KU defense rolls as new coach Lance Leipold observes spring game

photo by: Chance Parker

Redshirt freshman safety Johnquai Lewis intercepts the ball in the Kansas Football Spring Game. The White team defeated the Blue 74-42 Saturday, May 1, 2021.

With new head coach Lance Leipold in attendance for the Kansas football program’s spring game, the Jayhawks’ defense stole the show Saturday night at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Using a modified scoring system that gave the defense points for hitting certain incentives, coordinator D.J. Eliot’s group closed the spring with a 74-42 victory for the defense.

With three interceptions, two forced fumbles, a whopping 21 tackles for loss and the majority of the series during the open scrimmage going down as a win for the defense, super-senior linebacker Nate Betts said afterward he thought the unit made a good first impression.

“I think we showed a lot of energy. All of us were running to the ball. We were turning up, getting turnovers,” Betts said. “I’m pretty sure that showed a key factor to Coach Leipold.”

The defense’s performance even included a play that would have scored six points in a normal game format. True freshman cornerback Jacobee Bryant snagged an errant Jalon Daniels pass and took off for a touchdown, ending the first quarter with the defense ahead 34-4 on the scoreboard.

Bryant, senior defensive end Malcolm Lee and redshirt freshman cornerback Johnquai Lewis each picked off a pass in the scrimmage.

Four different defensive players had multiple tackles for loss: sophomore defensive lineman Jereme Robinson (4), super-senior linebacker Kyron Johnson (3), redshirt freshman defensive lineman Caleb Taylor (2) and sophomore defensive lineman Da’Jon Terry (2).

One of the team’s veterans, super-senior nose tackle Sam Burt said after the spring game he thought Leipold likely discovered a lot about KU’s defense.

“I think he learned that we’re energetic, we’re excited, we’re disciplined, we’re together and we communicate. And those are all the things you need to have a great defense. And that’s why I think Coach Leipold will be excited with the defensive performance today, and why I’m excited, too,” Burt said. “I’m really excited to see what this defense can do (during the 2021 season), because I’m really proud of them tonight.”

The offense finally got its first touchdown early in the third quarter, when sophomore running back Daniel Hishaw Jr. (10 carries, 53 yards) broke through for six points on the ground. But that only cut the defense’s lead to 51-25, and with the team working on specific situations during portions of the open practice, that series actually began in the red zone.

One of the offensive highlights of the evening came in the fourth quarter, when redshirt freshman running back Amauri Pesek-Hickson (14 carries, 65 yards) hurdled a would-be tackler in the open field after making a short reception on a screen pass, giving the offense a rare explosive play of 17 yards.

Senior Miles Kendrick opened the game at quarterback for KU, and most of the reps went back and forth between the veteran and sophomore Daniels.

Kendrick finished 17-for-29, with two interceptions and 103 passing yards. Daniels completed 11 of his 23 throws, was picked once and finished with 93 passing yards.

Redshirt freshman tight end Will Huggins and sophomore receiver Steven McBride led the Jayhawks with five receptions apiece. Huggins had a team-high 66 receiving yards, while McBride added 34.

The only offensive player made available after the scrimmage, junior tight end Mason Fairchild, gave his best guess at what Leipold learned about the Jayhawks’ offense during the spring game.

“We’re still developing,” Fairchild said. “A lot of times we’re 10 out of 11 correct, and we’ve got to be 11 out of 11, for sure, if we really want to be effective. But we have that potential there to really take off.”

Although Leipold was in attendance for the scrimmage it was only as an observer. The staff that led the Jayhawks all spring, led by receivers coach and passing game coordinator Emmett Jones, handled all the play-calling and coaching for the spring game. Leipold watched the action from a suite inside the stadium, along with members of his family.

Jones, who served as KU’s interim head coach throughout the spring, wasn’t made available during the postgame media session.

A few key players out

Leipold’s first good look at his team’s roster came with the Jayhawks missing some key players on both sides of the ball.

Although no specific injury details were given Saturday from KU, three potential offensive starters missed out on playing in the scrimmage, and had to watch from the sidelines. Junior running back Velton Gardner, redshirt freshman receiver Lawrence Arnold and super-senior offensive lineman Chris Hughes all were out. Hughes had a heavily wrapped right leg.

The KU defense played without a couple of key safeties, as senior Takulve “TK” Williams and super-senior Ricky Thomas were out. The defensive line was without sophomore Kenean Caldwell.

KU football spring game scoring format

Offense:

• Touchdown = 6

• Field goal = 3

• 2-point conversion = 2

• Extra point = 1

• Explosive play (run of 12+ yards, pass of 17+ yards) = 3

• 2 or more 1st downs on a drive = 1

Defense:

• 3 and out = 1

• Sack = 2

• Missed field goal attempt = 3

• 4th down stop = 3

• Touchdown = 6

• Tackle for loss = 1

• Stopped drive = 1

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