KU football's positions of strength entering spring drills


Yesterday, we looked at some of the story lines surrounding the Kansas University football program that figure to make spring practice — which begins Tuesday — interesting and exciting for a number of reasons.

Today, let's dive in a little deeper and begin our look at KU's strengths and weaknesses by position.

We'll start with the three positions in which KU appears to be in the best shape and follow it up on Thursday with the three positions that carry the biggest concern.

If a position doesn't make either list, figure it's in decent shape — not great but not a major problem either.

All right, let's get to it.

1. Running Back
I'm sure this comes as absolutely no surprise. Not only did the Jayhawks have one of the best running attacks in the Big 12 last season, but they also are bringing back their top three ball carriers and still have some pretty incredible depth.

Kansas running back James Sims runs for a touchdown in the first half of KU's game against the Northern Illinois Huskies on Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill.

Kansas running back James Sims runs for a touchdown in the first half of KU's game against the Northern Illinois Huskies on Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill. by Mike Yoder

Senior James Sims headlines the list and will look to lead the team in rushing for the fourth straight season. The two guys who carried the load while Sims served his suspension last season — junior Tony Pierson and senior Taylor Cox — bring talent and versatility, along with even more experience, to the position. And then you still have junior Brandon Bourbon and freshman Colin Spencer. It remains to be seen if Bourbon can break his way into the rotation and there's already talk of Spencer having some kind of role due to his dynamic speed and athleticism.

A lot of this unit's success will depend on what KU gets from its revamped offensive line (spoiler alert for Thursday's blog!!!) but between this group of talent and KU coach Charlie Weis' ability to disguise and tweak the run game, the Jayhawks appear to be ready for another big year on the ground.

2. Linebacker
KU's best defensive player from 2012, Ben Heeney, returns to lead a group of linebackers that all of a sudden looks pretty stout.

Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney (31) tackles West Virginia's Tavon Austin (1) in KU's game Saturday against West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va.

Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney (31) tackles West Virginia's Tavon Austin (1) in KU's game Saturday against West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. by Mike Yoder

Juco transfers Marcus Jenkins-Moore and Samson Faifili have the look of instant starters and if that trio makes up KU's first string, the second unit that backs them up will have a good mix of talent, toughness and experience. Schyler Miles, Jake Love and Huldon Tharp are the most notable names on that list, with veterans Darius Willis (yeah, he's back to linebacker), Prinz Kande and Victor Simmons, along with speedy rookies Courtney Arnick and Kellen Ash, backing them up.

I know it can be dangerous to count too much on transfers, but Jenkins-Moore and Faifili appear to be bad dudes and their addition significantly upgrades the position. What's more, this group seems to have some of the best depth of any on the team.

3. Defensive Line
It seems crazy to be writing this when the defensive line was without question the biggest weakness on the team just two seasons ago, but Weis and company have made it a point to upgrade the D-Line during the past couple of offseasons and, although we won't be able to fully evaluate the group until September, it appears they have done just that.

Standout defensive linemen Marquel Combs, left, and Chris Martin, right, are on their way from the junior-college ranks to Kansas University’s football team after signing and faxing in letters of intent on Wednesday.

Standout defensive linemen Marquel Combs, left, and Chris Martin, right, are on their way from the junior-college ranks to Kansas University’s football team after signing and faxing in letters of intent on Wednesday.

Tackles Marquel Combs and Ty McKinney appear to be big-time, disruptive forces in the middle and ends Chris Martin and Andrew Bolton may very well bring a dimension of nasty pass-rushing off the edge that has been missing around here for quite some time.

It's not just the new faces that make this position one of strength. Returners Jordan Tavai and Keon Stowers have another offseason with strength coach Scott Holsopple under their belts and there still exist a couple of up-and-comers in Ben Goodman and Michael Reynolds, who could explode onto the scene at any minute.

This group also gets depth, experience and leadership from veterans Kevin Young and Keba Agostinho and also still has a couple of potential diamonds in the rough in red-shirt freshman Tyler Holmes and newcomer Tedarian Johnson. For my money, it's the depth here and number of quality options that pushes this position into the top three.

Competition for starting spots and playing time may be more intense on the D-Line than anywhere else. Should be fun to watch.


Bob Culwell 5 years, 3 months ago

I sure hope the D-Line is as improved as we all seem to think it might be. In my opinion, that's been the biggest problem on the defensive side of the ball since the clock ran out down in the Orange Bowl. Ever since then, our line has been various shades of not very disruptive to the other teams, it seems.

If this group can develop into a good line, the linebackers and backs will be able to do so many things so much better even if they only are as good as they were last year. However, since I know that they'll improve as well, we could actually stand a chance to pick off a few teams in coming years.

The games are won along the line of scrimmage.

Bob Bailey 5 years, 3 months ago

LJW was lucky to get you, as are we, the readers. Your effort in getting stories, and your posting them are excellent. Perhaps we should start worrying about some other publisher picking you up - sure hope it doesn't come too quick.

Your talent seems to have rubbed off on some of your compatriots -- they seem to have improved over the past year. And it seems Keegan was getting some unjustified criticism. And I think Keegan is greatly improved in his performance as well!

My only objection is that you and your compatriots don't 'get it' when it comes to Defense. One of the best things Keegan has done were the 2 stories on Ohio State and the Offensive Co-ordinator. They should point someone in the direction of some important Defense Stories. Parseghian is still alive and well, and as a coach he would rate up in the vicinity of Knute Rockne as an all time leading coach. He 'invented' 'The Notre Dame Defense'. If you can't take anyone else's word about it, try Parseghian. Parseghian may not know Schaake's Rules, but bet dollars to donuts, he knows them. And tho Keegan may not understand your OC comments about Reese, an interview - and maybe a consulting agreement - would help us prepare our QB's. The 'positioning of the hips' isn't clrear, but it sure is an offensive 'corollary' to the Belt Buckle Rule.

The underlying philosopy of Defense (now) seems to be "Don't let them score on us". It guarantees that they will. Mangino's philosphy seemed ro be that "Our Defense should score more than their offense". You carry it over to the Spring game, he had a Defensive scoring system that, in his good years, helped them perform. The real scoring is better -- a safety, a fumble runback, an interception runback, a blocked punt, etc, works fine!! Look at the N IL game. This year #34 ran back an interception (altho he couldn't/wouldn't or wasn't taught to tackle). Despite that, we lost. It makes a HUGE difference in Defense!

Anyhow, the JW staff is just fine now!

jaydee909 5 years, 3 months ago

I appreciate all your articles during the off season, Matt. I hope to see more of your work during spring practice. You are a big asset to us that are starving for KU football news this time of the year.

I am still concerned about the linebacking core and I hope that MJM and Faifili will alleviate the concerns. We need guys that can play in space when we confront the offenses of the Big 12. MJM and Faifili have the look on film but need to see them on the field at the D-1 level. I like Heeney at the Mike and I think Arnick and maybe Simmons can help with their speed. I assume Simmons will have to add some pounds (Arnick needed too) to play. Jake Love was also very good when he stepped in late in the season. Miles may be better suited to back up Heeney, don't know yet if he has the speed to play on the outside, especially in the Big 12.

Expectations are going to be high with the additions to the defensive line and the returning players. Will we finally have a pass rush? Stay tuned.

Jonathan Briles 5 years, 3 months ago

I am pretty excited about our defense. I think with the kind of quality depth we have on the D-Line we will be living in the opponents backfield. We will have so many legs to keep fresh that the opponents O-Line just won't be able to keep up by the end of the game. Our secondary has a solid shot of being on tomorrows list, but if our D-Line can disrupt the QB quick enough our secondary won't need to be that great. The secondary will be very much unknown, but has a lot of potential to be very solid. One thing we can be sure of is that we will have solid depth at all three levels of the defense. With such a solid running game and a potentially stout defense we could keep almost any game low scoring and close. There are still a lot of questions on the team, but I'm very optimistic about the potential for having a very surprising team this year.

Matt Tait 5 years, 3 months ago

Wondered how long it would take somebody to go there... Not nearly as fast as I predicted.

Jason Sinclair 5 years, 3 months ago

I think it's safe to say that at the 3 general position groups on Defense (DL, LB, DB), we will have a whole lot more warm bodies than we have had recently. The question will be, how many 'difference-makers' will there be?

Hopefully at least a couple at each level - and, for the first time in years - I think that's possible.

741hawk 5 years, 3 months ago

Thanks, Matt, for keeping it interesting.

Matt Tait 5 years, 3 months ago

You bet. Plenty to talk about. Lots to be pumped about, too. Glad you're enjoying the early stages.

Jim Jackson 5 years, 3 months ago

Tait, thanks for updates! Do you think we will see anymore position changes? We seem to be really deep at LB and I can see Simmons as a Safety again.

Maybe Kevin Young back at DE?

Matt Tait 5 years, 3 months ago

Definitely possible. I was actually looking at the roster again today and it appears to have changed yet again.

Dexter Linton's back to safety, Greg Allen has moved to safety (from corner) and Brian Maura (a WR-turned-Safety last year) has moved to LB. In addition, Darius Willis is back to LB (from D-End) and there were a couple others like that where guys returned to their previous positions. Simmons was not one of them. He's still at LB.

We should get some kind of definitive list on Monday at Weis' pre-spring presser. I'll wait until then to make it official and in print.

WS 5 years, 3 months ago

Doesnt Heeny have a pending court date?

Matt Tait 5 years, 3 months ago

I don't anticipate it being a problem. He will be and already has been punished but I don't think he'll miss any time.

Jim Stauffer 5 years, 3 months ago

Love the articles, Matt, but I believe the talent of Sendish, Johnson and Short in the DB exceeds the talent MJM and Faifili bring to the LB's. My belief is the secondary will be better than the LB's, but just by a tad.

Matt Tait 5 years, 3 months ago

That's very possible. And if it turns out to be true, I think this defense could be pretty solid. Campo and Company will have some legit athletes and guys with motors and mean streaks to work with this year... I thought he did some impressive stuff last year so I can't help but wonder what he will do with this new batch.

Lance Cheney 5 years, 3 months ago

Kevin Young at DL? He's got the height, but I don't think he's big enough. He looks pretty skinny on the basketball court, even compared to other college basketball players...

Matt Tait 5 years, 3 months ago

Yeah, believe it or not, before Kevin Young became a popular name at the fieldhouse, the football program had its own version. I asked Young the defensive lineman one day if he gets mistaken for Young the forward ever and he said it happened all the time. Funny stuff.

Lance Cheney 5 years, 3 months ago

I bet so. And I was hoping you and everybody else could see my sarcasm in my post.

Mark Lindrud 5 years, 3 months ago

Matt do we know if Bourbon is being moved fullback? He played it a few times last year and I think it maybe a great idea to get him on the field. Also, will Kande stay at LB with our new found depth?

DrGraydog 5 years, 3 months ago

If the football Kevin Johnson can provide provide half the energy and production that the Basketball Kevin Johnson has.....we will be in for an excting year

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