KU linebackers’ ability to slot into various spots will be key to group

Kansas linebacker Craig Young (15) and the defense celebrate a missed Iowa State field goal attempt during the first quarter on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022 at Memorial Stadium.

It’s not out of the question, in a linebacker room led by position coach Chris Simpson, that a No. 4 player coming off the bench, “a utility guy that I could bounce around and get guys off the field” as Simpson puts it, could earn more snaps than one of his three starters.

Simpson certainly saw it happen when he was working under head coach Lance Leipold at Buffalo. And the way this year’s position group is shaping up at Kansas, the Jayhawks could provide generous playing time to versatile reserves.

“So I would say that it’s going to be by committee a little bit, and I’m talking about every position,” Simpson said.

Leipold supported this notion in separate comments Saturday, noting that it’s important for the first player off the bench, in an injury situation, to necessarily be the team’s fourth-best linebacker.

That requires Simpson to “multi-train” his charges, Leipold said.

That includes current starters who could potentially slide around, and those results are already being borne out early in fall camp.

Case in point: Rich Miller has started 22 games in his two seasons at KU, serving as an anchor for the Jayhawks’ defense at the middle linebacker spot, and now enters his super-senior season. As Leipold points out, the group “can’t rely on Rich to be the ‘make it right’ guy all the time.” So Taiwan Berryhill Jr., who still has a likely starting role on the team this season as the weakside linebacker, has been simultaneously training and learning installs for Miller’s middle linebacker spot.

Berryhill said Miller has been able to answer any questions he’s had as he’s tried to recontextualize his understanding of the defense, shifting from focusing on the boundary to seeing the whole field.

“I got to recognize formations quicker, I got to recognize checks faster,” Berryhill said. “It’s been an adjustment and I think I’m doing a pretty good job keeping up with it.”

Berryhill has dealt with a minor hamstring injury during fall camp, which has meant more playing time for widely praised Bowling Green transfer JB Brown, but he’s been getting back out on the field of late and has been working through mental repetitions even when sidelined.

“He is a professional at this point in what he does, so he’s very locked in,” Simpson said. “If you’re out there and you notice, he’s standing back behind the defense so that he can actually get kind of a bird’s-eye view of it from a backer’s perspective.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas junior Taiwan Berryhill Jr. during Fall Camp on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

Redshirt junior Cornell Wheeler has played sparsely in two years at KU but has also emerged as a candidate to spell Miller if needed at the so-called “Mike” position. Simpson said Wheeler has bolstered his natural feel with the game with additional football knowledge as time has gone on.

Another reason why positional flexibility is so key for this group is what KU demands of its “Hawk” linebacker. It’s a coverage-heavy role in coordinator Brian Borland’s defense that requires the skills of a linebacker and a safety, both positions that its current occupant, Craig Young, has played extensively. And even from that spot set back from the line, Young managed to accumulate the most sacks last season of any returning Jayhawk at 4.5.

“It fits me well,” Young said. “I enjoy playing it, and it gives me room and space where I can run and show off my versatility and everything.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas linebacker Craig Young during practice at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

Young said he expects to continue to get after the quarterback this year. (Borland said earlier in fall camp that the staff has experimented with using linebackers as edge rushers, especially in the absence of a defining pass-rusher like last season’s standout end Lonnie Phelps Jr.)

But what of future years? Who can effectively emulate Young’s contribution in future years, once he’s graduated?

To hear Young tell it, several newer players have already established themselves as strong backups “not too far” from starting in what he called a “1A, 1B” arrangement.

That includes freshman Logan Brantley (“He goes 100 mph every time, he’s a quick learner and he loves the game”), redshirt sophomore Jayson Gilliom (also a former safety, “he’s picking up the game real fast”) and Swiss junior Alex Raich (“He’s stacking days this whole fall camp”; Simpson also called him a pleasant surprise).

“They’re competing with me,” Young said, “we’re all competing and all praises to them guys, because we’re all getting each other better.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas freshman Logan Brantley during the first day of Fall Camp on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.

Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn (22) is tackled by Kansas safety Jayson Gilliom (10) during the first half of an NCAA football game against Kansas Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas junior Alex Raich runs through drills during the first day of Fall Camp on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.


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