Oft-questioned KU front breaks through for six sacks against Illinois
photo by: Nick Krug
The nagging question surrounding the Kansas pass rush during the offseason was which defensive end would step up following the departure of Lonnie Phelps for the NFL.
Would it be a returnee like Jereme Robinson or Hayden Hatcher taking a step forward to become a primary option, a transfer like Austin Booker or Patrick Joyner sliding in neatly, or someone at an entirely different position like a linebacker rushing off the edge?
The answer against Illinois on Friday, apparently, was all of the above. Defensive ends coach Taiwo Onatolu had suggested during fall camp that the pass rush would be “by committee,” but few could have foreseen that motley committee rising to the level of six sacks against a Big Ten Conference offensive line: two each from Booker and Robinson, one from Joyner and one from JB Brown.
The result was the highest single-game sack total for KU in 14 years, since a game against UTEP on Sept. 12, 2009.
“It just gives us another goal to break,” Robinson said. “We can’t stay stagnant, we have to exceed our expectations and break them more.”
In fact, the junior Robinson called his performance “not bad” and said he thought he “left some money out there” — even as his Jayhawks had the Illini constantly behind the chains.
It began when Joyner wrapped up a scrambling Luke Altmyer on a third down to force a punt in the first quarter and continued when Robinson grabbed Altmyer by the leg, derailing a promising second-quarter drive.
Booker, a Minnesota transfer, got to the quarterback twice in the third quarter, but had his day cut short when his hard hit to the stomach of Altmyer on a two-point conversion got him flagged for targeting. (After the game, head coach Lance Leipold said he wasn’t sure of his options in terms of appealing the call, which would have Booker suspended for the first half of next week’s game at Nevada, because the officiating crew was from the Big Ten.)
After Robinson spun in off the edge for his second of the night, the Jayhawks’ final sack exemplified their willingness to experiment to bolster their pass rush, as hard-hitting transfer JB Brown zoomed past the right tackle to take down Altmyer and set back the Illini’s final drive of the night. Rather than starting from his traditional linebacker position, Brown came off the edge.
“He’s exactly what we need at that spot,” Robinson said.
That play served as a demonstration of the KU staff’s efforts throughout fall camp to use linebackers to spice up their pass rush. They have also occasionally moved Robinson inside to defensive tackle to effectively get three ends on the field.
“Much like our offense, we want to be as multiple as we can defensively to match up with people,” Leipold said, “find opportunities to put pressure on the quarterback and do different things.”
The players involved have relished the opportunities to vary their skill sets; the more positions Robinson can rush from, he says, the more looks he’ll get.
“It’s great knowing that we got different guys that we can use, and different pieces, just (to) be at the right place at the right time,” Brown said.
Robinson and Hatcher are the ostensible starters, but that hasn’t stopped diverse players from working their way into the mix. Leipold took a moment during his press conference to express his pride in Kenean Caldwell, who redshirted last year and had to “battle back in the rotation.”
The defensive line’s ability to derail Illinois drives, combined with the secondary’s pair of interceptions, helped create more opportunities for quarterback Jalon Daniels and the offense to run out the clock on the Illini.
“I mean, those guys, I’ve seen them work the whole entire offseason,” Daniels said. “They’ve been working their butts off. To be able to see them go out there and make those plays that they’ve been practicing, it’s exciting, because you don’t really know what the future holds for KU football.”
photo by: Nick Krug