Linebacker group shows how KU can balance continuity, new ideas

photo by: AP Photo/LM Otero

Kansas linebacker Rich Miller speaks at the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

Arlington, Texas — By any metric, Kansas football has retained one of the most similar rosters to its 2022 iteration of any Division I team in the country. The most concise way to express this fact is via the Jayhawks’ first-place position in the returning production rankings from ESPN’s Bill Connelly; according to his post-spring assessment, KU returns effectively 91% of its offense and 79% of its defense from last year.

For a team with a fair amount of transfers coming in — 13 players who were rostered by other D-I squads last year alone — this sheer level of continuity could possibly create a firewall against playing time for new contributors. But Lance Leipold said Wednesday at Big 12 Media Days that the “culture of competition” the coaching staff has instilled prevents roster composition from stagnating.

“Everybody gets to rotate against everyone,” he said. “And we tell them, it isn’t one of those ‘Well, I never get a chance to go against this guy, or the first string, or whatever’ (situations). They do in our program.”

That ethos allowed several of those transfers, at various position groups, to make immediate impressions during the spring which have persisted through the summer. One position of discussion Wednesday, thanks in part to Rich Miller’s attendance, was linebacker. Leipold said last month that the linebacker group will be more experienced, deeper and more athletic than it was last year.

Certainly it could become more versatile. Miller said that Taiwan Berryhill Jr., whom Leipold had cited as an underappreciated athlete, has been given reps at middle linebacker — Miller’s usual position — by coach Chris Simpson, allowing him to see the defense from a different angle.

“TB has gotten so much stronger, faster and wiser,” Miller said.

West Virginia tight end CJ Donaldson (12) is defended by Kansas linebacker Taiwan Berryhill (6) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, W.Va., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Kathleen Batten)

That also helps the Jayhawks prepare for 2024, when Berryhill will retain a year of eligibility after Miller’s has been fully expended.

It may in time allow KU to squeeze in additional playing time down the road for JB Brown, a Bowling Green transfer who played in all 30 possible games for the Falcons following his arrival in 2020. Brown is an inside linebacker by trade, and Miller currently has the middle linebacker spot sewn up in KU’s 4-3 system. But since coming to Lawrence, Brown has made an immediate impression for “bringing some type of tenacity to the defense,” Miller said.

“He is a hitter,” Miller added. “JB is going to hit you no matter what. I try to do that, I try to do what he do. I just can’t do it.”

Mississippi State running back Simeon Price (22) is corralled by Bowling Green linebacker JB Brown (12) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Mississippi State won 45-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Craig Young returns at the hybrid “hawk” linebacker spot. So add to all that the fact that Young trained with Devin Neal and a host of pro athletes at the House of Athlete gym in Tampa, Florida, this offseason, as Neal said Wednesday, and there’s no shortage of positive signs ahead for Simpson’s group.

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