesn’t win the starting job, which would make Stanley the best backup Kansas has had at quarterback in many, many years.
Kansas sophomore Ryan Schadler started his collegiate athletic career as a sprinter for Wichita State and even he is taken aback at the amount of sprinting demanded of receivers in Doug Meacham’s offense.
“The first couple of spring practices I was like, ‘Man, this isn’t running back anymore,’ ” Schadler said after catching three passes for 37 yards for the winning side in Saturday’s spring game. “I’m running a lot of 40-yard sprints over and over and over. It’s good. In high school I was always a guy who played offense, defense, special teams, never coming off the field. It’s been a while since I’ve been running like that and I really love it.”
Schadler appears to love everything about playing football for Kansas and he has done a little bit of everything to utilize his speed. He scored on a 91-yard kickoff return in his Kansas debut in 2015 and he also appeared at running back.
He missed last season after being diagnosed with a birth defect involving the malrotation of his small and large intestines and appendix, which required surgery.
Fully recovered, he converted to slot receiver in advance of spring practices, a move initiated by Meacham.
“The biggest thing for me is getting in shape,” Schadler said. “Meach has said a receiver will run five, six miles at practice.”
The need for speed isn’t limited to running pass patterns.
“He always want to go faster,” Schadler said. “Lining up fast is more important than anything. If we can line up fast while the defense is trying to figure everything out, we have an advantage.
“With this Air Raid you’ve got to be able to just go, go, go. We wear the defense down in practice all the time just because we’re going and going and going and going. If we can be the fastest team in the Big 12 in that category, I think we’ll be OK because you can catch defenses off guard.”
Schadler has been the first-team “Y” receiver, fellow inside receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez the “H,” Daylon Charlot the “Z” and Steven Sims the “X.”
“Meach is so good in that video room and the meeting rooms,” Schadler said. “If you look at our film from Day 1 to now, we’ve come a long way. Our route-running and identifying coverages have come a long way.”
Nickel back, the football position in the secondary, not the widely mocked band, sometimes is filled by hybrid linebacker/safety, other times by a cornerback/safety hybrid. Tevin Shaw fell into the former category for Kansas the past couple of years.
Looking to field a quicker unit, defensive coordinator Clint Bowen sought someone with better coverage skills to fill the spot for 2017. He found his man in senior Derrick Neal.
Used in the past as a wide receiver, a kick returner and a cornerback, Neal has worked his way onto the first team as a nickel and he sounds as if he's convinced he has found a home.
"I think nickel’s the best spot for me because I’m always by the ball," Neal said. "I love to be by the ball. I’m a ball hawk. If I have a chance to get to the ball, that’s what I’m going to do.”
All Big 12 squads have one or two jets filling the slot receiver spot, which was why Bowen wanted to get quicker, more agile at the position.
"I can cover the the inside receivers," Neal said. "I’m a quicker guy and we need more cover guys on the field.”
That means Neal often finds himself matched up against LaQuvionte "Speedy" Gonzalez in practice.
“He’s one of the fastest dudes in the Big 12, so if I’m guarding him every day I feel like I’ll be ready for the season," Neal said. foot
He originally made a verbal commitment to play basketball with his twin, Erick, at UT-Arlington, but changed his mind and committed to play football for Kansas. Erick Neal has one year of eligibility remaining and already can be found in several places in the UTA basketball career statistics leaders, including in third place in assists and seventh in steals and made 3-pointers. He produced the school's first triple-double (27 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) as a sophomore and earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors as a junior.
Derrick summed up his twin's game in one short sentence: "He's nice."
Yes, he is.