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Dissecting KU's defensive line and wondering if the best is yet to come for Marquel Combs

Kansas defensive lineman Ben Goodman stretches out during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo

Kansas defensive lineman Ben Goodman stretches out during practice on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo by Nick Krug

By now, you've surely all heard that the Kansas University football team's first-string defensive line will be made up of four players who have been in the program for at least a year.

Saturday night, when the Jayhawks take the field for the season opener against South Dakota — 6 p.m. at Memorial Stadium — veterans Kevin Young and Keba Agostinho will handle the end spots, second-year Jayhawk Keon Stowers will start at nose guard and third-year sophomore Ben Goodman will be KU's top Buck, the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position.

No Marquel Combs. No Ty McKinney. No Andrew Bolton. And, of course, no Chris Martin.

Three of those four newcomers whom many believed would make up the starting front four when KU signed them last winter are still with the program but only two of them figure to play this season. Martin was dismissed from the team after a run-in with the law in May and Bolton is expected to red-shirt so he can get 100 percent healthy in time for 2014.

I know there's some disappointment from KU fans over the fact that Combs — the No. 1 ranked juco player in his class according to ESPN.com — is not in the starting lineup, but I don't think the book on Combs' career as a Jayhawk has been anywhere close to written yet.

If anything, the fact that Combs starts the season as a second-stringer behind Stowers should be encouraging for KU fans not discouraging. The idea when Combs was signed was for him to come in and upgrade the defensive line and the pass rush immediately, which, based on the way the line had played the past couple of seasons, seemed like an automatic.

But a funny thing happened between the West Virginia game that ended 2012 and the end of fall camp in August of 2013. Agostinho and Young, both seniors, got healthy, got angry and got serious about not letting someone take their spots during their final seasons of college football.

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That's a good thing. After all, these guys have combined for 69 appearances and 36 starts during the past three seasons. And, sure, that experience came on some pretty bad defenses but, good, bad or indifferent, experience is among the most important factors in college football and these guys have it.

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We don't know yet how productive either player will be this season. But we do know this: KU coach Charlie Weis plays the guys who deserve to play, the guys who look the best, work the hardest and give the Jayhawks the best chance to win. And he stays that way from week to week, which means that if Combs or McKinney or anyone else listed with the second team or lower outshines the others on game day, they'll begin to see more snaps as the season moves along.

Obviously, Combs has not done enough in practice or in the film room to convince the coaches that he's worthy of a spot on the first team. At least not yet. But what if that's because the games have not been played yet and the part of the season that really counts has not yet begun? What if Combs simply is a gamer, a guy who looks OK in practice but wows everybody when the lights come on? If that's the case, he'll play plenty and, whether he starts or not, will hardly matter.

It's hard to know what to expect, but my gut tells me that what I just described is exactly what Marquel is.

The best news? We'll find out in just a couple of days.

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Comments

Doug Cramer 1 year, 1 month ago

Matt - I hope your optimism is right on the money. The problem is that we've seen Young and Augostinho for a combined 7 seasons now (4 Young, 3 Augostinho). Neither one of them have proven to anyone that they have the ability to pressure quarterbacks consistently in the Big 12. Not even close...so why would that change this year ? Will admit that I'm extremely disapointed that Martin, Bolton, and Quel aren't starting...because that was the whole point in beefing up the D-line. The D-line in itself has brought this program down harder than any other position group since the Turner Gil era started. Credit Weis, Campo, and the rest of the coaches for making the D-line a priority from a recruiting angle. But just awful luck to lose Martin and Bolton...and Quel probably not as good as advertised. Prove me wrong Quel...because we need something !

Brett McCabe 1 year, 1 month ago

If "combined 7 seasons" is not the worst point of reference I've ever read, it's definitely in the top 10.

One of the jobs of a coaching staff is to develop players already in the program. One of the results of competition is improved performance.

For those who have complained about the number of JUCO guys recruited, I can assure you that there isn't a single freshmen D-Line recruit out there, that we could have signed, that would have remotely challenged the returning starters. Now, we have both competition and depth.

Though I don't expect us to have a dominant d-line, I do expect marked improvement, regardless of who is playing.

John Fitzgerald 1 year, 1 month ago

I agree with Kingfisher ... Weis's goal was to improve the players we already have, and to bring in more competition at that position. We should see this as the best case scenario because it shows the growth of these players under Weis has been better than any other coach they've had. And it means depth. That's huge for us. I'm optimistic that our D line will show significant improvement.

Doug Cramer 1 year, 1 month ago

Kingfisher - all the kool-aid drinkers said that our D-line was fixed last season...and that depth, competition, and experience would be the difference. We finished 120th in sacks...and often...Big 12 QBs had 5 - 10 seconds in the pocket to find open targets. How did we really improve depth and competition ? Thats simply not true. Martin and Bolton never made it to competition. We also lost Josh Williams (red shirt senior from Nebraska)...and Josh Richardson off the line last year. We gained 2 and lost 2...and the returners havn't proven anything...other than getting pushed around every week. Like Rueben mentions below...the lack of talent on the D-line will show it's face when we play Rice.

Micky Baker 1 year, 1 month ago

When you say, "all the Kook-aid" drinkers, That's when I stop reading your post.

Mike Nicco 1 year, 1 month ago

People based their opinions on Coach Weis saying the calvary was coming last season to save our defense.

Mark Lindrud 1 year, 1 month ago

Lets keep in mind we didn't have squat for depth and competition last year. Sometimes that's what motivates people to improve. It's possible Combs plays and they realize he needs to start or the 1st teasers still haven't improved In Game situations. Lets see how this plays out first.

texashawk10 1 year, 1 month ago

Depth breeds competition, competition breeds better players, better players breed more wins. I'm not going to go out and say anybody on KU's DLine will be all conference, but I do think the play will be improved. Last year, there was no depth and the DLine was having to play 60+ snaps a game and that will wear anybody out and we all saw what that fatigue did to the defense at the end of the year last season. With a legitimate backup at each DLine spot (according to Weis), nobody on the DLine should have to play 60+ snaps in a line game.

Ken Schmidt 1 year, 1 month ago

Thank you Matt. That is exactly what I have been saying to so many naysayers this summer and fall. I am willing to bet quite a lot on the fact that the team on the field for conference play will not resemble the one which we saw last year, nor the one we witnessed only two weeks ago. Funny things is, I am just as--maybe more--interested in game two as game one.

JayDocMD 1 year, 1 month ago

I hope our JUCO DB's step up more than our JUCO DL's. If not, gonna need to score a lot of points to keep up.

texashawk10 1 year, 1 month ago

A good pass rush can mask a lot of weaknesses in a secondary. The phrase, "the game is won in the trenches" isn't a load of BS. KU has had some good DB's in the past few years that we didn't know were as good as they were because of the DLine. Who actually thought Chris Harris was good enough to be a starting CB on a team that is a Super Bowl contender? A great line (on either side of the ball) can mask a lot of weaknesses at other positions.

Doug Cramer 1 year, 1 month ago

Also have to say.....AMAZING pre-season football coverage this year by Matt Tait !!! You've obviously worked hard...and deserve a job promotion. I Remember back in the day when we had that Mizzou guy as the football beat writer. Matt's work blows his out of the water...not even close. I love KU football...thanks for the coverage Matt !

Matt Tait 1 year, 1 month ago

Kind of you to say so. Glad you enjoyed it. Ready to do it for real, though!

pizzashuttle 1 year, 1 month ago

I think Weis is saving them for bigger games and doesn't want to risk an injury this early in the season when he doesn't have to. It's like the NFL teams do in their pre-season where they don't play their true 1st string players, except for a few series to save them for the regular season. Weis is doing the same thing. Watch the depth chart when we play OU, OSU, etc. and watch who Weis plays on critical 3rd down plays. Then you'll see who the true 1st string players are.

Rivethead 1 year, 1 month ago

I disagree. We went 1-11 last season. The best person plays. Weis isn't "saving" anyone for the big games. Hell when you're 1-11 and desperate for a W (ANY W), every game is a big game.

Matt Tait 1 year, 1 month ago

Gotta agree here. I don't think anybody is being saved. KU's in no position to do that kind of thing. And, really, I can't imagine any school doing that. I mean, even South Carolina is trotting out JaDaveon Clowney against its non-con foes.

Admire the outside the box thinking, though.

Mike Nicco 1 year, 1 month ago

I with you pizzashuttle in your assesment about who plays when during an individual game. Coach Weis is thinking along the lines of Coach Self (starting Robinson, ending with Collins). If anything, these new guys need game experience and the team needs a shot of confidence. You have to play them now.

Rivethead 1 year, 1 month ago

Campo and Weis are both on record saying they'll use a DL rotation to keep players fresh. So what does it matter if Stowers takes the first series and Combs the second?

I don't think "starting" means as much as it does with other positions.

Dirk Medema 1 year, 1 month ago

Definitely agree. It is a matter of prestige - and motivation.

Haven't had an article about CW pushing buttons in a while. Maybe this is a button CW has found to push.

Pbbut 1 year, 1 month ago

For me, the defensive line is the biggest question mark on the team. Spots have been filled and upgraded, but have they upgraded so that we can compete on a Big 12 level? Only time will tell. It was in 2011, but I still remember Agosthino getting pushed 15 yds. downfield by an OU lineman and he still wasn't off the block. His position on the depth chart causes concern.

Dirk Medema 1 year, 1 month ago

Fortunately, Keba is no longer an 18 yo playing against 20-somethings.

KGphoto 1 year, 1 month ago

This year I’m convinced will be an improvement over last on the DL. The experience, the health, the Holsopple and the competition are going to add up and simulate a substantial upgrade. Not a massive improvement, but a noticeable one.


But looking ahead, what do we have?

In 2014 the DL should be a force. Combs, Stowers, McKinney, Agostinho, Johnson and Bolton. 5 seniors and 1 junior. All but Bolton with Big 12 experience. All will have been fully Holsoppled and Campo’d. All were above average to excellent recruits to begin with. This is a DLine that will make an impact and be remembered.


Looking further ahead...

In 2015, everybody leaves. We have Andrew Bolton, Tyler Holmes, Peter Gallo and whomever Weis can scrape up between now and then. The Juco downside revealed.

All I’m saying is Chuck better have a few plums in next year’s class or we are gonna be hurtin’.

Jason Keller 1 year, 1 month ago

How dare you insert common sense and rationality. Be gone, sir.

Clarence Haynes 1 year, 1 month ago

I personally think that it is premature to judge the likes of Combs. My sense is on game day, he will meet the challenge and will be on the field quite a bit. Moreover, with Young and Agostinho stepping up their play, we now have more depth that I feel will turn the tide on some of those fourth quarter losses last year.

Eric Dawson 1 year, 1 month ago

Matt -- re: the defensive backfield, what's the word on #14 Nasir Moore? During the spring and summer he was on the depth charts as a return guy, but he is not on the latest KUAthletics.com roster and I've heard/read nothing about him leaving/being dismissed from the program. Clerical error by the FB program staff, or is he no longer on the team? Thanks!

Matt Tait 1 year, 1 month ago

Nothing has been announced but they are aware that he is not on the roster and it sounds like that is an accurate omission.

Cliff Leiker 1 year, 1 month ago

You read it here first. KU's defensive line is going to knock some heads off on the opposing team's offensive line. I believe, as the coaches have indicated, that the 2 deep depth chart will be active in games, rotating players in and out. KU is going to win all the close games. I predict Kansas will win the Big 12 championship in football. That's right, football. Rock Chalk.

Chris Bailey 1 year, 1 month ago

I'm all for optimism but come on. We've not even won a good season of games in the last 3 years combined. I'll lay down the title to my truck, my house and anything else you want as that not happening this year. I have a much better chance of waking up with Obama being removed from office and winning the lottery all in one day!

Ethan Berger 1 year, 1 month ago

Okay so does this mean we are running a 3-3-5? Seems like a odd formation we will have

texashawk10 1 year, 1 month ago

It's a true hybrid defense that can change based on the look the offense is giving them. If the Buck and Nickel both play up, KU can run a traditional 4-3 defense, keep the Buck up and drop the Nickel into coverage and it's a 4-2-5 defense, drop the Buck and the Nickel, and it's a 3-3-5 defense, drop the Buck and play the Nickel up and it's a 3-4 defense. Having someone that can play a DE/LB hybrid and another person who can play a LB/S hybrid allows the defense to get very creative with its looks and could mask some of the weaknesses of the defense.

Reuben_J_Cogburn 1 year, 1 month ago

I had hope that Combs would be everything he was built up to be.

...that's what you get for being optimistic.

If he couldn't even crack the top of the depth chart over our ourstanding returning line...he clearly wasn't as good as projected.

Bad feeling about this one, folks, and I think you'll agree after the Rice game.

KGphoto 1 year, 1 month ago

Jumping ship already. I think you let the Combs hype flow over you a little to much. He’s a 4 star Juco. A good one, but he’s not Warren Sapp, and a lot of folks were letting on that he was.

Kevin Young, if you remember, was a pretty hot prospect as a (225 pound) DE coming out of high school. He had offers from Nebraska, K-State, UCLA, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois (yes I had to look a couple of those up.) and a bunch more. He was asked to gain weight and change to a 4-3 DE. (delay) Then he was asked to gain weight to be an interior lineman. (delay) He’s played 3 positions under 3 DC’s and he’s fought off some injuries. Now he’s 100% and probably in the best shape of his life, at any weight. And he’s fought and worked and earned himself the #1 slot over the top Juco in the land.

Weis is saying he’s had the best camp of anyone not named Stowers. You might want to give him, and Combs, a couple games before you write them off.

Chris Bailey 1 year, 1 month ago

Thanks for that KG. I had no idea he was recruited by those schools. You are correct that he's been asked to do a lot and had a lot of different DC's. I think people are writing Stowers off as not being very good. He's just now a junior. Not many players are top tier as sophomores but seems like you see the biggest improvement from that to junior years. Their bodies are getting to where they should be and they gain a lot of strength. I think Stowers has a monster year! I bet he's on the all conference team. Not saying a first team, although that wouldn't surprise me, but I bet he's a 1st 2nd or 3rd. He's gonna shock some people!

Rivethead 1 year, 1 month ago

I completely agree with this. Plus the Keon we saw last year wasn't 100%. All accounts now are...he's healthy and hungry.

JJHAWK 1 year, 1 month ago

Reuben - Are you really jumping ship before we leave the pier?

Micky Baker 1 year, 1 month ago

Here is my prediction for you. You're gone after the first half Saturday if Kansas isn't ahead by at least 28 by the half. Have a nice night, too. You'll miss out.

jhawkrulz 1 year, 1 month ago

I guess I think of it as the rotation as well. Combs might be the best player, but Agostino and Stowers have played together for so long they know their tendencies and movements. Combs might be able to adjust better to the other person. Again this would highlight that Agostino/Stowers looked better in practice, while Combs will just be great no matter who else is along side of him.

At least this is what I am hoping...hopefully after this week, no Kool-Aid has been spilt and I can get another glass.

Jim Jackson 1 year, 1 month ago

I too, am a bit concerened about the Dline with Young and Keba as starters. However, Stowers is finally healthy and has put on about 10-15 lbs of lean muscle per his interview on 247sports; I expect big things from him.

If Bolton had his ACL surgery a year ago, I hope he is ready to go by conference play. I know coach wants to RS him, but I would really like to see him play this year. None of us on the outside know the extent of his injury but he is going full speed in practice so that is a good indicator of things...

Would love to see 2 out of the 3 Bucks on the field at the same time (Reynolds, Goodman, Willis) one sliding out as an OLB and one as an end during a run situation; we finally have some good athletes with good size to stop the run with Simmons as a hybrid.

KGphoto 1 year, 1 month ago

See my comment above:

Weis desperately needs Bolton to RS. 2015 is looking bleak on the DL.

Dirk Medema 1 year, 1 month ago

Where have I heard that before? Oh, ya, Coach Weis. You going off all radical and listening to the coaches vs. being creative?

Jim Jackson 1 year, 1 month ago

I see what you are saying KG but I am going to safely assume that we are going to be a much better team this year with a much improved record; we can recuit another talented JUCO DE, DT and Buck for next year as well..

namohcan_99 1 year, 1 month ago

I like the optimism, but when the realism eventually sets in we have to be a little disappointed that Combs is not listed as starter. You can suggest the other guys did more to not lose their spots but for a line that needs new blood, it's a bit deflating. We have needed someone who can come in and improve our pass rushing game for many years now. We haven't had that for a LONG time. I have a feeling Combs and some others will be seeing starting spots by conference play. But realistically it appears Combs is not living up to the hype just yet. And losing Martin was about as big of a blow there as any other issue we've had.

Dirk Medema 1 year, 1 month ago

The DL needed IMPROVEMENT, whether by new blood or player development. Wouldn't it be really crazy if we had both player development and new blood?

Justin Diederich 1 year, 1 month ago

Does any one know when they announce the game time for the La Tech game?

Casey Gee 1 year, 1 month ago

In a perfect world I would love to believe that it is encouraging that the same defensive linemen from last year won their spots again this year. But in the imperfect world that is KU football, it is much more discouraging. I have already seen those guys play, and the D-line was terrible last year. I need to see them play much better before I will relax about the D-line.

Micky Baker 1 year, 1 month ago

I don't think you need to do anything but relax until you suit up partner.

BayPark 1 year, 1 month ago

I think a few sacks on Saturday would do all of us a lot of good.

Jim Stauffer 1 year, 1 month ago

Anyone who looks at our roster and this D-Line and says it is no different than last year is on something really bad.

eastcoasthawk 1 year, 1 month ago

I believe the true test of both lines will be the Rice game. It will be like a conference game. Those guys are good. Looking forward to it all roll out. Bring it fellas!

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