KU football drawing on team effort to muster pass rush

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas defensive end Austin Booker warms up for practice on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

In describing defensive end Austin Booker, any animal metaphor will do.

His position coach Taiwo Onatolu calls the 6-foot-6, 245-pound lineman a “baby deer.”

“He can really open up and run,” Onatolu said Monday. “So a guy that long that can change direction in (a) small area and still has that short-area quickness, that’s hard to find.”

Teammate Hayden Hatcher opts for a less elegant reference point: the ostrich.

“He doesn’t like that,” Hatcher said, “but if he’s running out there, he looks like a big bird, you know. But he’s a freak, man. He’s going to be an amazing player for us, he’s put in a lot of work this summer, gained some weight, and his progression has been amazing.”

Booker, for his part, accepts the praise — and, somewhat more reluctantly, the comparison: “He got a point, I do run, I got a long stride.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas defensive end Austin Booker works on drills during practice on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Onatolu is hoping that Booker’s length will serve as a key asset in the trenches for Kansas football this year, as the Jayhawks look to fill the void on the line left by end Lonnie Phelps, who had a team-high seven sacks in 12 starts last year and currently plays for the Cleveland Browns.

“Everything we do defensively, it’s about creating separation,” Onatolu said, “and when you have a long wingspan and you have some height on you you can create separation and get off blocks, and that’s part of pass rushing too.”

Booker, who found playing time rather scarce in two years at Minnesota, transferred to KU in the spring. Since then, he’s come to appreciate what he calls a “completely different feeling every day coming to football and knowing that I actually have a meaningful role.” Part of carving out that role has been developing an increased familiarity with coordinator Brian Borland’s defensive scheme.

“I can play way faster,” Booker said. “The tempo periods have gone way smoother. I’m getting the call, getting set up way quicker … just moving on the fly, not thinking as much and being able to really open up and use my abilities.”

Indeed, Hatcher said of Booker, “It’s one thing to win a rep, but it’s another thing to win a rep against a guy like (projected starting tackles) Dom Puni and Bryce Cabeldue. Once you start doing that, your confidence starts to go up and I think that’s what he’s doing.”

Borland said at the start of camp that it wasn’t clear whether the defensive line had a player who could become the go-to pass-rusher in the vein of Phelps. Onatolu said Monday he expected it to be “by committee.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas defensive end Hayden Hatcher during practice on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Hatcher, a longtime KU reserve who in a past football life walked on at Iowa Western Community College, has staked his claim for a big role in that committee, following 30 appearances and one start for the Jayhawks over the past four years. Onatolu calls him “a guy that’s been around” but also “a fast, athletic kid.”

“I think that we feel the pressure to apply pressure,” Hatcher said, “and I think that that’s something we take to heart, and every day put together. I feel a hunger with everyone in the group.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas defensive end Jereme Robinson works on drills during practice on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023 at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Another veteran contributor, junior Jereme Robinson, will command plenty of snaps following a 34-tackle, three-sack 2022 campaign in which he also forced a pair of fumbles.

“He’s a quiet guy and he’s really taken on that leadership role,” Onatolu said. “He’s not a yeller, not that kind of leader, but he’s more by example, but he’s been opening up, being more verbal. He’s been here a long time, longer than any of us, and he’s got a lot of knowledge. He’s (a) really sharp, really technical player, so he’s bringing some of the young guys and some of the new guys along. He feels it’s his time.”

Robinson said the defensive ends still keep in touch with Phelps, who has advised them to “just make sure our heads in the right places, don’t take this year for granted or don’t lose sight of what our goals are, stuff like that.” Plus, Robinson adds, “He has a nasty inside move, so I’m definitely trying to learn that.”

Replacing Phelps’ production falls on not just Booker, Hatcher and Robinson, but transfers Dylan Brooks and Patrick Joyner Jr., who are also in the mix. As are some of the linebackers, who have been taking on their own shares of pass-rush responsibility in what Onatolu characterizes as a way to “put the fastest, most athletic guys on the field.”

“It just gives us more versatility with things that we’re going to do defensively, schematically, that I don’t want to necessarily reveal right now,” he added.

For Hatcher, their contributions are a welcome addition.

“For us sometimes it’s just line up and rush,” Hatcher said, “and to see those guys be able to handle everything they have to handle, and then come down and rush off the edge, it’s pretty impressive to see in one-on-ones.”

Both position groups will play a role in reconstituting KU’s pass rush, which will in turn fuel its overall efforts at defensive improvement.


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