KC's Spring Game Perspective - Defense

Kansas football Saturdays can't get here soon enough, can they?

It's likely more than just a coincidence that during the Kansas Jayhawks' most successful football season in school history, during their improbable run to a BCS bowl victory - something Missouri still doesn't have - and a 12-1 record, that that team also had one of the best defenses in school history. Yes, the offense got the notoriety, and for good reason, but in a time when Big 12 spread offenses were exploding, it was the Jayhawks' stellar defense that separated them from the rest of the pack.

Gone now, are every contributing member of the 2007 defensive unit. Aqib Talib is a legitimate NFL cornerback, defensive tackle James McClinton will be with the Chicago Arena League franchise this coming season and linebacker James Holt is a backup for the San Diego Chargers. They were the three unquestioned leaders in 2007.

Also not coincidentally, last year as the Jayhawks struggled through a 5-7 season that had much higher aspirations, the defense was the biggest weakness and struggled to stall better offenses enough to stay in the game or come up with a vital stop in a key situation. (see: vs. Missouri)

So, now with the departure of Jayhawk safety great Darrell Stuckey to the NFL, what's left in the cupboard and how does the defense look after a month of practice? HINT: Despite the loss of Stuckey, the secondary isn't hurting...

Defensive Line

Not since the latter days of McClinton's college career has the Kansas defense done a serviceable job of pressuring the quarterback and/or stopping the run successfully on a regular basis. The achilles' heel of Jayhawk defenses the last two years has been the lack of quarterback pressure, leaving linebackers in coverage, cornerbacks and safeties on Coverage Island for longer than anyone can be expected to cover Division 1 caliber receivers. No matter how good your corners are, they can't cover receivers and a good quarterback for seven seconds.

And, the worst thing about the defensive line heading into 2010 is this: the two best players from 2009 on the line are now gone. Caleb Blakesley has graduated and Maxwell Onyegbule request for another year of eligibility due to medical hardship was denied by the NCAA. Having Max O back for one more season would have not only been great for 2010, but would have made for a great bridge from the present to the future, while many prospects on the line are either going to be sophomores or redshirt freshmen.

Defensive line was a place where former head coach Mark Mangino allocated lots of scholarships his final couple years in charge. In the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes, a total of 10 defensive line prospects were signed. Add in the move from offense to defense for John Williams and there's certainly numbers on the defensive line. Now, with either one or two years of experience in the program under their belt, it's time for some of these young players to step up and fill the longstanding void.

As far as the spring on Saturday went, the defensive line looked much improved. Take that, though, with a grain of salt, because as we discussed yesterday in the offensive perspective, the offensive line looked worse than bad. That said, from a defensive standpoint it was a very welcomed development to see quarterbacks forced from the pocket and the line of scrimmage pushed back into the backfield.

From what I saw, the two most impressive players along the line were seniors (to be) Jamal Greene and Travis Stephens. Since both are defensive tackles, that bodes well for stopping the run and would explain the 2.9 yards per carry average for the offense.

What I didn't see, and really hoped to, was pressure from the ends. With the exception of Quinton Woods, much of the reps on the end went to the redshirt freshman duo of Kevin Young and Tyrone Sellers. Of the two, Young looked the best in coming off the edge, but certainly not enough to supplant senior Jake Laptad as a starter. After having a couple days to think on it, much of the pressure on the quarterbacks came from the inside, whether it be the tackles or linebacker blitzes.

 

Linebacker

For all the fears leading up to 2010 about the linebacking unit, I came away from Saturday's game feeling no better.

First things first, Steven Johnson was the top performer not only among the linebackers, but the entire defense. His name was called for tackles in the backfield repeatedly. Basing my opinion solely on Saturday, since that's all I have to go by right now, Johnson should see lots of snaps at the middle linebacker spot. With his 6'2" 225 pound frame, he doesn't possess the speed to play outside or in coverage, but I'm all for him stealing snaps from Justin Springer inside.

That's Beyond Johnson, I came away fairly impressed with the play of redshirt freshman Jacoby Thomas in limited action. He's a convert to linebacker from defensive end, so there's still quite a ways for him to go, but he definitely showed he has potential. He's got the speed to cover ground on outside runs and pressure on blitzes. If he can improve in coverage, he could be a real asset come 2011 or 2012.

Projected starter Josh Richardson wasn't as impressive, at least in my opinion. Likely to start outside opposite injured sophomore Huldon Tharp, Richardson wasn't promising in coverage and left me feeling uneasy knowing he's likely the best option to start on the edge.

A lot rides on Tharp coming back from his injury and playing at least to the level that he did as a true freshman last year, when he was more than a pleasant surprise by gaining a starting spot and earning All-Big 12 honors. WIth any luck, he'll play to that level, which was probably a bit of overachieving, and provide at least one consistent linebacker.

 

Secondary

Another spot heavily recruited the last couple years was the secondary; particularly the safety position. A combined nine defensive backs were signed in 2008 and 2009.

Far and away the most impressive of the young players in 2009 was redshirt freshman Lubbock Smith. After senior Justin Thornton struggled the first few games of the season and moved around and ultimately ended up playing some nickel cornerback, Smith seized the opportunity to start and looks to be one of the leaders heading into 2010. On Saturday, he could be found coming up in run support and shedding blockers at the second level. Last year, he was very good in run support with Stuckey taking more responsibility in coverage, but that's not to say he can't fly around and cover. He did so on Saturday and as I said, will be a real leader the next three years.

As promising as Smith looks, redshirt freshman strong saftey Prinze Kande has a chance to be even better. He was far and away the most impressive player in the secondary for me. On a few occasions he took on a slot receiver one on one and more than held his own. He is extremely athletic and is magnetically attracted to the ball. Between he and Toben Opurum, the Kansas 4-star recruit jinx (Gabe Toomey, Monroe Weekly, Brandon Duncan, Anthony Webb) looks to be broken.

The cornerback position, for the first time since Talib and a freshman Chris Harris patrolled the oustides, looks to have some stability. There has been little change to the roster at the position since last year, but I came away Saturday feeling far better about Harris, Calvin Rubles and Anthony Davis than at many times last year. Part of it came from the somewhat vanilla offensive gameplan, but outside of the 73 yard touchdown pass to Chris Omigie, the corners did a good job of keeping their man in between them and the quarterback.

Rubles had a very impressive, athletic interception along the left defensive sideline on an out route that he read and jumped. He made the catch in the air, out-muscling the receiver for the ball and came down just in bounds. Harris has the most experience of the corners and it showed at times Saturday. He'll be a starter.

Even in the event of an injury, I feel good about the corners. Redshirt freshman Tyler Patmon and junior Ryan Murphy make up a formidable second team and shouldn't be much of a drop off if pressed into action. Of the three defensive units, the secondary has easily the most depth and talent among that depth. The future is bright there.

 

Is it September yet???

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