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Coordinator recap: Meacham and Bowen assess KU’s play entering Week 2

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws against the Southeast Missouri defense during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws against the Southeast Missouri defense during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

As coaches tend to following any game — win or lose — Kansas football coordinators Doug Meacham and Clint Bowen saw both the positives and negatives of the Jayhawks’ season-opening victory over Southeast Missouri State when they reviewed footage after the fact.

Both spoke with media members Thursday, revealing their evaluations of a 38-16 victory.

Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Meacham began by going into the details of a solid, albeit imperfect, debut from junior quarterback Peyton Bender.

After first offering his opinion that Bender — 23-for-37 passing, 364 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions — looked “good,” Meacham immediately turned to his quarterback’s second-quarter interception as his first talking point.

“It was a great decision. That’s where his eyes should’ve been. That’s really the biggest part of all of it is him being on the right guy and triggering the right guy,” Meacham began, on Bender’s first pick, targeted for Jeremiah Booker. “He triggered the right guy and it was just a horrendous throw, which is unusual for him, because he hits the bull’s eye pretty good. He’s pretty accurate for the most part, throws a pretty nice deep ball. I don’t have an explanation for that. He just threw it way behind the guy.”

Other than that blunder, Meacham thought Bender played well, and said redshirt sophomore receiver Chase Harrell could have done a better job preventing the second interception, in the fourth quarter.

“Our receiver didn’t go up and play strong with the ball, so that was on him. But you look at the stat line and you see two picks,” Meacham said. “I think we left some points out there.”

The first-year KU coordinator went on to give examples of some other mistakes that prevented the Jayhawks from steamrolling SEMO.

“Ben (Johnson) dropped that one, had a chance to go to the crib right there. No. 3 (Harrell) makes, it’s No. 3 on ESPN,” Meacham said of Harrell’s one-handed TD grab in the first half, “and then he drops one that hits him straight in the bread basket. I don’t know what to tell you. So there’s probably another 100 yards of receiving and two more touchdowns.”

On another play, Meacham said Bender overthrew Ryan Schadler on a seam read, because the slot receiver ran a hook when he should’ve continued on a deep pattern.

“It looks like Peyton is making another bad throw when in actuality the receiver hosed him. He didn’t run a correct route. If he stays high on that route there’s another touchdown,” Meacham said. “We were close to having a better game, but it’s just a couple things. You always have four or five plays every week, even if you win or lose, there’s always that handful of plays you wish you had back.”

The former TCU and Oklahoma State assistant went on to explain passing game misfires get “magnified” but other problems inevitably show up on video, too.

“(Fans) don’t see a right guard miss a nose guard on an inside run. They see the other part, though,” Meacham said. “But I thought (Bender) played pretty good in terms of operating and having his eyes in the right spot and checks and all of that stuff. Did good.”

Run-game assessment

Kansas running back Taylor Martin (24) looks for room during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas running back Taylor Martin (24) looks for room during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Kansas only rushed for 73 yards (2.9 a carry) on 25 attempts versus SEMO in its debut.

But Meacham said he wasn’t worried about KU’s progress in that aspect of the offense.

“I would have a problem with our run game if I was running into a nine-man box all day long. Then I would be upset. It’s just like, Would you get a canoe and go upstream?

“And I get it. People do it,” Meacham added. “But that’s what they do. Ohio State and LSU, that’s what they do. They’re gonna pound it and force-feed it and that’s what they do. That’s not necessarily what we do. I’m not concerned about it, no.”

First look at KU’s new cornerbacks

Several Jayhawks get up to bat down an end zone pass to Southeast Missouri wide receiver Trevon Billington (14) during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Several Jayhawks get up to bat down an end zone pass to Southeast Missouri wide receiver Trevon Billington (14) during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Week 1 also marked the KU debuts for starting cornerbacks Hasan Defense and Shakial Taylor, both of whom played at the junior college level in 2016.

Bowen wasn’t ready to thoroughly praise them, though, after Defense made five solo tackles and broke up two passes and Taylor contributed two solo stops and a pair of pass breakups.

“They did OK. We’re obviously going to face a lot better competition, though. No discredit to SEMO,” Bowen said. “But they didn’t get in there and panic. They held in there and competed and were assignment-sound. I don’t know that they were 100 percent technique-sound, but they did challenge and they did compete.”

Armstrong’s production

The Big 12’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. didn’t have a monster statistical day by his standards in the opener. The all-league pass-rusher came away with three total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.

Of course, much of SEMO’s offensive game plan revolved around preventing Armstrong from wreaking havoc.

Bowen said he began seeing KU opponents give that much attention to the star D-lineman during his sophomore season.

“That was kind of the norm from what we were seeing out of him last year,” Bowen said of double-teams and schemes designed to limit Armstrong. “By Week 7 or 8 last year, it wasn’t too hard to figure out he was pretty good by then. What we got on Saturday was pretty much what we got all of last season.”

While sometimes SEMO simply called rushing plays away from Armstrong’s position, Bowen said there was more to the relatively small statistical output than that.

“We didn’t get a lot of drop-back pass game. We hardly got any, and when we did there was attention paid to him,” Bowen said. “That was kind of SEMO, their plan anyway. I think they did a nice job of understanding what their strengths are, and sitting in the pocket and throwing the ball downfield wasn’t going to be one of their strengths going into that game, so they didn’t do it. If you’re not good at it, don’t do it.”

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Say What? Smith on KU football’s 1-0 start and what’s next

KUsports.com football beat writer Benton Smith joins Nick Schwerdt of KLWN on Rock Chalk Sports Talk (14:05 mark) to discuss the Jayhawks' 1-0 start and what KU is capable of this weekend versus Central Michigan, and beyond.

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Q & A with KU football linebacker Keith Loneker Jr.

Kansas' Keith Loneker Jr. lines up across from Texas quarterback Shane Buechele and running back D'Onta Foreman during the first quarter of the Jayhawks' 24-21 win over the Longhorns on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas' Keith Loneker Jr. lines up across from Texas quarterback Shane Buechele and running back D'Onta Foreman during the first quarter of the Jayhawks' 24-21 win over the Longhorns on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

In the past at KUsports.com, we've used a section of our Gameday preview called "5 Questions" to give a player or coach's perspective leading up to a Kansas football game. Much of the time those question-and-answer interactions have to be edited down to five, when they could go on much longer.

So beginning this week I figured we would try something different, using the old format but expanding it into something that should be better.

This week, ahead of Saturday's KU game versus Central Michigan (3 p.m., FOX Sports Net), I sat down with junior starting linebacker Keith Loneker Jr. to talk about what proved to be a difficult season opener for him, playing for the first time since his father, former KU offensive lineman Keith Loneker Sr., died this past summer.

Loneker also provided some insight on his development as a player and how KU's linebacking unit performed in Week 1 victory over Southeast Missouri State.

Before the SEMO game you tweeted out the No. 74 in honor of your father. How emotional did that day end up being and how did you feel like you handled it?

None by Keith Loneker

“It was a little bit more emotional than I thought it was going to be. I don’t think about that stuff. But, yeah, it was just kind of tough. That’s the first game my dad’s not been able to watch or see. So sitting in the hotel I thought about it a little bit, but I had a bigger task at hand, going out and playing for the defense — had to play well, you know, you can’t have that stuff overriding it. But, yeah, I thought about it a little bit.”

Were you surprised by how difficult it was to separate emotions once you got onto the field or can you feed off those emotions?

“I think you can build off it, but, surprisingly, yeah, you’ve got to — it’s a Big 12 football game, it’s a Power 5 football game — you’ve got to push some of that stuff away. But I used some of it as momentum. It’s just a feeling, everybody who’s played football knows it, once you get that first play out of the way, you’re in a groove. All the nerves and everything was put away.”

What were you all as linebackers most pleased with when you went back and looked at the video?

“There was a lot. Coach (Todd) Bradford did a tremendous job, as well as Coach (Clint) Bowen. They did a crazy-good job of pulling up plays of what they thought (SEMO) was going to run. And we executed those plays that we worked in practice all week very well. Very well. And we got them out of what we thought was comfortable for them and they had to go to some stuff we didn’t think they were going to run. When we did that we even executed those plays.”

You and Joe Dineen go back so far, playing football together growing up in Lawrence as well as at Free State High. Do you ever get competitive with tackle totals after a game or performance grades?

“We take a couple of jabs at each other about who’s going to have more tackles, you know. But it’s something that we both know we’ve got to play solid for each other to do well. It’s all competitive — competitive love, though.”

How much do you all as linebackers feel like it’s really on your group to shore up the run defense, because that was an area last year that was an issue?

“Huge point of emphasis. With our D-line being as stout as they are you don’t want to be that weak link, and the linebackers are a big part of the run game. Always have been, always will be. That’s something that we put a lot of emphasis on in the offseason and we felt like we executed well, but it’s only one game, so we’ve got a lot to go.

Pro Football Focus had a stat this summer about how good you are as a pass defender at inside linebacker. What did you think of that?

None by PFF College Football

“I don’t pay too much mind to that. Some of these stats they find now are crazy. So I don’t know what all goes into that. So I just continue to work on what Coach Bradford talks to me about. We work pass coverage a lot during the week and we’re going to work on it a lot being that our opponent is Central Michigan. So I just keep working on it every day and I try to pick the brains of the DB’s, because those are the best pass coverage guys on our team. So as much as I can do that, and just keep on improving.”

Do you feel like pass coverage is a strength for you, though?

“I believe it’s a strength. It’s something I don’t think is where I want it to be yet, but, yeah, I could use it as a strength.”

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Former Alabama WR Daylon Charlot trying to make up ground, climb up depth chart

Team Jayhawks receiver Daylon Charlot rolls over out of bounds after pulling in a catch while covered by Team KU cornerback Julian Chandler (25) during the second quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team Jayhawks receiver Daylon Charlot rolls over out of bounds after pulling in a catch while covered by Team KU cornerback Julian Chandler (25) during the second quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

From the day he arrived in Lawrence a little more than a year ago, people in and around the Kansas football program looked forward to the debut of former Alabama receiver Daylon Charlot.

But Saturday, after sitting out a year as a transfer, Charlot found himself wrong side up on the Jayhawks’ depth chart, hovering on the border of second and third string, and played sparingly in the second half of KU’s victory over Southeast Missouri State.

Such a scenario didn’t seem possible after the physically gifted 6-foot wideout from Patterson, La., proved to be one of the highlight-makers in KU’s spring game, with three receptions, 45 yards and a touchdown (one of just three scores in the scrimmage).

A four-star recruit in his days at Patterson High and a player college football icon Nick Saban didn’t want to lose, Charlot came to Kansas with visions of turning into a Biletnikoff Award candidate. As recently as the first week of August he said his goals for 2017 included becoming a better leader on and off the field, making his teammates better, “hopefully” helping Kansas earn a bowl game invite and reaching the challenging statistical targets of 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Those numbers now look implausible after Charlot played as a reserve versus SEMO, and had one catch negated by a penalty.

Even so, Charlot’s upside for the weeks and seasons ahead shouldn’t be abandoned. Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Doug Meacham, asked whether the receiver was held back for any reason in particular in Week 1, said Charlot was just “behind” for injury-related reasons during the preseason.

“If you’re not going to get reps in practice you’re just not going to play as much,” Meacham said. “He struggled a little bit with some physical stuff in camp.”

KU is fortunate to have a number of Peyton Bender targets in Meacham’s Air Raid offense, with the likes of Steven Sims Jr., Jeremiah Booker, Chase Harrell, Ben Johnson, Kerr Johnson Jr., Ryan Schadler and freshman Quan Hampton, whom Meacham said will be “really good” down the road.

“You’ve got to show us that you can do it first,” Meacham added, in reference to Charlot, “and then part of his problem was he maybe wasn’t able to demonstrate all that because he’s hampered with this or that through the course of August.”

Is Charlot making up any ground as KU prepares for a Week 2 matchup with Central Michigan?

“A little bit,” Meacham offered. “I just think there’s a lot of undue pressure put on him because of where he came from. Everybody thinks he’s going to walk in here and be Drew Pearson (former Dallas Cowboys receiver). I mean, he’s still a young kid, too. He’s got to learn a lot of stuff.”

None by DC

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Peyton Bender identifying mistakes of debut and striving for perfection

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. (11) during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender (7) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. (11) during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

No one expected Peyton Bender’s Kansas football debut to be a flawless one. Aside from perfectionist Peyton Bender. For all the positive plays the program’s new starting quarterback made during his introductory performance, as he prepares for his second game Bender is most concerned with his shortcomings — and fixing them.

By the end of a four-touchdown, 364-yard outing against Southeast Missouri State, the former Washington State and Itawamba Community College (Miss.) QB had thrown 14 incompletions and two interceptions — one in each half.

Those are the plays he’ll study and learn from most frequently in KU’s quarterbacks room this week; not the TD passes to Steven Sims Jr., Chase Harrell and Ben Johnson.

On Bender’s first turnover, in the second quarter, with the Jayhawks aiming to improve upon a 14-7 lead, he looked for junior receiver Jeremiah Booker, who had lined up wide right, and began breaking toward the middle of the field roughly 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. The ball went behind Booker, and into the hands of SEMO corner Shabari Davis.

[Check out Scott Chasen’s video breakdown of Bender’s debut at the conclusion of the blog.]

“On the first one,” Bender said Tuesday of his first major mistake with the Jayhawks, “I tried to throw it a little bit too early and didn’t let Booker get into his route long enough.”

Not that he was perfect for the ensuing two quarters, but Bender’s next costly blunder came on a throw in the fourth quarter, with the Jayhawks in position to officially put SEMO out of reach.

The QB looked deep down the left sideline for long, agile wideout Chase Harrell. Bender should have put the ball out farther in front of his target, because Harrell had no one in front of him and the speed to beat his man in a foot race to the end zone on a longer throw. Instead, Bender left it short, Harrell tried to slow down and make a play, but lost a tug-of-war for the ball to SEMO’s Al Young.

Southeast Missouri cornerback Al Young (1) picks off a pass to Kansas wide receiver Chase Harrell (3) during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium.

Southeast Missouri cornerback Al Young (1) picks off a pass to Kansas wide receiver Chase Harrell (3) during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

“Then on the second one I just under-threw Chase,” Bender admitted. “Those are fixable. My eyes are in the right spot on both of them. I just didn’t make the best throw.”

KU’s head coach was more forgiving of his quarterback in his assessment. David Beaty thought Bender “did a really nice job” throughout the KU win, the two interceptions notwithstanding.

“As we go back and look at the first pick that he throws, I think we were a little deep on that route, which that will affect the timing sometimes,” Beaty said. “It's just got a chance to keep you off of being on the same page when you're not at the right depth. So we've got to be better there.”

Among Bender’s 14 incompletions, Beaty admitted some balls looked under- or over-thrown as he watched from the sideline. But the coach said when he reviewed the game footage on video, missed assignments often were to blame.

“The guy just misread what was going on with the safety, and (Bender) put it right where it was supposed to be,” the coach said of his general takeaway on perceived off-the-mark passes. “If he'd have been there (a receiver read a route option correctly), it would have been a big play.”

— PODCAST: KU Sports Hour review of Jayhawks' season opener —

Outside of his two give-aways, which Bender and his coaches vow to learn from, Bender felt encouraged by the offense’s 437-yard night in the first game for both the quarterback and offensive coordinator Doug Meacham.

“I thought we converted on all of our third-and-mediums, but we put ourselves in bad position on third-and-long, so we have to do a better job on first and second downs. So that’s an emphasis going into this week,” Bender said ahead of Saturday’s non-conference matchup with Central Michigan. “We just want to clean up what we can do on first and second down and make it easier for us on those third downs.”

The lack of consistency stood out to the quarterback when he went back and reviewed the video, a sign he’s striving for perfection, even after putting up the best numbers from a KU quarterback since the days of Todd Reesing.

“I think we did a lot of things well as an offense, but we also have a ton to improve on, which is a good thing,” Bender said. “I think overall we just saw glimpses of how good and explosive we can be.”

— Bender breakdown video from Scott Chasen:

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15 KU football greats decorate Memorial Stadium’s old exterior

Banners of famed Kansas football players have been added to many of the archways set within the north end of Memorial Stadium. The stadium is pictured on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017.

Banners of famed Kansas football players have been added to many of the archways set within the north end of Memorial Stadium. The stadium is pictured on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. by Nick Krug

When fans descend upon Memorial Stadium for the first time this season, before they even enter the gates they will be greeted by fond memories, thanks to some of the prominently-displayed most recognizable faces in Kansas football history.

From John Hadl and Gale Sayers to Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, the giant likenesses of Jayhawks associated with on-field success are now plastered on the outside of the team’s nearly century-old home.

One of the 15 player banners even represents someone they can watch live and in person — the most talented player on the 2017 roster, star defensive lineman Dorance Armstrong Jr.

Third-year Kansas football coach David Beaty never has seen junior Armstrong get a big head about any of his accomplishments, so it was an easy decision to sign off on adding the standout defensive end to the stadium’s exterior.

“The one thing that is basically the common denominator amongst those guys is production, right? Dorance is the first All-Big 12 unanimous pick that we’ve had here,” Beaty said. “So that really was where the decision-making was, because that was all above my pay grade, in terms of who went in there. They certainly talked to me about it a little bit.”

When the banners first began appearing on the old facade, someone texted a photo of Armstrong’s to him the first day it went up, in early August.

“I had to make that drive over there and take a picture for myself and send it to my family,” Armstrong said. “I was excited for it.”

Predictably, Armstrong’s family members — particularly his mother, Carol Watson, who “put it out everywhere” — were thrilled by the latest distinction for the Big 12’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

As usual, the humble defensive lineman downplayed the honor.

“I don’t want one thing to feel bigger than the other. It’s keeping me going,” Armstrong said. “That’s what I’m going to use it as.”

Here’s a quick look at the 15 KU players represented on the stadium — although Beaty hinted he’d like to see more former players added in the future.

Nick Reid

The Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, as a senior the linebacker made 112 total tackles, including 13 for loss. His 416 career tackles are second in program history (Willie Pless, No. 1, 633).

Aqib Talib

A first-team All-American in 2007 and the MVP of the 2008 Orange Bowl, the former KU corner picked off 13 passes in his college days, ranking him second all-time in program history.

Dorance Armstrong Jr.

A consensus All-Big 12 first-team defensive end as a sophomore, Armstrong racked up 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks a year ago, making him the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year as a junior.

Ben Heeney

In two of his final three seasons the home-state linebacker recorded triple-digit tackles: 112 total as a sophomore and 127 as a senior.

Chris Harris

During four seasons, the cornerback totaled 290 tackles (198 solo). As a junior, in 2009, Harris’ nine passes defended ranked 10th in the nation.

Charles Gordon

He played both receiver and corner for the Jayhawks. In 2005, his final season at KU, Gordon made 34 receptions, scored two offensive touchdowns, totaled 28 tackles and picked off two passes. His seven interceptions in 2004 are the third-best single-season total in program history. He also has returned more career punts (96) than any other Jayhawk.

Ray Evans, John Hadl and Gale Sayers

The only three players whose jerseys have been retired by KU.

Evans (No. 42) is the program’s all-time leader in interceptions, with 17 in the 1940s, including a Kansas-best 10 in 1942. He made first-team All-America in 1947.

Hadl (No. 21) received first-team All-America nods in both 1960 and 1961. He played quarterback and halfback and became a three-time all-conference selection, ending his career with 1,281 passing yards and 1,016 rushing yards.

Sayers (No. 48) joined Hadl as a two-time All-American in 1963 and 1964. He rushed for 2,675 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career. In 1962 he averaged 7.1 yards per carry.

Darrell Stuckey

A key contributor in the secondary and as a returner, Stuckey topped 90 total tackles in each of his final two college seasons, 2008 and 2009. He averaged 25.6 yards per kickoff return as a senior. As a junior, he picked off five passes, contributing to his career total of eight.

Dezmon Briscoe

KU’s all-time leader in receiving yards (3,240), touchdown receptions (31) and 100-yard games (14), Briscoe also is responsible for the two best individual receiving games in program history: 269 yards versus Oklahoma in 2008, and 242 against Missouri in 2009.

JaCorey Shepherd

A receiver-turned-defensive back, Shepherd also returned a Big-12 best 37 kickoffs as as senior, in 2014, leading the league with 773 yards in that category. In his final two seasons, as a corner, he defended 24 passes. Shepherd’s 14 defended as a senior ranked seventh nationally.

Kerry Meier

The Jayhawks’ all-time leader in receptions (226), Meier owns the two best season totals in that category, too, with 102 in 2009, a year after totaling 97. Meier’s 2,309 career yards and 18 career TD’s rank second to Briscoe.

Anthony Collins

A first-team All-American offensive lineman his junior year, in 2007, Collins was an Outland Trophy finalist. The massive tackle helped block for two of the 14 1,000-yard rushers in KU history, Jon Cornish and Brandon McAnderson

Todd Reesing

Name a KU career passing record and Reesing owns it: total yards (11,194), completions (932), attempts (1,461), TD passes (90), completion percentage (63.3%), yards per game (273), 400-yard passing games (4), 300-yard passing games (18).

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Say What? Smith discusses KU football’s season-opener vs. SEMO on KLWN

KUsports.com's Kansas football beat writer, Benton Smith, joins Nick Schwerdt on KLWN's Rock Chalk Sports Talk — beginning at the 37:20 mark — to discuss the Jayhawks' Saturday opener versus Southeast Missouri State.

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Kansas football’s top 25 difference-makers: No. 2, DT Daniel Wise

Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise takes off his helmet as he listens to instructions during practice on Tuesday, April 11, 2017.

Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise takes off his helmet as he listens to instructions during practice on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. by Nick Krug

Tom Keegan and I collaborated on a list of 25 potential difference-makers for the Kansas football team in 2017 and will release one each weekday leading up to the Sept. 2 season-opener vs. SEMO, at Memorial Stadium. We will list them in reverse order of how indispensable/potentially impactful they are for KU's hopes of having a more competitive season.

No one on the Kansas football roster has started more games for the Jayhawks than redshirt junior Daniel Wise (18). So the massive, fun-loving defensive tackle from Lewisville, Texas, is one of the few people in KU’s locker room who can get away with giving star defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. a hard time.

Wise pounded the interior of so many opposing offensive lines, causing so much trouble in 2016, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound tackle might say, it made Armstrong’s job that much easier on the edge.

Be honest, Daniel. Aren’t you at least partially responsible for Dorance’s success, and his Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year status?

“I let him know,” Wise responded, while laughing. “I trash-talk to him every now and then. I tell him I should get half the award. But, nah, I’m just kidding. He earned it all himself. He went out there and got all those sacks and TFL’s. He put in the work and he deserves it.”

While Armstrong racked up 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a sophomore, Wise made 10 takedowns in the backfield of his own while contributing three sacks, helping him land on the Associated Press All-Big 12 second team.

With two stars setting the tone at the line of scrimmage, Wise is eager to see just how productive KU’s defense can become this fall.

“Excited to see what we have and put it together, come against SEMO, our first game of the season,” Wise said. “And obviously still building. A lot more to build and a lot more to prove to people who don’t know us and people who don’t know what’s going on.”

Wise and Armstrong already have the most of the Big 12’s attention, so it’s easy for them to hold each other accountable and inspire the best out of their teammates on the defensive side of the field. What’s more, Wise and Armstrong feed off of each other, because they know the whole team needs that from them.

“It’s a brotherhood. So it’s not that hard,” Wise said. “You see your brother going through some stuff, trying to reach his goal. And that’s my brother (Armstrong), so I’m going to help him reach his goal — not only me, but he helps me, as well.”

KU football's top 25 difference-makers

25 - Quan Hampton

24 - Ryan Schadler

23 - Taylor Martin

22 - Ben Johnson

21 - Isaiah Bean

20 - Josh Ehambe

19 - Bryce Torneden

18 - Keith Loneker Jr.

17 - Dom Williams

16 - Derrick Neal

15 - Khalil Herbert

14 - Charles Baldwin

13 - Shakial Taylor

12 - Chase Harrell

11 - Joe Dineen

10 - Hasan Defense

9 - Mesa Ribordy

8 - Carter Stanley

7 - Mike Lee

6 - Hakeem Adeniji

5 - Daylon Charlot

4 - Peyton Bender

3 - Steven Sims

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Kansas football’s top 25 difference-makers: No. 4, QB Peyton Bender

Kansas junior quarterback Peyton Bender throws during the spring game, on Saturday, April 15, at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas junior quarterback Peyton Bender throws during the spring game, on Saturday, April 15, at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Tom Keegan and I collaborated on a list of 25 potential difference-makers for the Kansas football team in 2017 and will release one each weekday leading up to the Sept. 2 season-opener vs. SEMO, at Memorial Stadium. We will list them in reverse order of how indispensable/potentially impactful they are for KU's hopes of having a more competitive season.

The first Saturday of the Kansas football season is upon us, and so, too, is the highly anticipated KU debut of junior quarterback Peyton Bender.

Expected to be the kind of QB the program has lacked for years, Bender, a 6-foot-1 former Mike Leach protégé at Washington State, where he spent his first two seasons, has the familiarity with the Air Raid offense to not just hit the ground running, but hit the turf throwing.

Although the hundreds of quick reads and releases he has made at KU practices through the spring, summer seven-on-sevens and preseason have come almost exclusively behind closed gates, fans and everyone else who cares enough to follow the Jayhawks closely will finally see what Bender can do to invigorate a long-stumbling offense this weekend, versus Southeast Missouri State (6 p.m. kickoff, Memorial Stadium).

Third-year head coach David Beaty hasn’t said as much publicly, but Bender is the inevitable starter entering the season, and is poised to take off with the help of first-year KU offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, a deep receiving corps and what Beaty extols as a much-improved offensive line.

No one is proclaiming Bender as a program-altering talent, but Beaty, Meacham and his teammates often during the past several weeks have referenced the ball security displayed during practices and scrimmages.

“The thing that has stuck out to me is just management of a team, and management is a lot of things,” Beaty said of what encouraged him during camp about Bender and redshirt sophomore Carter Stanley. “The number one thing is taking care of the football, not putting the ball in jeopardy and seeing us really focus on an area that we were not very good at last year, which was throwing the ball to the other team.”

And while Bender so often is characterized as a smart read-and-react pocket passer, his position coach, Garrett Riley, says the aspiring Air Raid expert can do more than put the ball on the money.

“I’ll tell you what, Bender can really make some plays with his feet, as well,” Riley said of the former juco standout’s ability outside of the pocket.”

Bender won’t be asked to play like a young Peyton Manning, but he will be charged with distributing the ball expediently to a variety of targets.

Expect to see more moving chains and scoring drives out of a KU offense than you have in nearly a decade — if you’ve bothered keeping up that long.

The Peyton Bender era is here, and for a change, the Kansas offense shouldn’t be unbearable to watch.

KU football's top 25 difference-makers

25 - Quan Hampton

24 - Ryan Schadler

23 - Taylor Martin

22 - Ben Johnson

21 - Isaiah Bean

20 - Josh Ehambe

19 - Bryce Torneden

18 - Keith Loneker Jr.

17 - Dom Williams

16 - Derrick Neal

15 - Khalil Herbert

14 - Charles Baldwin

13 - Shakial Taylor

12 - Chase Harrell

11 - Joe Dineen

10 - Hasan Defense

9 - Mesa Ribordy

8 - Carter Stanley

7 - Mike Lee

6 - Hakeem Adeniji

5 - Daylon Charlot

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Former KU safety Fish Smithson makes a pick, reveals secret behind his name

Washington Redskins defensive back Fish Smithson (25) rushes the ball after intercepting a pass attempt by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron in the second half of a preseason NFL football game, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Redskins defensive back Fish Smithson (25) rushes the ball after intercepting a pass attempt by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron in the second half of a preseason NFL football game, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sunday proved the biggest day to date in former Kansas safety Fish Smithton’s budding professional career.

An undrafted rookie trying to make Washington’s roster, Smithson came up with his first highlight play of the NFL’s preseason, intercepting a pass on national television during the fourth quarter against Cincinnati.

Smithson returned the pick 63 yards in what became the Redskins’ first win of the exhibition schedule.

The 5-foot-11, 196-pound NFL hopeful was feeling so good afterward, he even finally revealed the origin of his nickname-turned-given-name. You may remember that Smithson was born Anthony but hasn’t gone by that in years. During a post-game interview with CSN Mid-Atlantic Sunday, Smithson divulged the secret of how he became Fish.

As he has alluded to before, Smithson said his grandmother made the name stick when he was a boy. It turns out she called him Fish because, at the time, he was scared of the limbless, water-dwelling creatures.

"I used to go fishing with my grandfather a lot when I was younger and he used to reel them into the boat and I always used to run from it,” Smithson said.

The young defensive back has since conquered his ichthyophobia, but also made another confession: he can’t swim.

In three preseason games, Smithson has four solo tackles (six total) and one interception.

Smithson and countless other players around the league will learn what the next several months will look like for them later this week, when NFL teams must trim their rosters to 53 players.

None by NFL

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