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Ranking Kansas football position units: No. 7, safeties/nickel backs

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Kansas safety Tyrone Miller Jr. takes off as he works through a drill during practice on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

Kansas safety Tyrone Miller Jr. takes off as he works through a drill during practice on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. by Nick Krug

In a subtle way, nickel back Tevin Shaw, who steadily improved throughout his five seasons in the program, will be the toughest player on the defense to replace.

He had built a strong knowledge base on the responsibilities of every position on the defense, delivered hard hits in run support and knew how to get after the quarterback.

To replace Shaw, defensive coordinator Clint Bowen has the option of rotating two players with distinctly different games and frames.

Senior Derrick Neal, used at receiver and cornerback at various times during his career, has found a home at nickel. Bowen felt the need to get faster, better in pass coverage, at the position and Neal answers those needs.

When Bowen needs to emphasize run support, he can turn to safety Bryce Torneden to play nickel.

When Torneden is at nickel, Kansas will have two players in the secondary who pack a good deal of velocity into their hard hits.

Safety Mike Lee was supposed to be a senior in high school during the 2016 season, but he graduated early and players throughout the Big 12 have the bruises to prove it. That includes teammate Ryan Schadler, rocked hard by Lee on a pass play quarterback Peyton Bender wishes he could have taken back. The football office should circulate that hit and Lee’s ensuing celebration to every media outlet on the planet in hopes receivers will watch it and inevitably wonder how hard Lee will blast someone playing for the other side if he’ll do that to a teammate.

Lee’s pursuit of the big hit sometimes makes him play with too much emotion, which results in him playing out of his position. That’s why Beaty has a favorite reminder for Lee, telling him, “I want you lead the conference in tackles, but I don’t want you lead the conference in missed tackles as well.”

A second year in the back of the defense will increase Lee’s knowledge and refine his discipline. It’s easier to coach those things that to try to teach the rugged fearlessness and speed with which Lee plays into a player not born with those qualities. It makes for a lethal blend of attributes for a playmaker who has a nose for the ball. His interception in overtime in KU's first victory against Texas since 1938 put a huge exclamation point on his terrific game.

Concerns about safety were greater coming into spring than coming out of it, thanks to junior Tyrone Miller showing so well.

A safety in high school, Miller was pressed into duty at cornerback as a true freshman and didn’t have the speed to play the position in the Big 12. Back at safety as a sophomore, Miller fell well short of expectations, but bounced back in a big way during the spring.

Sophomore Shaquille Richmond and possibly incoming freshman Robert Topps lend depth.

Junior converted receiver Emannuel Moore has the right physical gifts for the position that he began practicing late in the 2016 season. He’ll need another year to learn the nuances of playing safety in order for the staff to have a better feel for just how good he can become, but he’ll make his way onto the field this season.

Sophomore Shaquille Richmond and possibly incoming freshman Robert Topps lend depth.

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