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In defense of Kansas football
Spring football starts next week, which explains why everything I’m seeing today has a reddish hue. Could it be the rose-colored glasses I wear about this time every year? Could be, but what joy lies in squashing hope?
I think a lot about Kansas football and how Kansas elevated itself to win three bowl games last decade. I spoke with Todd Reesing about that and much more recently and will share his thoughts in coming days. For now, let’s take a position-by-position look at the 2014 defense, an easier side of the ball on which to feel solid optimism.
Defensive line: KU ranked eighth among 10 Big 12 teams in 2013 with 21 sacks and had to send the house frequently to get that many. KU has not had truly disruptive D-linemen since James McClinton (last season was 2007) pushed the pocket and before that Charlton Keith (2005) flew off the edge.
Ben Goodman has moved inside from the buck position, which creates more downs for Michael Reynolds. At times, Reynolds has looked like a star on the cusp of emerging, but those moments haven’t been consistent enough. The urgency so many seniors play with could bring out the best in the talented pass-rusher from Wichita. He led the team with 6.5 sacks a year ago. Can he double that total? If Reynolds doesn’t make a big leap, maybe juco transfer Anthony Olobia, a 6-5, 240-pound recruit who drew an offer from Oklahoma, could push him for time. Victor Simmons has moved to buck, a new view for him in teeing off on quarterbacks.
Keon Stowers was the most consistent performer in the middle of the defensive line and will receive help from underrated Tedarian Johnson and Ty McKinney. Andrew Bolton, who looks most like an NFL player in terms of body type of anyone on the roster, has a high ceiling. Before he injured his knee at junior college, which led to him red-shirting a year ago for KU, LSU was on his trail. That's L-S-U. Forgive me if that three-letter combination makes me optimistic that KU’s D-line might not need as much help in getting to the quarterback as it needed a year ago.
Linebackers: I hear complaints about middle linebacker Ben Heeney running wildly out of his assignment area at times. Maybe some of those are legitimate. Maybe some of those making the complaints aren’t in on where he’s supposed to be? This much I can see with my own eyes: When healthy, he’s really fast, really physical and really tough. Those all are great qualities for a middle linebacker.
But where is the help for Heeney? Undersized Jake Love performed well in place of an injured Heeney in the middle and was solid on the outside before that.
Kyron Watson of East St. Louis, Ill., certainly is an exciting prospect, but at 6-1, 210, he ideally could use a year in the weight room before starting his college eligibility clock. Samson Faifili, injured most of last season, returns on the outside and Schyler Miles adds depth on the inside.
Come to think of it, the Jayhawks might not have the luxury of red-shirting Watson. His speed could come in handy right away. Incoming freshman Josh Ehambe from Arlington, Texas will fight to get on the field as well. Marcus Jenkins-Moore, a juco transfer who missed last season with a serious knee injury, still is on the mend.
Concerns over the lack of depth at linebacker are eased by the reality that the base defense has a buck and a nickel back on the field, which leaves room for just two linebackers.
Secondary: Strongest, deepest unit on the roster.
Cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, both seniors, upgraded the position with solid junior seasons and there is no reason to believe they’ll do anything but improve. Junior safety Isaiah Johnson tied (with TCU’s Sam Carter, behind only Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert) with five interceptions and earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors.
Johnson definitely has a knack for picks and is a nice complement to assignment-sound Cassius Sendish, a coach’s dream of a safety in that he brings such smarts onto the field. Courtney Arnick performed well late in the season at nickel back and will be bigger and better.
Kevin Short, the highly regarded juco transfer forced to sit out last season because he was not cleared academically by the NCAA, will push all five returning starters and if he doesn’t beat out anyone will give KU excellent depth. Junior Brandon Holloman and juco recruits Anthony “Fish” Smithson and Ronnie Davis add to the depth.
I’ll be shocked if the 2014 defense isn’t KU’s best in the post-Mark Mangino era.
For more thoughts on impending spring football, check out the transcript of Matt Tait's chat.