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Key questions for KU football's position groups as preseason camp begins

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Kansas head coach David Beaty smiles as he walks across the field during the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas head coach David Beaty smiles as he walks across the field during the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

As David Beaty embarks on his third preseason camp as head coach of the Kansas football program, some areas of the roster are far more solid than others.

While Beaty should be able to operate with much greater optimism in 2017 than he did entering his first fall in Lawrence, thanks to the gradual improvements to personnel and culture brought about by he and his staff, some questions remain entering Tuesday’s first practice.

Everyone knows how impactful veteran talents such as Dorance Armstrong Jr., Daniel Wise and Steven Sims Jr. can be in the months ahead.

But, as is the case with any rebuilding program, the abilities of just a handful of players won’t allow KU to make further progress in Year 3 for Beaty.

Before the practices begin, here is one key question for every position group.

Some answers could be revealed during preseason camp. Others might take months — and wins and losses — to resolve.

Who is KU’s starting QB?

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

This is the biggest and most obvious question entering camp. Will incumbent redshirt sophomore Carter Stanley, who helped Kansas beat Texas late last season, beat out former Washington State QB Peyton Bender? Or will, Bender’s Air Raid background and quick release send him to the top of the depth chart?

The battle figures to be decided during the hot August practices ahead.

“Both of them are very talented,” Beaty said recently. “A little bit more similar than you’d think. Both of them move really well.

“I think that both of them are play-makers in a sense,” the coach continued, “which is something that you like to see. Neither one of them are robotic, which is something I’m really excited about.”

Who knows how many hundreds of throws Bender and Stanley will make in preseason camp. But every one will be charted and examined by Beaty, new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and quarterbacks coach Garrett Riley, because KU needs a far more effective offense this fall.

Will Kansas have a No. 1 RB or use a committee?

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

You could make an argument that any of the following running backs would lead the team in rushing this season, and I’d at least listen.

The candidates are sophomore Khalil Herbert, junior Taylor Martin, true freshman Dom Williams and junior transfer Octavius Matthews.

Herbert and Martin have an edge in the experience department and both, unlike Williams and Matthews, were able to spend spring taking reps within Meacham’s offense. Both looked more powerful and polished as ball-carriers during March and April, too.

On the other hand, Williams is a versatile back whose 28 total touchdowns and 1,922 rushing yards as a senior at Class 5A Independence High (Frisco, Texas) earned him a four-star recruiting ranking from Rivals. He has enough talent and moves that he might be difficult to keep off the field.

Matthew is the wild card. At 6-foot-1, he’s the biggest back of the group. Plus, he spent 2016 in the same backfield as Bender, at Itawamba Community College (Miss.), so getting acclimated to the Air Raid won’t be an issue.

Which receivers will help Sims and Charlot open up the passing attack?

Team KU receiver Kerr Johnson Jr. (14) is taken to the turf by Team Jayhawk linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. (29) during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team KU receiver Kerr Johnson Jr. (14) is taken to the turf by Team Jayhawk linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. (29) during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

It’s been clear for some time now third-year wideout Steven Sims Jr. and sophomore transfer Daylon Charlot (formerly of Alabama) are the two best receivers on the roster. The race for No. 3 became wide open with the dismissal of would-be senior LaQuvionte Gonzalez.

Some of KU’s other receivers will have to convince opposing secondaries not to send double coverage toward Sims and/or Charlot on every throwing down.

There’s a chance junior Ryan Schadler, a former running back, could do that from the slot. And 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Chase Harrell gives KU quarterbacks a long, agile target.

Still, with the help of their new position coach, Meacham, any number of other receivers could emerge. It’s impossible at this point to count out senior Bobby Hartzog, junior Jeremiah Booker, or junior transfer Kerr Johnson Jr. What’s more, true freshmen Quan Hampton, Kenyon Tabor, Takulve Williams and Travis Jordan will try to prove they’re worthy of the 2-deep.

And while senior Ben Johnson ins’t technically a receiver, you have to think Meacham will find ways to get the 6-foot-5 tight end way more involved than a year ago, when Johnson only caught 10 passes.

Is Charles Baldwin who Kansas thought he was?

Kansas newcomer, Charles Baldwin, 72, a transfer from Alabama, gets stretched out with the offensive line during practice on Monday, Aug. 15, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas newcomer, Charles Baldwin, 72, a transfer from Alabama, gets stretched out with the offensive line during practice on Monday, Aug. 15, 2016 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Just like Charlot, former Alabama offensive lineman Charles Baldwin’s debut has been anticipated for almost a year now. We’ll soon find out if the projected starting right tackle, listed at 6-5 and 305 pounds, can turn KU’s offensive line into a Big 12-level unit.

Both left tackle Hakeem Adeniji and center Mesa Ribordy learned and grew as blockers while starting as freshmen (Ribordy red-shirted in 2015) a year ago.

If Baldwin lives up to the hype of his one-time five-star juco ranking at ASA College (N.Y), the offense will have an easier time staying on the field and putting together scoring drives.

Adeniji and Ribordy are the O-line’s leaders. They need Baldwin following their example and work ethic, because according to evaluators he should have the talent and size to be the best blocker in coach Zach Yenser’s group.

Which D-line co-stars will step into the spotlight?

Kansas defensive lineman KeyShaun Simmons gets down in preparation to hit a sled during spring football practice on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.

Kansas defensive lineman KeyShaun Simmons gets down in preparation to hit a sled during spring football practice on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. by Nick Krug

We know preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Dorance Armstrong Jr. will find ways to dominate as a defensive end and junior tackle Daniel Wise’s combination of power and speed make him a problem wherever he lines up. But the opportunity exists for a lesser-known role player to shine, too.

Armstrong and Wise will be the focal points of every scouting report. Any number of defensive linemen — if they dedicated themselves thoroughly this offseason — could surface by making some big tackles for loss of their own this fall.

At end, junior Josh Ehambe, sophomores Isaiah Bean and Maciah Long and junior transfer Willie McCaleb are among the candidates to break out.

At tackle, seniors Isi Holani and DeeIsaac Davis have experience to build upon, while junior college transfers J.J. Holmes and KeyShaun Simmons aim to contribute, as well.

Can a true freshman become an effective Big 12 linebacker?

Kansas linebacker Kyron Johnson sweeps aside an obstacle during spring football practice on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.

Kansas linebacker Kyron Johnson sweeps aside an obstacle during spring football practice on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. by Nick Krug

Junior linebackers Joe Dineen, Keith Loneker Jr., Denzel Feaster and Osaze Ogbebor likely enter preseason camp occupying the four available spots on the 2-deep. But it’s possible a true freshman could knock one of them from their slots before the season concludes.

When the name Kyron Johnson comes up in conversations with players and coaches, only positive evaluations follow.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound first-year linebacker might be undersized at this point (and we should discover soon if he’s put more weight on his frame this summer) but his speed and instincts could get him on the field ahead of schedule.

Johnson graduated from Arlington Lamar High (Texas) early in order to enroll at KU in the spring, so he’s more experienced than most freshmen already. We’ll see if he can fast-forward his development enough in practices to leapfrog his way to substantial playing time.

Other than Mike Lee, who are these defensive backs?

Kansas cornerback Hasan Defense talks with Prinz Kande, a member of the defensive staff, right, during spring football practice on Tuesday, March 28, 2017.

Kansas cornerback Hasan Defense talks with Prinz Kande, a member of the defensive staff, right, during spring football practice on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. by Nick Krug

Actually, we know their names. We just don’t yet know what to expect out of their games.

KU’s secondary is the least-experienced group on the roster. And those are words no football coach or fan ever wants to read or hear.

Hard-hitting sophomore safety Mike Lee is the only sure talent among the defensive backs. The rest of the backfield has everything to prove.

Both starting cornerback jobs are up for grabs. Transfers Hasan Defense (sophomore) and Shakial Taylor (junior) have a chance to win them, as do sophomores Kyle Mayberry and Julian Chandler. The names of redshirt freshman Shola Ayinde and sophomore Julian Chandler also came up in corner discussions this past spring.

Lee will play more than anyone in the secondary, but it’s unclear at this point who, other than senior Derrick Neal, is most likely to earn the Saturday snaps to play back there with him at the other safety spot and/or as a nickelback. Juniors Tyrone Miller Jr. and Emmanuel Moore, sophomores Bryce Torneden and Shaq Richmond, and junior transfer Antonio Cole all seem to have a shot.

Comments

John Fitzgerald 4 months, 1 week ago

It'll be interesting to see how camp plays out. Not all the questions will be answered by game 1 but I'm hoping at least a few will be. And hopefully we don't suffer from any horrible season ending injuries. We're a lot deeper than we've been but a season ending injury to a potential starter or even backup would still hurt a lot.

David Meredith 4 months, 1 week ago

It is too bad KU lost almost all their Secondary. The defense made great strides last year, and the D-line and Linebackers should be pretty solid again. But in the Big 12, so many teams run no huddle offenses and spread the field out. Hopefully a couple of guys can step up and it is not a big weakness all year, especially on 3rd down.

Benny Armstrong 4 months, 1 week ago

Definitely unfortunate about how the timing worked out with having such a young secondary at this point in the rebuild. What makes me optimistic, or at least not as worried as I probably should be, is the experience and skill returning on the defensive line. Having a strong attacking front to pressure the QB can shorten their progression time and mean those inexperienced players in the secondary aren't having to defend for as long as in years past.

Will be interesting to see how these questions are answered in the coming weeks and how the team progresses during the season. A hot start and the confidence will build, and the team could surprise some people in conference. Can't wait for the opener.

David Meredith 4 months, 1 week ago

True, a good pass rush can make all the difference. Hopefully in the future the depth will line up where they can be experienced at all positions.

Jim Stauffer 4 months, 1 week ago

The most important factor in every unit for me is the depth. If one guy fails we have someone not far behind to replace him with.

Brock Wells 4 months, 1 week ago

IMO the most important position group is the OL because that was are weakest group last year especially after Carter stepped up and played well at QB. If they can be a Big 12 level group than look out... we have 7 home games and it was night and day last year playing on the road and at home.

I'm most excited to see Dom Williams play. Taylor and Herbert are both fast and I know nothing about Matthews besides #1 juco RB but HCDB hype-train was full speed ahead when talking about Dom.

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