Missouri State will provide litmus test for KU’s defensive improvement

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.

It hasn’t always been easy for Kansas football teams to defend against Football Championship Subdivision foes, and it hasn’t always been easy for power-conference teams to defend against Missouri State.

Last season, the Bears led 27-17 in the fourth quarter against Arkansas — the same team that eventually beat KU in three overtimes in the 2022 Liberty Bowl — before allowing 21 straight points in a close loss. The year before that, they trailed by a touchdown against Oklahoma State but stumbled on back-to-back drives late in the fourth quarter. Despite its lower-division status Missouri State is, in short, not to be trifled with, especially for a KU squad that still features players who participated in one-score wins over Indiana State in 2019 and South Dakota in 2021.

Of course, times have changed. KU has gotten much better overall on the gridiron than it was in the Les Miles era or Lance Leipold’s first career game. And Missouri State has lost players like star transfers Jason Shelley and Ty Scott, the quarterback and receiver who helped them contend in those games against much stronger opposition, not to mention head coach Bobby Petrino.

But the Jayhawks’ success last year came often in spite of their defense, and defensive coordinator Brian Borland has expressed a desire to fashion his unit into “the strong link in the chain” in 2023.

“Obviously, we know that there’s a lot of things about last year that probably at least defensively weren’t satisfactory,” Borland said Tuesday, “things we know we need to improve upon if we’re going to be competitive week in and week out on the schedule that we’re going to play.”

Locking down an offensively depleted FCS foe (which also lost a highly touted transfer receiver, Craig Burt Jr., to the portal just weeks before the season) could be a strong opening statement in that campaign.

“They’ve kind of got an advantage, because with the coaching change there, we think we know what they’re going to do,” Borland said, “but not totally positive and sure, so we’re going to come after them and get out of the gates fast and adjust and proceed as we need to.”

As Leipold put it Monday, what KU needs to figure out is “How much is carry-over and what’s new flavor?”

Missouri State hired its youngest coach in program history in Ryan Beard, but from any practical standpoint Beard, the Bears’ former defensive coordinator, provides plenty of continuity from the Petrino regime. Beard retained Bobby Petrino’s son Nick as his offensive coordinator.

“You know where some of it’s still going to be foundationally,” Leipold said.

One area of uncertainty for the KU defense is who will play quarterback and how much, because Beard said this week he intends to use both Jacob Clark and Jordan Pachot, transfers who have seen limited action in their careers, with Clark thought of as more of a pocket passer and Pachot an elusive, mobile quarterback. (He even made a remark, with some sense of levity, “We could go two-quarterback-formation sets kind of like the Jayhawks are doing from time to time.)

“If one guy takes the show and runs with it we’ll stick with him, and if not you could be ready for a quick change,” Beard told reporters.

Borland said he doesn’t expect the multi-quarterback setup to alter KU’s preparation.

“It’s not like we have two different game plans based on who’s in there,” he said, “There’s just certain calls sometimes that you might stay away from if you knew you’re going to get a guy that’s going to run the ball a lot.”

And senior safety Kenny Logan Jr., who has played his fair share of close games against FCS teams, noted that the Jayhawks face two quarterbacks every day in Jalon Daniels and Jason Bean.

“So you just got to always be ready and make sure you’re taking advantage of every opportunity you can, be in great position to make plays,” Logan said.

Either quarterback will have a strong returning target in receiver Raylen Sharpe, who finished second to Scott with 307 yards last year.

photo by: AP Photo/Michael Woods

Missouri State receiver Raylen Sharpe (6) gets ready to run a play against Arkansas during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark.

photo by: AP Photo/Michael Woods

Missouri State running back Jacardia Wright, left, dives past Arkansas linebacker Chris Paul Jr., right, to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark.

The bigger challenge for KU’s defense will likely be handling running back Jacardia Wright. The Jayhawks were seventh-worst in the country against the run last year, allowing more than 200 yards per game, and their defensive front lost the most talent of any position group. The junior running back Wright ran for 711 yards and nine scores last year after beginning his career at Kansas State.

Even a strong showing from Logan and the secondary, which also returns all-conference cornerback Cobee Bryant, will lose its luster if the KU front seven can’t stop Wright.

KU’s line will be under particularly high scrutiny, and especially against an unknown Missouri State offensive line that Borland described as “a work in progress for them, at least right now.” Per Monday’s depth chart the Jayhawks, for their part, will start Jereme Robinson and Hayden Hatcher at end and Devin Phillips and either DJ Withers or Tommy Dunn at tackle, though Borland says he expects as many as 12 total players to see action on the line.

Borland cited a statistic Tuesday: The Jayhawks went 0-7 last year when they allowed four or more 10-yard runs. If the Bears can create holes for Wright, as they did in 2022, that would not bode well for KU’s chances of stopping Big 12 Conference runners.

“I’ve seen that they’re definitely going to be physical,” Robinson said of the Missouri State line, “they’re going to be ready to play there.”

On the whole, Robinson said that KU’s defense has “tweaked some things and punched some things up,” but that generally it draws increased confidence from another year in Borland’s system.

“I think that’s why our defense is going to play faster, because there’s no difference,” Robinson said. “We’ve gotten better and gotten used to what we’ve already seen.”

Kansas defensive lineman Jereme Robinson (90) celebrates after dropping Tennessee Tech quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall (4) for a stop on third down during the first quarter on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022 at Memorial Stadium.


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