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Improvement running and defending run will mark true progress

Kansas offensive lineman Larry Hughes (73) looks to fend off defensive end Anthony Olobia (56) during the Spring Game on Saturday, April 9, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas offensive lineman Larry Hughes (73) looks to fend off defensive end Anthony Olobia (56) during the Spring Game on Saturday, April 9, 2016 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Slow growth tends to equate to real growth even though it can be frustrating for fans of the Kansas football program who have endured seven consecutive seasons of three or fewer victories.

Two statistical indicators will be worth watching to see if the Jayhawks are in the midst of a significant step forward. Track yards per rush for the Kansas offense and for the defense.

KU has finished in the top 90 in yards per carry just once in the past seven seasons. That was in 2012, when Mark Mangino holdovers Trevor Marrongelli, Duane Zlatnik and Tanner Hawkinson were all returning starters on the offensive line, all in their fifth seasons in the program.

Since that year, the O-line has lacked stability and in many cases talent. Things are beginning to stabilize up front, although the line still appears to be a year away.

KU has finished in the top 100 against the run in yards per attempt just once in the past seven seasons, placing 92nd in 2013.

The keys to performing better against the run lie in the rotation of defensive tackles doing a better job of occupying blockers — Daniel Wise can't do it alone — and the linebackers doing a better job of shedding blockers to make their tackles closer to the line of scrimmage.

Depth at D-tackle and linebacker should be better this season.

A look at how Kansas has done running the ball and defending the run in the past seven seasons during which the Jayhawks have averaged a 2-10 record.

Rushing offense

Year (Coach): (Yards per rush average)

2016 (David Beaty II): 113 (3.53)

2015 (Beaty I): 126 (3.04)

2014 (Charlie Weis III): 121 (3.12)

2013 (Weis II): 97 (3.73)

2012 (Weis I): 49 (4.55)

2011 (Turner Gill II): 95 (3.52)

2010 (Gill I): 103 (3.44)

Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise (96) looks to bring down Oklahoma State running back Chris Carson (32) during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise (96) looks to bring down Oklahoma State running back Chris Carson (32) during the second quarter on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Rushing defense

Year (Coach): Rank (Yards per rush average)

2016 (Beaty II): 5.17 (103)

2015 (Beaty I): 5.67 (123)

2014 (Weis III): 5.40 (117)

2013 (Weis II): 4.72 (92)

2012 (Weis I): 5.22 (114)

2011 (Gill II): 5.83 (120, last)

2010 (Gill I): 5.01 (105)

Reply 4 comments from Pius Waldman Brett McCabe Stephen Burtin Titus Canby

Kansas football position units: No. 1, defensive ends

Kansas defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. (2) puts Texas running back D'Onta Foreman (33) on the ground after recovering a fumble during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. (2) puts Texas running back D'Onta Foreman (33) on the ground after recovering a fumble during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Kansas head football coach David Beaty talks in superlatives about recruits on signing day but once they arrive on campus, he tries to bite his tongue so as to keep complacency at bay.

At least that’s how he approaches most players. Beaty knows Dorance Armstrong well enough to know that if complacency ever came near the rising junior defensive end’s space he would deliver it a punishing stiff arm, much like the one that flattened huge Texas running back D’Onta Foreman toward the end of Armstrong’s fumble return on which he changed directions with the smoothness of a polished running back.

Beaty doesn’t worry about Armstrong getting a big head because he knows how straight it’s screwed on and knows he is a relentless self-improvement hunter. So when ESPN.com interviewed Beaty about Armstrong during the offseason, the coach didn’t hold back.

“Dorance is a stud. The fact that he didn’t make All-American last year was shocking to me,” Beaty told ESPN.com. “He got robbed. (He) is unbelievable. He’s a freak. He is Myles Garrett, and Myles is a freak. This guy’s a beast.”

Beaty recruited Garrett, the first selection in last month’s NFL draft, to Texas A&M.

Garrett stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 271 pounds. Armstrong is 6-4, 246, so he might decide to use his senior year to get a little bigger and even stronger, or he might decide to enter the NFL draft after three seasons, as did Garrett. Armstrong has the perfect answer when asked about that potential decision. He says he wants to experience winning as a college football player before even thinking about that. And when he talks about the future, he talks about two seasons, not one.

"Everybody on this team knows that next year we’re going to be better and the next year after that we’re going to be even better than that,” Armstrong said.

If the Jayhawks were to open the season with victories against SEMO and a tough Central Michigan squad at home and then end its road losing streak against Ohio to start the season 3-0, it’s possible Memorial Stadium would be sold out for the Big 12 opener, Sept. 23.

And if Armstrong is a huge factor in the Jayhawks earning more victories in the opening three weeks of 2017 than it did in Beaty’s first two seasons, Beaty might not stop at talking about his All-American worthiness. Maybe he’ll hit the play button on the fumble recovery against Texas, freeze the frame that shows him sending Foreman off his feet with the stiff arm and then ask: “Does this remind you of any trophy?”

Defensive players seldom are mentioned in Heisman Trophy talk, but it's not absurd to think that Armstrong, should he make another big step forward, could merit mention.

Armstrong had 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries last season and became the first Jayhawk to earn unanimous first-team All-Big 12 honors. He came to Kansas weighing less than 215 pounds and has had no trouble putting on weight while maintaining his speed.

In contrast, sophomore Isaiah Bean has had trouble moving the needle on the scale and was listed at 6-4, 220 during the spring. He’s really quick, fast and explosive, but needs to exercise more discipline in several areas to fulfill all the requirements to practice, play, study and condition to maximize his potential the way Armstrong has.

Josh Ehambe has done well in all the areas where Bean needs to improve. A fourth-year junior, Ehambe is 6-3, 247 and has changed his body for the better. A former linebacker, he has made the adjustment to defensive end and emerged from the spring as a first-string player. Ehambe validated that status with a big spring game and has a shot at establishing himself as a two-year starter.

Depending on how well he makes the transition from junior college to the Big 12, Willie McCaleb (6-2, 240) could work his way onto the depth chart and hard-working, 6-3, 285, fifth-year senior Kellen Ash brings experience in reserve. Maciah Long, if he continues to develop, could fill the role played so well last season by Cameron Rosser.

This concludes the 10-part, position-by-position ranking of KU football. Links to stories on the rest of the positions:

2 - Outside receivers

3 - Defensive tackles

4 - Running backs

5 - Linebackers

6 - Quarterbacks

7 - Safeties/nickel backs

8 - Inside receivers/tight ends

9 - Cornerbacks

10 - Offensive linemen

Reply 7 comments from Dirk Medema Jim Stauffer Brett McCabe Micky Baker Benny Armstrong Brock Wells

Kansas football position units: No. 2, outside receivers

Team Jayhawk wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. (11) gets a shove from Team Jayhawk wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez (1) after Sims' touchdown during the second quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team Jayhawk wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. (11) gets a shove from Team Jayhawk wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez (1) after Sims' touchdown during the second quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Not all that long ago, in 2012 to be precise, back when Kansas ran a pre-historic offense under Charlie Weis, the Jayhawks went the entire season without a single touchdown catch from a wide receiver.

In Weis’ second year on the job, no wide receiver caught more than one TD pass and just three caught one.

So in two seasons, the Jayhawks totaled three touchdowns from wide receivers, one apiece from Rodriguez Coleman, Andrew Turzilli and Justin McCay.

Three years after that forgettable stretch, Steven Sims had seven of the team’s 16 touchdown receptions, 13 by receivers.

Sims, a 5-foot-10, 176-pound receiver who has become faster since coming to Kansas, caught 72 passes for 859 years last season. That put him fifth all-time in single-season catches and ninth in single-season yardage.

He drew a good deal of the defense’s attention, but it will be a little more difficult for opponents to do that this year, thanks to the addition of Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot and emerging third-year sophomore Chase Harrell, both of whom hauled in difficult catches during the spring game.

Charlot, a 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore from Patterson, La., disappointed Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban when he didn’t wait his turn at Alabama. Liking his potential as a receiver and punt returner, Saban tried to convince Charlot to stay.

KU coaches were impressed with his work ethic during his redshirt season and during spring football. His performance in the spring was inconsistent, but he had a big spring game, showed the ability to get open, to attack the football in traffic, and on one catch also did a terrific job of keeping a foot inbounds. He’s a big-time talent.

Harrell brings something to the outside receiver position that neither Sims nor Charlot does: size. At 6-4, 215, he’s a big target. And he’s a fast one. He had only five receptions last season, but two were for touchdowns. Look for him to be on the field a great deal more this season. Incoming freshman Travis Jordan, the first recruit from Louisiana landed by assistant coach Tony Hull, also will compete for time on the field, as will junior Jeremiah Booker.

Reply 4 comments from Jim Stauffer Dirk Medema Brett McCabe

Kansas football position units: No. 3, defensive tackles

Kansas defensive tackle DeeIsaac Davis (99) sacks Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson (4) during the third quarter on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tenn.

Kansas defensive tackle DeeIsaac Davis (99) sacks Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson (4) during the third quarter on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tenn. by Nick Krug

In order for a football team that doesn’t get to pick first in recruiting to turn from doormat status to competitive, lightly regarded prospects must develop into football players.

Kansas will always need a DeeIsaac Davis here and there to fill roster gaps by doing whatever possible to improve.

Late last season, defensive coordinator Clint Bowen explained how it was that Davis went from Eastern Arizona Community College non-prospect as a freshman to KU contributor at defensive tackle, with a year at Highland CC in between those two stops.

“He needed to change his body. Call it what it is. He was too heavy," Beaty said. "So in the offseason, (he changed it with) summer conditioning, the weight program, his diet. He had a little stiffness in his hips, so he needed to get more flexible. He’s always stretching. He’s always doing extra things. He really took all of his weaknesses and went to work on them and get better at that part of it.”

Davis needed to change more than his body.

“Just learning to play, learning you can’t just stand up and overpower people anymore,” Bowen said. “Those dudes are just as big as you are now. You have to use some fundamentals and he improved those.”

And that’s how the Wichita native who as a juco freshman had Hampton and Texas-San Antonio recruiting him became a credible Big 12 football player.

One year later, enter J.J. Holmes from Chipley, Fla., and Hutchinson Community College. Listed at 6-foot-3, 335 pounds, Holmes looked to be carrying more weight than that during spring football; too much weight. But nobody ever called this athlete blessed with considerable raw strength, quick feet and loud explosiveness a non-prospect.

Arizona, Arizona State, Florida State, Kansas State, Missouri and a slew of other schools were hot on Holmes’ trail, but after spending two years getting to know KU recruiting coordinator/cornerbacks coach Kenny Perry, Holmes couldn’t bring himself to say no to him. Perry has that all-important trait in recruiting.

On signing day, head coach David Beaty cited Holmes as the choice by several assistants as the “dark horse,” of the recruiting class.

“He is one of the better D-lineman in junior college,” Beaty said.

Isi Holani had trouble getting down to playing weight last season, his first at KU after a juco career, but also moved well for a man his size (listed at 6-3, 325) and emerged late in the season.

And then there is Daniel Wise, nothing short of the school’s best defensive tackle since James McClinton earned second-team All-America honors in 2007.

Wise, listed at 6-3, 290, will play at 300-plus pounds this coming season and projects as a first-team All-Big 12 selection. He’s quick enough to play defensive end at times, plays with great fire and emotion, and projects as an NFL player.

Defensive tackles need more rest than any position, making depth at the position essential. Senior Jacky Dezir, in his third season in the program, also will rotate in to lend breathers. This is a very well-stocked position. Defensive ends and linebackers make the plays that make crowds roar and D-tackles do the dirty work to make those plays possible, so there is no shortage of grateful D-ends and 'backers walking around the football complex.

Reply 1 comment from Jim Stauffer Randy Maxwell

Kansas football position units: No. 4, running backs

Team Jayhawk running back Khalil Herbert (10) charges up the field on a run during the third quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team Jayhawk running back Khalil Herbert (10) charges up the field on a run during the third quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

It's tough to know how well a high school football player's statistics will translate to Big 12 competition, so it's wise to guard against reading too much into them. Yet, when you watch the highlight reel of running back Dominic Williams from Independence High in Frisco, Texas, and then look up his numbers, it's impossible not to grow excited about his prospects.

A shifty, 5-foot-9, 186-pound, four-star running back, Williams averaged 9.6 yards per rush, ran for 2,091 yards in 12 games (174.3 yards per game) and 29 touchdowns.

Nothing about the way Kansas head coach David Beaty talked about Williams on signing day did anything to dull the excitement about the prospect of watching Williams carry the football for Kansas.

"Dom has been committed to us for 16 months," Beaty said. "Man, there are so many great kids in this class. This one is the one I have to take my hat off to more than anyone because of what he’s done to build this class, to really draw attention to the Jayhawk Nation and what we’re trying to do here. And he stuck with us when people came knocking every day. Every day there was somebody big coming to knock on his door. But he believed in it. He saw the vision and he knows what’s going on here."

More than Williams' loyalty has Beaty jacked.

"Not only that, he’s dang good," Beaty said. "This dude can roll and he can run. He’s got terrific ball skills, but man, he is a true, true back who can do a lot of things, one of the most productive guys in the state of Texas this year in a very difficult league. This guy’s side-to-side movement and his acceleration are exceptional. Not only that, his ability to break tackles, he can do it in any and all ways. I love his vision. I love the way that he finds a way to get to the end zone."

Beaty then made a comparison to a great back, but made sure to douse the comparison with caution.

"He reminds me a little bit, a little bit, of the Cowboys' guy because of his ability to accelerate and get to the edge fast like when he sees a hole," he said, meaning Ezekiel Elliott. "He can get there (snaps his fingers) and that thing doesn’t close on him. The other thing he does is make effortless cuts. Not everybody can do that. This guy to me is going to be a guy who we will circle for a long time as maybe one of the stars of this class. . . . We’re going to be handing him the ball a lot. Fired up about that dude!”

Beaty also is fired up about Octavius Matthews, a 6-1, 200-pound signing day surprise. A teammate of quarterback Peyton Bender at Itawamamba Community College, Matthews will be used as a running back who sometimes motions out of the backfield and lines up split wide. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry for a two-season rushing total of 1,453 yards. He also caught 28 passes for 367 yards and five touchdowns. Auburn and Louisville offered him scholarships, but he decided to join his quarterback at Kansas.

Sophomore Khalil Herbert, a fast, shifty back who runs low to the ground, and junior Taylor Martin, starting to figure out how to use blockers in order to take advantage of his exceptional speed and good size, join the two talented newcomers.

It's difficult to say which of the four backs will lead the team in carries, but it's nice to have that many talented options, especially now that running backs are sidelined more often than ever because of increased awareness of concussions. All four backs make defenses account for their speed.

Senior Denzell Evans, in his second season at Kansas after a pair at Arkansas, was used sparingly last season and mostly as a short-yardage back and special teams player. He never hung his head about the lack of carries and took great pride in his special-teams contributions.

Reply 5 comments from Joseph Bullock Dirk Medema Dillon Davis Brad Sherp Randy Maxwell

Kansas football position units: No. 5, linebackers

Kansas linebacker Denzel Feaster (18) knocks the ball loose from Texas running back D'Onta Foreman (33) during the fourth quarter to give the ball back to the Jayhawks with little time remaining on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas linebacker Denzel Feaster (18) knocks the ball loose from Texas running back D'Onta Foreman (33) during the fourth quarter to give the ball back to the Jayhawks with little time remaining on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Playing linebacker as a true freshman is every bit the mental challenge as it is physical.

“When you’re in the Big 12,” linebackers coach Todd Bradford said, “it has to be processed really fast. There’s not much time.”

One false step can take a linebacker out of a play.

“Reading your keys and getting your first step started right, it’s really important that you’re headed in the right direction,” Bradford said. “It takes a lot of eye discipline to make sure that you’re looking at the right thing, which changes by formation and call and all those kinds of things. If you’re headed in the right direction, that gives you a chance.”

It’s a lot to expect of a true freshman. Then again, Kyron Johnson out of Lamar High in Arlington, Texas, routinely sets high expectations. Whereas it’s not at all unusual for first-year college students to arrive on campus not quite sure what field of study they want to specialize in, Johnson has said he wants to become a neurosurgeon. So you have to believe there is a good chance he can process information quickly better than most college football novices.

Not only that, the three-star prospect gave himself a head start by graduating a semester early so that he could participate in spring football. Even by his high standards for enthusiasm, head coach David Beaty was lit up talking about Johnson on signing day.

“This dude can run," Beaty said. "He’s a legit 4.3 40. There aren’t many 4.3 guys out there. There aren’t many 4.4 guys and there are very few 4.5s. This guy can flat fly. He can fly and he will knock you out. This guy is the type of guy you want. TCU had a guy a number of years back named James Washington, played at Irving High and he played in the NFL for a long time, and he looks a lot like him, has a lot of the same attributes.”

When coaches talk about 40 times clocked at camps that took place on their campuses, the general rule of thumb is to add two-tenths of a second to the time, but even at that, 4.5 is an excellent time for a linebacker prospect.

Throughout spring practices, Johnson impressed defensive coaches with his speed, lateral movement, feel for the position and desire to make hits hurt.

Getting acclimated to a college weight room also gives Johnson an edge. He has set himself to be in position to play as a true freshman, but thanks to linebacker subtly developing into one of the deeper positions on the roster, it’s not necessary for Johnson to play if he’s not ready.

The development of lightly recruited prospects has gone smoothly, an indication of sound talent judgment and good instruction, creating strong competition for the second line at linebacker on the two-deep.

The projected starters were teammates a few miles away from KU’s campus at Free State High. Joe Dineen, a three-star safety prospect, played running back for most of his first season and switched to linebacker late in the year. As a sophomore, he totaled 107 tackles, had 9.5 tackles for loss three sacks. He suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in last season’s third game and regained the year of eligibility with a medical redshirt. The challenge now for Dineen is to make his tackles closer to the line of scrimmage to help KU greatly improves its vulnerable run defense.

Keith Lineker’s measurables weren’t as impressive as Dineen’s coming out of high school, so he had to prove himself on the field at nearby Baker University, an NAIA school. He had a terrific freshman season, transferred to Kansas, sat out a year, and came on strong at the end of last season. In the first half of KU’s overtime victory against Texas, Loneker was nothing short of the best player on the field. He finished that game with 16 tackles. In the spring game, Loneker looked faster, better in pass coverage. He’s a smart athlete who in high school figured out how to exceed expectations as a basketball player and is doing the same as a Big 12 football player. He plays without fear and without recklessness, not an easy balancing act for some. Junior Denzel Feaster was recruited to Kansas as a safety, made the switch to linebacker after a year and came on strong toward the end of last season. He made his presence felt at West Virginia with three tackles and a forced fumble. Feaster carries a lot of momentum into his hits, each recalling what David Beaty said about him the day his letter of intent arrived: “He’ll knock the fire out of you!” A late bloomer, redshirt freshman Dru Prox impressed the coaching staff with his progress throughout spring football, as did junior Osaze Ogbebor.

Incoming freshman Jay Dineen, Joe’s younger brother, is a different type linebacker from Joe, not as fast, but thicker and meaner. He is the only linebacker who does not have at least a spring’s worth of practices, but since he has been picking his brother’s brain and is a short drive from watching practice, which he often took advantage of in the spring, he’ll know more than most newcomers.

Kansas might not have a first-team all-conference linebacker yet, but they will have a healthy competition daily in practice. Since Big 12 offenses play at such a fast pace and run so many passing plays, it pays to have depth at linebacker and Kansas has it. None of them are seniors, so the position is well-stocked for the next two seasons.

Reply 1 comment from Jim Stauffer Randy Maxwell

Ranking Kansas football position units: No. 6, quarterbacks

Competing quarterbacks Team Jayhawk quarterback Peyton Bender (7) and Team KU quarterback Carter Stanley (9) shake hands after the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Competing quarterbacks Team Jayhawk quarterback Peyton Bender (7) and Team KU quarterback Carter Stanley (9) shake hands after the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Kansas has had a few big victories in the post-Mark Mangino/Todd Reesing years. Then again, too few to mention. But we’ll mention them anyway and just for fun look at who the starting quarterback and head coach were for each game. Playing for Turner Gill, Quinn Mecham led KU from way behind to a 52-45 victory against Colorado. Coach Charlie Weis gave the starting assignment to true freshman Montell Cozart threw just 12 times on a day Kansas had 54 rushing attempts in a 31-19 Kansas victory against West Virginia. Playing for interim head coach Clint Bowen, Michael Cummings led KU to a 34-14 thrashing of Iowa State.

But the quarterback was Carter Stanley, the head coach David Beaty, the opponent Texas when Kansas executed its biggest victory in the post-Mangino/Reesing years, the first triumph vs. Texas since 1938.

Stanley, the 10th quarterback to start a game in the years since Reesing rewrote the Kansas passing record book, was the most impressive of the lot. Even so, chances are good that he will open the season second on the depth chart behind junior-college transfer Peyton Bender, who ran an Air Raid offense in high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and in the three years since, the first as a redshirt at Washington State, the second as a backup at WSU.

Stanley performed pretty well at the spring game and Bender was even more impressive. Stanley is the better runner and his quick decision making instantly put more pep into an offense that didn’t run quite as well when his predecessors Montell Cozart and Ryan Willis were the trigger men. But Bender has the quicker release and the stronger arm. Bender grew up in Georgia before moving to Florida for his high school years after his father’s career necessitated the move. The family since has moved back to Georgia, so it would have been convenient for Bender’s parents had he chosen a school closer to home. But even after Georgia made a late run at him and offered a scholarship, Bender stayed committed to Kansas, explaining that he felt more secure about his chances of winning the job.

At Itawamaba Community College in Mississippi, Bender threw 21 touchdown passes and was intercepted four times and sacked just once. In conference play, he averaged 354.5 yards passing per game and completed 65.6 percent of his passes.

A year ago at this time, the competition for the starting spot was between Cozart and Ryan Willis, a pair of quarterbacks recruited by Weis to run his offense. Neither was a perfect fit for Beaty’s Air Raid and both have transferred, Cozart to Boise State, where he will be eligible to play this coming season as a graduate transfer, Willis to Virginia Tech, for which he can play in games in 2018. As soon as he was given the opportunity to start, thus becoming the team’s third starting quarterback in 2017, Stanley showed he should have been the starter all season. If Bender has as much going for him as many believe, he’ll show that Stanley, the best QB Kansas has had in eight years, should be the backup. Clearly, the position has been upgraded.

Tyriek Starks has the strongest arm on the roster and has the most potential as a runner, but needs more seasoning at reading defenses and commanding the offense to be game-ready.

Reply 7 comments from Bob Bailey Pius Waldman Randy Maxwell Dirk Medema Jim Stauffer Brad Sherp Brett McCabe

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

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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Ranking Kansas football position units: No. 8, inside receivers/tight ends

Team Jayhawk wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez (1) escapes a tackle from Team KU safety Shaquille Richmond (4) during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team Jayhawk wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez (1) escapes a tackle from Team KU safety Shaquille Richmond (4) during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Third of a 10-part series ranking Kansas football positions from weakest to strongest:

LaQuvionte Gonzalez, so quick, so fast, looked so good at times, which makes it all the more frustrating when he isn’t quite quick enough to get out of his own way.

Kansas head coach David Beaty recruited him out of high school to Texas A&M and again to Kansas. Beaty has gone out of his way to be an advocate for Gonzalez, who repaid him by doing whatever it was he did, or not doing whatever it was he didn’t do to earn a demotion to third-string for much of the spring.

Gonzalez got the message and improved his act in time to earn his way back to first string before the spring expired. But will he stay in that mode and maximize his final opportunity as a senior in college? Or will he not have the discipline to keep making the sacrifices to make his effort and contributions more consistent? It’s too late in his career to be asking those questions and that’s a shame because he’s an explosive talent. He’s the X-factor among inside receivers. Beyond him, nobody has the blend of talent and experience he possesses.

Offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Doug Meacham saw the need for another slot receiver and lobbied for Ryan Schadler to convert from running back. Schadler is an eager student of the game, one of the fastest players on the team, and a tough, 5-foot-11, 191-pound block of muscle, but he lacks the polish he’ll have a year and two years from now.

Tyler Patrick, a similar body type and athlete to Schadler, and juco transfer Kerr Johnson Jr. worked with the twos at the end of spring.

Two developments could make this position group shoot up the rankings: 1 - Gonzalez getting serious; 2 - Incoming freshman Quan Hampton making a huge splash as a freshman. A 5-8, 165-pound jumping jack from Texarkana, Texas, originally committed to Texas State but changed his mind when Kansas offered a scholarship.

“One of the most explosive guys that we have seen down there,” Beaty said on signing day. “We found out about Quan from all of the opposing coaches around the area. That’s how you know you’ve found a dude is when everywhere you go, guys tell you, ‘Hey, have you seen that Quan Hampton kid over at Texarkana?’ And I’m talking about every place we go. . . . (Pointing to a highlight video) Just watch the quickness and suddenness of this guy off the ball. Nice quickness.”

At times, one of the inside receivers will be replaced by a tight end or a blocking back. Sure-handed Ben Johnson will fill both roles and is expected to be on the field a little more often than last season, when he caught 10 passes for 112 yards in nine games. He’s not stupendous in any one area, but also has no deficiencies. His backup, Jace Sternberger, transferred. Freshman Kenyon Tabor, who helped Derby High to back-to-back 6A state titles, has outstanding hands and makes impressive catches in traffic. He has the ability to be used as a tight end, in the slot or on the outside and has a very high ceiling.

No.9: Cornerbacks

No. 10: Offensive line

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Ranking Kansas football position units: No. 9, cornerbacks

Kansas cornerback Hasan Defense waits on the sidelines prior to the start of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas cornerback Hasan Defense waits on the sidelines prior to the start of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Second of a 10-part series ranking Kansas football positions from weakest to strongest:

The Kansas pass defense ranked a respectable 54th in 2016 with 219.8 yards allowed, in part because defensive end Dorance Armstrong (10 sacks) did such a good job of making quarterbacks hurry.

But a closer look at some other numbers show that for a unit that had the benefit of a strong pass rush, the secondary didn’t do a terrific job of shutting down receivers. Kansas allowed 26 touchdown passes, 106th in the nation, and had 10 interceptions (68th). The Jayhawks allowed 7.4 yards per pass attempt (76th).

Both starting cornerbacks, Marnez Ogletree and Brandon Stewart, were seniors and neither was particularly bold in terms of playing the best receivers of the Big 12 tightly, playing off of them for fear of getting burned deep. But they both had more experience than Kansas will have at corner this season.

Hasan Defense, who played one year of football in junior college before transferring to Kansas, has the most talent of eight cornerbacks who will try to secure one of the two starting corner positions. Defense likely will be one of them, but the picture grows hazier when trying to guess the other.

Defensive coordinator Clint Bowen and cornerbacks coach Kenny Perry were excited to land juco corner Shakial Taylor, a 6-foot, 175-pound junior who played for South Dakota State in a victory against Kansas in 2015, then left to play a season in junior college in hopes of landing an offer from an FBS school. It worked. Taylor first two years of high school in Florida and then moved to Arizona to live with his uncle, Robert Nelson, then a cornerback at Arizona State and now with the Houston Texans. Taylor’s shoulder injury limited his spring workouts, but he still has a strong shot at winning a starting job.

Sophomore Kyle Mayberry, who played sparingly as a true freshman, will try to beat out one of the juco additions. Mayberry had an encouraging spring and will play a lot. Mayberry’s classmate Julian Chandler played in the season-opening victory against Rhode Island, suffered an injury and missed the rest of the season. He has a good chance to open the season on the depth chart with the second team.

Ranking Kansas football position units:

- No. 10: Offensive line

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