It has been three seasons since the Kansas University football team ranked in the top half of the country in pass defense. KU coach Turner Gill believes the 2010 team could return to the upper division.
Although the Jayhawks are just halfway through spring practice, Gill said Friday that the secondary is one of his team’s strongest positions.
“I think in that group there’s quite a few guys who have some skills and talent, both corners and safeties,” he said. “Again, nothing’s set in stone about who’s a starter and who’s a backup, but I think there’s a lot of quality players there.”
Talent might not be in short supply, but experience seems to be. Beyond senior Chris Harris, who started all 12 games and was third on the team in tackles (84) last season, only three players — Anthony Davis, Lubbock Smith and Phillip Strozier — recorded 20 or more tackles during 2009, a year in which there seemed to be a revolving door and constant uncertainty in the secondary.
After ranking 49th in team pass defense during the Orange Bowl season of 2007, the Jayhawks dropped to 114th in 2008. They improved on that ranking slightly in ’09 — finishing 96th — but struggled to find consistency and compete in the pass-happy Big 12.
For now, all four starting spots appear up for grabs. Tight end AJ Steward said there were as many as 10 defensive backs who could do the job, and Harris said the entire unit was thriving because of the fresh start under Gill.
“I’m competing every day,” Harris said. “If I’m not competing with anybody, then I’m not getting any better. We’ve got a lot of good battles going on. In the long run, that’s just going to make everybody better.”
Gill said Friday his staff still was evaluating the secondary. He didn’t appear to be in any hurry to name his starters.
“We’re rotating guys around because we want to get them a different look with different groups,” he said. “All of them have been in rotations. I can’t say there’s been one guy who’s been more with the (first team). After this weekend we may do a little bit more of having certain (players) that are with the first group or with the second.”
Although Gill resisted the temptation of pointing out which defensive backs have looked the best thus far, a couple of Jayhawks were up to the task.
“Greg Brown and Tyler Patmon, they’ve been playing really well,” said Strozier, a senior from Rockhurst High in Kansas City, Mo. “And Isiah Barfield. Chris Harris, he’s been doing his thing. He’s physical, and he’s fast, and he’s athletic. He’s doing really well out there.”
Strozier played in 11 games and recorded 23 tackles in 2009. A few national pundits said he would get the first crack at replacing co-captain Darrell Stuckey, who led the team with 93 tackles a season ago.
But, for now, Strozier’s more concerned with replacing Stuckey in the locker room than at strong safety.
“I just try to lead by example,” he said. “That’s the best way. People can talk all (they) want to, but if you don’t do it yourself, they can just look you by. Stuckey, that’s what he did all the time. He led by example. He talked as well, but his actions backed up his words.”
In addition to KU’s handful of D-backs with some experience, several other Jayhawks are competing for playing time this fall. They include: Prinze Kande (red-shirt), Ryan Murphy (11), Olaitan Oguntodu (eight), Corrigan Powell (red-shirt) and Calvin Rubles (five).
“At this point in time, I don’t see depth as a concern at cornerback,” Gill said.
Added Steward: “I definitely think we have the talent. We have the speed and a bunch of guys who are willing to make plays and willing to put it all on the line for the team. It’s really competitive. They’re a good group. And they’re hungry to play football.”
In other areas of the defense:
• Gill continued to sing the praises of linebackers Steven Johnson and Justin Springer. In addition, he said Friday he hoped to find five or six linebackers worth playing this fall: “At this point in time, I can’t say whether we have that number or not. But there is potential that we (will).”
• Senior defensive end Jake Laptad has been limited this spring and, because of that, the position has looked pretty average. “I think the defensive ends have really improved but nobody’s just jumped out,” Gill said.
• Of the interior linemen, senior Jamal Greene has looked the best this spring. “We’re looking for guys who can make a difference on our football team,” Gill said. “And I think Jamal has the potential. We’ll see.”
• Gill said Springer and Harris have emerged as bona fide leaders. He also said Smith and Oguntodu have stepped into leadership roles.