As we look ahead to 2017, let’s see what needs to be addressed on the defensive side of the ball.
QUESTION: Will Dorance Armstrong be a factor on defense?
This seems like a silly question to start with, but hear me out. Yes, Armstrong is the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, he had 10 sacks last year. But, he only had two sacks in the final four games of the season (both in the Texas game).
This year, he will have to be a focus of opposing offensive lines. He will have to be able to play through the double teams, or someone else on the defensive line will have to step up and occupy blockers as well. The best pass defense is a good pass rush; the key is if Kansas will be able to control offensive lines to open up opportunities for the back-seven to make plays.
PREDICTION: Armstrong, provided his hamstring stays healthy, will definitely be a factor, meaning he’ll either be taking up blockers or beating them 1-on-1. That means I wouldn’t be surprised to see his sack total dip, nor would I be surprised to see it increase. KU still has Daniel Wise at the tackle spot, so if defensive coordinator Clint Bowen wants to free up Armstrong, someone will also have to step up at the other DE spot.
QUESTION: Who is going to play cornerback?
Seriously, though. KU lost four of five starters from their nickel-base defense last year, with safety Mike Lee the only one returning. KU coaches seem to be looking to incoming Juco transfer players like Hasan Defense, Shakial Taylor, and Antonio Cole to fill those voids. A couple of players that were on the team last year have been mentioned as well, such as Derrick Neal, Kyle Mayberry, Bryce Torneden, and Ian Peterson, along with true freshman Robert Topps.
PREDICTION: I’d really like to see Kyle Mayberry step up and win a spot. Mayberry and Neal were your backup corners last year, but played sparingly behind Marnez Ogletree and Brandon Stewart. I would expect Hasan Defense to be one of your starting corners, hopefully opposite Mayberry. Obviously Mike Lee will start at one safety spot, but who will get the other? The guess here is that Bryce Torneden will start at either nickelback or the other safety spot, with Derrick Neal taking the other starting spot. That said, look for Shakial Taylor, Antonio Cole, and Ian Peterson to rotate in regularly as well.
QUESTION: Will Mike Lee build on an incredible freshman season?
Mike Lee started the final 8 games of 2016 and knocked the crap out of several opposing players along the way. Lee, and whoever ends up starting next to him in the secondary, should benefit from a better-than-what-we-usually-have defensive line. It will be difficult for opponents to gameplan for Lee, as they’ll have their hands full up front with Armstrong and Wise.
PREDICTION: I don’t expect quarterbacks to avoid Lee’s side of the field (unless they’re scrambling!), so I do expect for Lee to have a big year, both statistically and with the hit stick.
QUESTION: Can the defense get off the field?
Again, and similar to our offensive questions, it all comes down to line play. Can the defensive line dictate and control the offense? If it can, it will allow an inexperienced secondary to grow and gain confidence early on, which will lead to stops, turnovers, and big hits. Opponents converted just 35.6% of the time on third down last year against Kansas, good for 31st in the country. I look for a similar number again this year.
PREDICTION: With experience in the front seven, I expect Kansas to equal or improve on defense despite the lack of experience in the secondary. This may be my hottest take of the year!