One of the few pieces of good news heading into Kansas football season is that there is some legitimate talent on the roster. Players like Khalil Herbert, Steven Sims, Joe Dineen, Daniel Wise, and Mike Lee have all proven they can succeed at the highest level of college football. The big question lies in the talent around the accomplished players.
Rather than ranking the individuals players, we are going to rank the position groups on the the offensive and defensive sides, to get an idea of where most of the talent lies.
1) Running Back
Running back sneaks into the top spot largely because a single player frequently gets the lion’s share of the action, so a gap between him and the second best player doesn’t hurt the group as much. This is precisely the case for the Kansas backfield, where junior Khalil Herbert leads the way for the Jayhawks.
Herbert has legitimate All-Big 12 potential. He turned in arguably the best performance by a single running back in conference play last year, carrying the ball 36 times for 291 yards (third on the all-time single game rushing list for the school) against West Virginia. Unfortunately he was hampered by a nagging hamstring injury for most of the year, but still finished with 663 yards and 5.5 yards per carry. If healthy, he could be a household name in the Big 12 by year’s end.
There isn’t a lot of proven success behind Herbert, but there is potential. Dom Williams didn’t put up gaudy numbers last year, but as a true freshman he found success in short yardage situations and found the endzone three times. Freshman and four-star recruit Pooka Williams also joins the group this year. At 170 pounds, he’s unlikely to carry a large load, but running back is one of the few positions where a true freshman can make an impact at the major college level.
2) Defensive Line
Kansas’ run defense was surprisingly one of the strengths of last year’s team, and it starts up front. Dorance Armstrong, Jr was a big loss (4th-round draft pick), but there is proven talent along the line. A lot of that talent belongs to senior DT Daniel Wise, who is a preseason 1st team All-Big 12 honoree. He had 7 sacks and 16 TFLs last year, and is likely to hear his name called at the NFL draft next spring. There are two skilled players who will get plenty of reps next to him on the interior, JJ Holmes (330 lbs and 24 tackles in 2017) and Isi Holani (325 lbs, medical redshirt in 2017).
On the edge, Josh Ehambe will try to fill Dorance Armstrong’s shoes. The senior had 6.5 TFLs last year opposite Armstrong, though he won’t have the benefit of defenses being focused on the other side now. Instead, the other edge spot will likely be a rotation of players like Keyshaun Simmons, and transfers like Brian Lipscomb, Azur Kamara and Willie McCaleb. One more accomplished DE would have put this group on top.
Junior safety Mike Lee has been one of the standouts in the secondary since his true freshman year. Senior Tyrone Miller has seen playing time since his first year as well, albeit with some mixed results. Bryce Torneden is a heavy hitter, but has struggled in man coverage against slot receivers. At corner, junior Hasan Defense has the size and athleticism needed for the position, and has shown flashes of the ability. A little more consistency this year could help take one option away from opposing quarterbacks.
Kyle Mayberry saw a lot of the reps on the other side, and with Derrick Neal graduating, could see more action as he enters his junior year, as could Shaquille Richmond. But don’t count out Corione Harris, a true freshman out of New Orleans, who by some services is considered the highest rated recruit in school history. He could contend for a starting spot right away. If someone can step up to play alongside Lee and Defense, this could be a real position of strength.
Joe Dineen is a beast. KU’s other preseason All-Big 12 player racked up 223 tackles between his sophomore and junior seasons. Expect to hear his name a lot again this fall as he wraps up his collegiate career. After him, though...
Senior Keith Loneker, Jr. started his career at the NAIA level, but has been a decent player for Kansas, with 46 tackles last year, including 3.5 for loss. Senior Osaze Ogbebor also picked up 46 combined tackles, with 5 stops in the backfield. Kyron Johnson saw reps in all 12 games last year as a freshman and is likely to see increased time this season.
5) Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Steven Sims has proven himself across the last three years, but he needs someone else to step up and take away some of the defense’s focus. He has 151 catches for 2047 yards and 15 TDs across his career, and will be battling his way up near the top of the school records books with another good season. Unfortunately, the rest of the players in this group are unproven, or, middling possession receivers.
Chase Harrell may have been the second most talented receiver, but elected to transfer to Arkansas. Tyler Patrick and Ryan Schadler have had some nice games in the slot, but struggle with consistency. Evan Fairs had a decent sophomore campaign with 24 catches and 335 yards, but will need to play a more prominent role this year. Senior Jeremiah Booker burst onto the scene as a freshman with 23 catches and 228 yards in 2015, but hasn’t built on it. Yeah, that’s a lot of “buts.”
There are several candidates to replace departed senior Ben Johnson at tight end, but none of them recorded a catch last year.
This is not a position you want to see so far down on a list like this one. Peyton Bender and Carter Stanley had largely identical stat lines while splitting duties at QB last fall. Respectively, they completed 54.2% and 54.6% of their passes, with 5.9 and 6.0 yards per attempt. Stanley is much more mobile, but Bender has the bigger arm. Sophomore Miles Kendrick will also be competing for playing time. He’s a true dual threat QB, but there are some concerns with his ability to stand in the pocket and make the right throw.
Bender will likely be the opening day starter for the second year in a row, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see all three get plenty of snaps as the season goes on.
7) Offensive Line
There is potential for the O-line to be greatly improved over last year. However, that’s all it is right now. There is a new position coach in charge of the line, and he’ll be in charge of many new faces: Dwayne Wallace (Cal), Alex Fontana (Houston), Reuben Lewis (Coffeyville CC), Api Mane (San Mateo CC), Kevin Feder (Ohio State), Adagio Lopeti (San Mateo CC), and Andru Tovi (Pima CC).
A position group that was so lacking bodies that KU couldn’t hold a spring game is now flush with juniors and seniors. Of course, the big question is whether any of them can play. Hakeem Adenji is a junior, coming off an honorable mention All-Big 12 season, and will likely anchor the line at LT. The rest is very much to be determined.