Brooks, Miller tabbed for roles rushing the passer

photo by: Carter Gaskins/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas assistant coach Taiwo Onatolu instructs defensive end Dean Miller during practice on Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Lawrence.

One particular conversation about the Kansas football team’s pass rush has become quite familiar for defensive ends coach Taiwo Onatolu.

When Kyron Johnson left, everyone was concerned about who might replace his production; that turned out to be Lonnie Phelps. When Phelps left, again it wasn’t clear what KU would do, and then Austin Booker emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the Big 12 Conference.

Now Booker’s gone and the cycle has resumed. “It’s just part of the process,” Onatolu has decided.

“I think guys always step up to the plate,” he added. “… Sometimes you don’t know how good a kid is because he’s in the background, he’s trying to figure it out, he knows he may not get a lot of reps with a guy like Austin and Jereme (Robinson) in front of him.”

Robinson is missing spring practice due to what head coach Lance Leipold called a “cleanup surgery” from last season, but he’s also a veteran. This year, the group tabbed to step up at defensive end along with Robinson is what Onatolu has taken to calling “the three D’s”: Dylan Brooks, Dean Miller and Dylan Wudke.

Defensive coordinator Brian Borland previously suggested that Wudke — a Youngstown State transfer whom Onatolu called a “grown man” and praised for his swiftness in picking up the playbook — would be less of a pass-rushing type.

That leaves Brooks and Miller as the principal pair charged with getting after the quarterback. It’s a rather unlikely duo that in 2023 played a combined 219 snaps, 84 of which were Miller playing on kick coverage.

Onatolu said he believes the snaps that Brooks got as a starter on defense in the bowl game (when Booker opted out), 23 in total, have helped him grow.

“The playbook’s really starting to come together,” Onatolu said. “He’s an athlete — athletic, long, twitchy kid — and I think he’s starting to gain a lot of confidence.”

Brooks arrived at KU from Auburn ahead of the 2023 season, and even earlier than that had been one of the top players at his position nationwide out of high school. The external expectations really don’t influence Brooks, Onatolu said.

“He’s actually a small-town type of guy, so he’s not into the whole media deal, and what people are saying,” Onatolu said. “He’s not really even on social media. He’s a hard guy (to reach), if you text him, he’s never on his phone. It’s shocking.”

Brooks tallied just five tackles in his first season in Lawrence. But his teammates continue to bear witness to his lofty potential.

“He’s one of those longer guys, almost like Austin Booker,” Robinson said. “So we’re really just trying to get him comfortable with his body, show him what he can and what he can’t do.”

Getting comfortable with his body has also been a challenging task for Miller. The recurring problem since he arrived from College of the Canyons in 2022 has been his struggle to put on and retain weight.

“He’s been a really athletic guy that can run, plays with a motor, really physical,” Onatolu said, “but he was just 200 pounds.”

Now he’s up to 227, as of Tuesday, with a goal of getting to 240. Onatolu said that Miller “burns a lot of calories the way he runs and the way he conditions himself.”

“The light went on that ‘In order to be able to play, I got to be bigger,'” Leipold said. “I said we didn’t bring him just to only run down on kickoffs. He’s embraced it, and it’s good to see, and he’s got a chance to really help us.”

Miller said it’s been a “full group effort” involving strength coach Matt Gildersleeve and nutritionist Katie O’Connor to get him to where he is — which is eating four or five meals a day, at minimum 5,000 calories, featuring multiple shakes, steak and potatoes, chicken sandwiches and the like, plus snacks.

The Los Angeles native said that when he’s on the field practicing, he feels the weight “only in a positive way.”

“I still feel like I’m moving just as good, if not better than when I was even lighter,” Miller said. “But now definitely that weight came with some strength, and it’s showing, and I feel it.”

His veteran teammate Robinson sees evidence of the progress.

“You can tell by the way he just walks around here,” Robinson said. “He used to be really long and lanky, but now he’s just long and you can see his muscle poking out.”

As they prepare to take on Big 12 Conference lines, Miller and Brooks have spent much of the spring battling with teammates Bryce Cabeldue and Logan Brown.

“I feel like we pass-rush relentlessly,” Miller said. “We have high motors, wherever the ball is we’re trying to get to it, whatever the offense gives us, just playing off of that and trying to make plays.”

Both players are listed as redshirt juniors so could have additional time to develop on the defensive line. And further reinforcements are coming; Dakyus Brinkley is already in the fold as an early enrollee, and fellow freshman Deshawn Warner arrives in the fall.


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