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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 1, RB Pooka Williams

Pooka Williams runs through the TCU defense Saturday at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks claimed a 27-26 win over the Horned Frogs, which ended their 14-game skid in league play.

Pooka Williams runs through the TCU defense Saturday at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks claimed a 27-26 win over the Horned Frogs, which ended their 14-game skid in league play. by Mike Gunnoe

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

From the instant this list was devised — and likely from the moment you or anyone who has checked out any of the entries came across it — the man who would occupy the final and No. 1 spot never was in doubt.

Sophomore running back Pooka Williams is the best player in the program, even if his offseason couldn’t have gone much worse.

He, of course, won’t play against Indiana State on Saturday, while serving his one-game suspension for an offseason arrest and domestic battery charge — a case that concluded with Williams reaching a diversion agreement.

Williams is set to return to the lineup in Week 2 against Coastal Carolina, a day that will also mark his first time — if KU makes him available — fielding questions from a contingent of reporters since joining the program. (A rule under the previous coaching regime didn’t allow freshmen to do interviews.)

Maybe we’ll get a better sense then of how sorry he is for his actions and how he plans to make use of the second chance KU has given him.

In a press release in July, Williams stated, in part: "My behavior was unacceptable, and I'm very sorry to those who were impacted by my poor choices. I am disappointed in myself, not just as a man, but as a student-athlete looked up to by younger kids.”

Williams would be entering this season with far more fanfare (probably not quite as much as his head coach, Miles; but close) if not for his “unacceptable” actions in December against a woman with whom he was in a relationship.

KU’s Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards has required that Williams be subject to probation until he graduates, attend monthly meetings with a university conduct officer, complete 40 hours of community service, and complete a sexual violence accountability course through the university's Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center.

The KU football program has rightfully scaled back on touting its leading returning rusher. No hype videos. No instances of Miles gushing about Williams’ skill set.

Because of the ugly nature of the incident it’s difficult to talk about Williams and his obvious talents. You can’t gloss over something like this.

The only good news for Williams in all of this is he still has an entire career and lifetime ahead of him to prove he is remorseful and capable of evolving as a human being.

In 2018, Williams produced four 100-yard rushing games and a 100-yard receiving game in his 11-game freshman season. His 1,660 all-purpose yards on the year rank him third all-time on KU's single-season list.

After rushing for 1,125 yards and seven touchdowns, to go with his 289 receiving yards and two touchdown catches, Williams became the first All-Big 12 first team running back from KU since Jon Cornish, in 2006.

For this program, Williams is a once in a decade (maybe longer) type of talent. Soon, he’ll make his return to the field and continue trying to rehabilitate his public image.

His coaches and teammates indicate Williams is on the right track. Now it’s up to him to demonstrate KU made the right choice in granting him a second chance.

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

No. 8: OL Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

No. 7: RB Khalil Herbert

No. 6: CB Corione Harris

No. 5: WR Daylon Charlot

No. 4: CB Hasan Defense

No. 3: S Mike Lee

No. 2: S Bryce Torneden

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 2, S Bryce Torneden

Kansas safety Bryce Torneden (1) gets under Iowa State running back David Montgomery (32) for a stop during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas safety Bryce Torneden (1) gets under Iowa State running back David Montgomery (32) for a stop during the first quarter, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

In a secondary full of veterans who will need to carry the Kansas defense, no one takes on every layer of that responsibility as fervently as senior safety Bryce Torneden.

A homegrown Jayhawk who took on a starring role at Free State High in KU’s backyard before he joined the program under the previous coaching regime, Torneden enters his last go-round at Kansas as the defense’s most likely playmaker.

Starting all 12 games of his junior season at nickelback, Torneden racked up 91 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Now that D.J. Eliot is coordinating the defense and using a different scheme, Torneden will play the “Hawk” position, almost doubling as a defensive back and an outside linebacker, with his actions varying based on play calls and cues.

Torneden is as strong and proven a run-stopper as this defense has. And it looks like Eliot is putting the 5-foot-10, 192-pound senior in position to prosper.

You won’t hear that from Torneden, a humble defender who doesn’t seem to care much about the spotlight.

Try to get him to discuss what a boon playing the “Hawk” position could be for him, setting him up to make even more stops around and behind the line of scrimmage, and he’ll try to change the subject.

“I wouldn’t say any more or any less. I think we have a lot of different things we can do with our defense,” Torneden said, “and I think that’s one of the biggest strong suits about it. We have a lot of guys who can play a lot of different positions.”

Torneden isn’t the type to boast about himself, but his versatility and instincts will be crucial for the defense this year.

Dating back to his time as a hard-hitting DB at Free State, Torneden always has enjoyed the run defense aspect of the game and operating closer to the line of scrimmage and the ball, because he’s a natural at sniffing out rushes and making tackles.

And with Joe Dineen graduated after leading KU and the Big 12 in tackles each of the past two seasons, look for Torneden to be the Jayhawk racking up stops this year.

He wasn’t too far off from 100 total tackles as a junior and reaching that benchmark is “definitely” one goal he’s chasing.

Still, Torneden genuinely is even more invested in helping the team.

“I came here for one reason, and that’s to turn this program around, hopefully go to a bowl game,” Torneden said. “So whatever I need to do, I’m gonna be that guy to step up an provide for the team.”

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

No. 8: OL Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

No. 7: RB Khalil Herbert

No. 6: CB Corione Harris

No. 5: WR Daylon Charlot

No. 4: CB Hasan Defense

No. 3: S Mike Lee

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 3, S Mike Lee

Kansas safety Mike Lee eyes a pass during practice on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019.

Kansas safety Mike Lee eyes a pass during practice on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

Ahead of his senior season at Kansas, Mike Lee has a few simple individual goals in mind.

“Make more plays for the team, get more turnovers, just going each and every week 1-0,” the free safety from New Orleans said this past week.

But let Lee continue talking about objectives for the three months and 12 games ahead, especially in terms of what he wants to help the Jayhawks accomplish as a team, and those desires grow much larger in scope and include designs of playing in a bowl game or even the Big 12’s title game.

Those are holy grail types of thoughts when it comes to the long struggling Kansas football program. And Lee knows that as well as anyone, having experienced just two league victories over the course of the previous three seasons.

So what makes the impassioned senior defensive back think such dreams could be realized?

“I feel like last year we were competing with a lot of good teams,” Lee contended. “I feel like we’re more experienced enough as a defensive whole and as a team, really combined. We’re better than what we were.”

The Jayhawks will try to prove his forecast accurate in the weeks ahead. And while Lee points to the physicality emphasized by Miles’ staff as an encouraging sign entering this season, his willingness to be bold in his belief about what he wants the team to accomplish is a reminder that he’s challenging himself more these days.

Former KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen, currently Lee’s position coach at safety, said Lee didn’t used to be a vocal type of leader.

“But he’s a respected player on the team, because he does show up every day and play hard and play with a little bit of an edge about him,” said Bowen, who has seen every step of Lee’s college career.

According to Lee’s teammates, that default lead by example approach has changed of late. The KU defense is manned by a veteran secondary, and senior cornerback Hasan Defense said Lee has taken more ownership and shown a willingness to steer his teammates in the right direction.

“We’re at a point where you should know what you need to do,” Defense said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t know what you need to do, Mike’s gonna let you know. Mike’s gonna hold you accountable, and nothing less, by any means necessary.”

Lee has always been a proud player. Now he’s finding greater gratification in trying to make sure the secondary is a strength for KU.

“We set the tone. We bring the energy to the team,” Lee said. “We’re experienced enough on the defensive side to force a lot of turnovers and get this team to where we want to be.”

All the defeats and disappointments the past few years also doubled as experience for KU veterans, such as Lee, Defense and Bryce Torneden.

A year ago, Lee finished tied for third on the KU defense in total tackles with 68. He also intercepted a pass, forced three fumbles and recovered a fumble. With a defensive backfield filled with upperclassmen, Lee expects more out of himself and much more out of the Jayhawks as a team.

Preseason dreams and words only carry weight if they are followed up with the kind of actions that can turn them into results. Lee is just one man on one side of the ball playing for a program that hasn’t posted a winning record since 2008.

You can’t knock his boldness.

“I’m very confident. Can’t lose no confidence,” Lee said, with his typical grin. “Once you’re confident, you’re confident.”

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

No. 8: OL Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

No. 7: RB Khalil Herbert

No. 6: CB Corione Harris

No. 5: WR Daylon Charlot

No. 4: CB Hasan Defense

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 4, CB Hasan Defense

Kansas cornerback Hasan Defense (13) intercepts a pass in the end zone during intended for West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V (13) during the first half  of an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, W. Va., Saturday Oct. 6, 2018. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

Kansas cornerback Hasan Defense (13) intercepts a pass in the end zone during intended for West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V (13) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, W. Va., Saturday Oct. 6, 2018. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP) by Associated Press

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

Switching positions proved to be a serious test for Hasan Defense a year ago. A cornerback at heart, Defense gladly made the move the Kansas coaches asked him to, though.

Playing safety came with some road bumps and miscues. And somehow Defense still led the Jayhawks with seven pass breakups and tied Shakial Taylor for the team lead with three interceptions.

Now that the 6-foot, 193-pound senior from Jacksonville, Fla., is back at corner, he feels poised for his best season in a KU uniform.

New defensive backs coach Chevis Jackson decided to put Defense at the right cornerback spot ahead of spring football, and once Jackson did, other veterans in the secondary noticed the difference.

Said senior Bryce Torneden: “Hasan moving back to corner, he’s balling out.”

It was at cornerback as a sophomore in 2017 where Defense led Kansas with nine pass breakups and also picked off two passes, while playing his first year at the FBS level, after transferring in from Kilgore College (TX) as a three-star juco corner in the Class of 2017.

And it’s at corner where Defense now plans to show he can flourish as a playmaker.

“It’s been fun,” he said of returning to his old spot. “It was a great experience playing safety, loved being able to work with (Clint) Bowen. But I’m happy to be back at corner. Things are back feeling like I’m at home.”

The safety experiment also seemed to sharpen Defense’s leadership abilities and drive him to step up his game. He’s always been comfortable voicing his opinions, but adjusting to a new spot also helped him recognize he would need to perform to speak with authority.

“It’s hard to lead when you’re kind of battling your own battles, you know what I mean?” Bowen said, recalling the lowest points of Defense’s junior year. “The first rule of leadership is you have to be able to do your job. Nobody follows the guy who can’t do their own job. So as he got more comfortable doing his job it started to show.”

Of course, Defense kept moving in that direction as he returned to cornerback. Plus, he said his appreciation for his fellow corners has helped stave off complacency.

“I’m not in a position where I feel comfortable, like being able to slack off or anything, because I have Elmore (Hempstead) behind me, and he’s working every day,” Defense said. “I look at him sometimes, and I’m like, ‘Damn, maybe he should start.’ So I’ve got to work harder.”

With just a few months of college football left to play, Defense is more invested and mature than ever. His new head coach appreciates what he’s seen out of the senior corner, as well.

“He’s a physical man,” Miles said. “Yeah, I think we’ll like him.”

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

No. 8: OL Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

No. 7: RB Khalil Herbert

No. 6: CB Corione Harris

No. 5: WR Daylon Charlot

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 5, WR Daylon Charlot

Kansas wide receiver Daylon Charlot (2) is hoisted up by Kansas offensive lineman Kevin Feder (67) after catching a touchdown pass during the fourth quarter on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas wide receiver Daylon Charlot (2) is hoisted up by Kansas offensive lineman Kevin Feder (67) after catching a touchdown pass during the fourth quarter on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

It’s now been close to two years since Daylon Charlot weathered a shockingly unproductive season in his first year playing at Kansas.

After transferring in from Alabama and redshirting a year, Charlot, as a sophomore in 2017, caught all of one pass for 0 yards, while playing in 11 games — mostly on special teams.

Relatively speaking, his junior year brought with it some signs that the 6-foot, 193-pound wideout from Patterson, La., still had some fight in him. KU’s coaches at the time still didn’t use him as a starter, but in 10 games while buried on the bench Charlot finished with 12 receptions for 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

In the past, some ill-timed injuries slowed Charlot down from getting anywhere near the goals he had for himself and the expectations KU fans had for him as a talented target. When he looks back on it all and how far he already has come from his debut season, when he was barely an afterthought for KU’s offense, Charlot just anticipates the upcoming season even more.

“I believe I came very far from my injuries,” he said. “It was very hard facing the adversity I was going through. Health is a big part of it. That’s why I take care of my body more than I have the last year, because you know it’s my last year. I’m just trying to do great things for my team, just go out with a bang.”

With all that’s transpired since the end of his junior season, it feels like Charlot has been granted a rebirth at KU. Les Miles took over for David Beaty, of course. But more importantly for Charlot, he’s now spent the past several months with Emmett Jones as his position coach.

Jones isn’t sure why the previous staff never got the most out of Charlot, but KU's receivers coach loves the skill set of the senior.

From an individual standpoint, Charlot feels like a different and better receiver now than he ever did the past couple of years.

“I feel like I’m faster,” he began, when asked what he’s doing differently. “I can track the ball very well, even more better. And more focused, into my playbook every night, just trying to get everything down so I can have a great year.”

Charlot doesn’t want the coming season to be viewed as comparatively successful to his past two. His plan is to become a primary part of KU’s offense and prove himself. He thinks he has put in the effort to become impactful in the passing game. The bigger the splash he can make, the more satisfied he will be.

“I like the deep balls,” Charlot admitted, while discussing his favorite calls. “Every time they call like a deep ball play, I’m itching, hoping Carter (Stanley) or Thomas (MacVittie) throw it to me. Because I know for sure that I’ll catch it.”

In his mind, the perfect deep ball isn’t him running alone in space. He prefers jump balls.

“I’d say over somebody. I like challenging catches,” Charlot said. “That’s a thing that I’m very good at.”

Self confidence never has been an issue for Charlot as a football player. This year, he appears to have a coaching staff that believes in him, too. So 2019 should finally be the year that Charlot shows out for the Jayhawks.

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

No. 8: OL Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

No. 7: RB Khalil Herbert

No. 6: CB Corione Harris

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 6, CB Corione Harris

Kansas cornerback Corione Harris watches a drill from the sideline on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at the indoor practice facility.

Kansas cornerback Corione Harris watches a drill from the sideline on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at the indoor practice facility. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

For a true freshman, playing cornerback in the Big 12 has the potential to be demoralizing.

A year ago, Corione Harris didn’t just line up at that position, where he knew tests and gut checks were coming his way, he started 11 games there for Kansas.

Harris’ freshman year obviously wasn’t perfect. But it didn’t chew him up and spit him out, either. If anything it ultimately emboldened the 6-foot-1, 180-pound corner from New Orleans, now that he’s headed into his sophomore season.

“I want to make more plays,” Harris said.

Defending the perimeter and deep down the field, often against larger, older and/or faster receivers, Harris produced as a freshman. He finished sixth on the team in total tackles in 2018. More than that, he forced a fumble, intercepted a pass, recorded a tackle for loss and broke up six passes.

None of that was enough to satisfy Harris. He said he spent the offseason looking to address some individual weaknesses that he encountered in his first year of college football.

“Really, I worked on my eye control, footwork, pretty much all of my game,” Harris shared.

In reviewing his freshman season, Harris also figured out how crucial all those challenges were, because they forced him to seek out ways to better understand all that comes with playing corner at the FBS level.

“For me, first coming in, not really knowing what to expect from the Big 12, even though it’s a passing league first, it’s kind of like I had to learn the ins and outs of it,” Harris explained.

Over the past year-plus, he said he picked up much more about strategies and cues, with the help of former defensive coordinator Clint Bowen (now KU's safeties coach) and fellow defensive backs Mike Lee and Bryce Torneden.

“That kind of helps me to understand what I’m looking at now. What to expect with certain teams, certain concepts,” Harris said. “We just break it down into details that make it a lot easier.”

Even if you’re good enough a year removed from high school to start at cornerback, you’re inevitably going to endure some struggles, as was the case at times for Harris. But his fellow defensive backs have shared over the past few months their opinion that Harris won’t look the same this coming season.

“He’s improved a lot,” senior cornerback Hasan Defense avowed.

“He’s impressed me a lot. I tell him every day, ‘Just keep working. Keep getting better.’ We’ve got receivers that are pushing us to be great every day (in practices), and I feel like he’s really taking big steps maturity wise, physically wise and mentally. He’s been really working and I can tell,” Defense went on. “Coe knows that I never lie to him. And I tell him every day I can see him getting better.”

Older, wiser and more comfortable, Harris plans on playing an even larger factor in KU’s defense as a sophomore. And when it comes to his individual goals, well, the word substantial doesn’t even really do them justice.

Let him explain.

“My goals and stuff, I really set outside of the world, so I won’t let myself down. To me, I want a thousand picks,” Harris said of his unique perspective. “If I set that dream… As long as they keep coming, I’ll never get complacent. You get complacent with small dreams. I have big goals.”

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

No. 8: OL Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

No. 7: RB Khalil Herbert

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 7, RB Khalil Herbert

Kansas running back Khalil Herbert (10) leaves Kansas State defensive back Johnathan Durham (6) as he takes off up the field for a long run during the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kan.

Kansas running back Khalil Herbert (10) leaves Kansas State defensive back Johnathan Durham (6) as he takes off up the field for a long run during the third quarter on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kan. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

Dating back to early in his sophomore season, when he put together back-to-back massive rushing games, Khalil Herbert’s potential at running back has tantalized Kansas football fans.

On the best days of his first three seasons, Herbert has registered:

• 137 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns at Ohio (2017)

• 291 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns versus West Virginia (2017)

• 91 rushing yards versus Iowa State (2018)

But for most of the previous three years, his carries on a game to game basis have been limited — especially for a player who enters his senior year averaging 4.9 yards per carry in 31 career games.

Herbert, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound rusher from Coral Springs, Fla., still won’t be KU’s featured back this year — that job will belong to Pooka Williams once the sophomore returns to the lineup in Week 2, after serving his one-game suspension as part of his punishment for a domestic battery charge.

Still, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Herbert becomes a fixture of KU’s offense as a primary backup. Last year, as a junior, he carried the ball 113 times for 499 yards and five touchdowns. But he could conceivably outperform all of those numbers this year if the offense relies as heavily on its running backs as it seems the Jayhawks will.

“I can’t imagine that Herbert won’t be a guy that vies for playing time,” head coach Les Miles said. “Being the solid guy that he is, he anticipates an agile cut well before many. And can bounce into a cut and out of a cut in a heartbeat.”

At times the past couple of years, Herbert seemed like a bit of an afterthought for KU’s offense for some reason, despite his flashes. It doesn’t look like that will be the case now that Miles is in charge, and has Les Koenning coordinating the offense.

“Today I saw him run in between a blocker and a defender — like in between them,” Miles told reporters earlier this week, following a KU preseason practice. “The blocker and defender were in contact. And he ran in between them. And I’m just saying, guys that have that kind of vision will play on Sundays. I think he’s going to be pretty special.”

Those words won’t soon be lost on Herbert, who has one year of college football left.

“It means the world that he believes in me, just being able to play at the next level. But I just take it as I have more work to do and keep working,” Herbert said. “It’s a childhood dream and it’s right there, so I just have to do my job. Do what I’m coached to do and I think it will be possible.”

Before his final season at KU is completed, Herbert, like many seniors before him, would like to help the program bust out of its losing rut. He said his goals for 2019 include: winning, going to a bowl game and leading the Big 12 in rushing.

Those are all lofty and may prove unattainable. But Herbert should be the best version of himself that KU has seen so far. And the senior running back said he has improved aspects of his game since the end of last year, too.

“I feel like my blocking and just running through tackles, running hard, breaking tackles,” Herbert said of ways in which he is more effective now. “That’s something I’ve really tried to work on and feel like I’ve done.”

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

No. 8: OL Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 8, O-linemen Malik Clark and Hakeem Adeniji

Kansas offensive lineman Malik Clark works with his fellow position players on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at the indoor practice facility.

Kansas offensive lineman Malik Clark works with his fellow position players on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at the indoor practice facility. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Wait a minute. Two players for one spot on the countdown? Isn’t that kind of cheating?”

You make some great points here. But, ultimately, this is a list that I decided to put together. So I’m just going to break the rules. This is tyranny at its worst. (Not really. It’s just a football list. You’ll get over it.)

Besides, it’s hard to think about either Malik Clark at left guard or Hakeem Adeniji at left tackle without picturing them in tandem.

Both started throughout the 2018 season and now they head into Year 1 of the Les Miles Era at KU as the two O-linemen most likely to succeed.

Adeniji has singled out Clark as one of the most improved players in their position group over the course of the offseason. Clark, meanwhile, doesn’t want to take much personal credit for that.

“I think it’s just the chemistry me and Hakeem have,” Clark said of a major factor in his development. “Like on our double teams, our communication and all of that, that’s making us better.”

Clark, now a 6-foot-4, 315-pound junior, and Adeniji, a 6-5, 300-pound senior, actually arrived at KU in the same class, ahead of the 2016 season, before Clark took a redshirt in 2017. The two were roommates their first two years in the program, which contributed to how well they work together now.

“We used to have long talks,” Clark shared, “about where our heart is with football, where we’ve got to get at and how we’ve got to turn this program around. I’d say that’s how he helped me. Just having a heart to heart conversation with him. And us being close.”

However, Clark hesitates to lump himself in with Adeniji when it comes to who is setting the tone for the group of blockers up front.

“I’d say Hakeem and Api (Mane, a center) are like the voices of the O-line,” Clark said. “I’m just the guy in the back that just follows directions. That’s all.”

Kansas offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji (78) hugs Kansas running back Deron Thompson (26) as time runs out in the fourth quarter on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji (78) hugs Kansas running back Deron Thompson (26) as time runs out in the fourth quarter on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Miles, who has often complimented the O-line as a group, called Adeniji one of the top tackle prospects in the Big 12, and said Clark is “going to be a big, strong man” for the KU offense.

“There’s some talented, talented guys there,” the head coach added.

Their position coach, Luke Meadows, thinks highly of both Clark and Adeniji, as well. Meadows said Clark has shown significant growth just since the spring.

According to Clark, a New Orleans native who played for KU running backs coach Tony Hull at Warren Easton High, he put in a lot of monotonous work in order to improve.

“My footwork, of course, and my hand placement,” Clark said of his areas of focus for the offseason. “And keeping my eyes in my gap. You know, just the little things I wasn’t doing as good until (Meadows) came here.”

Adeniji hasn’t missed a game — or a start — since joining the program in 2016. The left tackle from Garland, Texas, wants to make sure this season is memorable.

“It’s my last year. I want to go out with a bang, on a personal level but more on a team level,” Adeniji said. “I think we have the right pieces, the right coaches and everything to do that. So I’m very excited.”

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

No. 9: OLB Azur Kamara

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 9, OLB Azur Kamara

Kansas linebacker Azur Kamara (5) goes head-to-head with tight end Jack Luavasa in the Jayhawk drill during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.

Kansas linebacker Azur Kamara (5) goes head-to-head with tight end Jack Luavasa in the Jayhawk drill during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

One of the best defensive linemen to play at Kansas in the past decade, Daniel Wise, a little more than a year ago, recognized real potential in one of his newest teammates.

Azur Kamara hadn’t been at KU long, after transferring in from Arizona Western College. But after a couple of weeks of preseason practices, Wise thought Kamara could eventually become an impactful player for the Jayhawks.

“He has a great frame,” Wise said of Kamara in August of 2018. “Young, a little green. But he has a great IQ for football and that helps him, with what we need from him. I’m sure when he sticks around and fills out he’ll be a true force on that edge.”

KU’s coaches certainly hope Wise’s projection proves accurate, because KU needs Kamara, now a 6-foot-4, 235-pound senior, to emerge as a playmaker at outside linebacker.

A defensive end for Kansas in 2018, Kamara played in all 12 games, started three and finished with 16 total tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry.

In defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s scheme, though, Kamara is expected to be put in position to make even more plays from the “Jack” position, where he essentially lines up on the edge at a spot where a D-end typically would be, but plays it standing up like a linebacker.

The leading returning sackers from 2018’s defense are inside linebacker Kyron Johnson and safety Bryce Torneden, with two apiece. Kamara will spend much of the next few months rushing the passer, though, and seems to have the speed, power and size to do so effectively and secure the title of the team’s best pass rusher. Especially now that he has played in the Big 12 before and not trying to transition to a new level of football.

Said Johnson of his fellow defender: “Azur’s been here, so he’s a dude that everyone can rely and count on. He’s played D-line before, so now with him being at outside, it’s like he has that experience to get off blocks and do all that.”

Eliot, who coaches outside linebackers, too, already has praised Kamara, calling him “very talented.”

As a three-star junior college prospect in the Class of 2018, per Rivals, Kamara as a sophomore at Arizona Western recorded 15.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, as the team reached the NJCAA national title game. He’s used to making plays, and with his smarts and the benefit of a new position coach Kamara seems more likely to have a breakout season than just about any of the defense’s many unproven players up front.

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

No. 10: ILB Kyron Johnson

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Predicting 2019’s top Jayhawks: No. 10, ILB Kyron Johnson

Kansas linebacker Kyron Johnson works on technique with fellow position player Dru Prox during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.

Kansas linebacker Kyron Johnson works on technique with fellow position player Dru Prox during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. by Nick Krug

As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.

Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.

Kansas football coaches and players began raving about Kyron Johnson’s speed more than two years ago, when he arrived in Lawrence as an early high school graduate from Arlington, Texas.

A few defensive coaches, a couple position changes and some serious added bulk later, Johnson now has a bit of experience and muscle to go with his legitimate Big 12 speed.

On a defense lacking veterans and stability up front, Johnson looks like the exact kind of upperclassman the Jayhawks need in new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s 3-4 scheme. KU’s defense will be in trouble if safeties Bryce Torneden and Mike Lee are the ones making all the tackles. With Johnson now at inside linebacker — he played outside in the spring and at one point was listed on KU’s roster at “Hawk” — the defense will have at least one returning player up front who has started Big 12 games and has a grasp of what it will take to go make plays near or behind the line of scrimmage.

Playing inside at linebacker isn’t new to Johnson. In fact, he spent some time there both as a freshman and sophomore at KU before coaches opted to move him outside. One major difference now, though, is he’s playing at about 233 pounds, as opposed to the 220 range of his sophomore season.

“Here I am — here to stay — inside,” Johnson said of bouncing back and forth between spots for KU’s defense the past couple of years.

In 2018, Johnson started seven games and appeared in all 12. He finished 12th on the team with 16 total tackles. That’s obviously not a large number, but it is the highest for a returning KU defender in the front seven. Johnson also recorded four tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, broke up two passes, forced two fumbles and recovered a fumble. So while it has only been seen in flashes, a knack for making potentially momentum-shifting plays definitely exists with Johnson.

Although he wouldn’t call himself a leader among the linebackers just yet, it’s easy to envision Johnson becoming that quickly. He’s definitely serious about the on-field responsibilities that come with playing inside linebacker.

“You have to think now,” Johnson said of one significant difference for him, compared to his former days on the edge.

“You have to really think about what you’re doing and everything that you do, because everything you do, you have to base it off the line, the back and everything around you,” Johnson explained. “When you’re calling the calls, you have to make sure you called the right calls. If not, we’re just all going to be in the wrong.”

Smart and more comfortable now on the field than he was the previous two years, Johnson seems like a safe bet to become a prominent defensive presence for Kansas this season.

Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season

No. 11: WR Andrew Parchment

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