KU defense coming into focus after spring, though some questions remain

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

Kansas defensive coordinator Brian Borland blows the whistle during practice on Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Lawrence.

Throughout spring practice, replacing former Kansas linebacker Craig Young was a by-committee kind of effort.

Marvin Grant was the headliner at Young’s previous position, but as defensive coordinator Brian Borland noted Tuesday, KU actually had four of its safeties working in what he called the “field outside linebacker nickel guy” spot — the hybrid role in which converted safety Young had excelled for the Jayhawks. Jalen Dye, for example, saw some time there during the Spring Showcase.

“(Grant) runs fast, he’s long, he’s physical, so there’s things that are ideal that he can do out there,” Borland said, “but we’ve trained some others also so we feel like we’ve got a lot more diversity and some moving pieces back there at the safety spot.”

However, Borland (who oversees safeties as his position group) also acknowledged that in the long term he probably won’t have a brigade of different players stepping in for Young, but instead just two or three.

“We’ll kind of weed that out a little bit,” he said. “We already started to weed it out a little bit. Some guys more adapt to it, some guys are probably just better sticking to maybe just one thing instead of two or three … At the end of the day the guys that are going to do it need to get the repetitions in practice. If you spread it out too much then nobody gets enough.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas redshirt junior Marvin Grant Jr. during Fall Camp on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World photo

Kansas safety Jalen Dye catches a pass during practice at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

Part of Borland’s job during the spring, he explained, was to help his more experienced players work on “perfecting their craft”; the other part, he said, involved evaluating for some of his newer players, “Can they play? To what level can they play? To what level can they help us?”

By the start of the season — which, granted, remains more than four months away — KU will have to determine which players are best equipped to help at the Hawk position.

It’s not the only determination left to make. The Jayhawks also need to figure out where they might get a pass rush. The clearest answer, as of the end of spring practice, is from former JUCO transfer Dean Miller.

“He’s always been a high-motor, good-explosion guy,” Borland said, “but finally his weight is such that he can go stand in there against some of the tall timber that we have to.”

But with Auburn transfer Dylan Brooks’ status unknown (he was unavailable for the Spring Showcase), not just the future but the present of the position may rely on freshmen.

Early-enrolling Dakyus Brinkley “has got some real natural tools,” Borland said.

“He’s been really good,” teammate Jereme Robinson said earlier in the spring. “He’s actually kind of twitchy for how big he is. I didn’t think he was going to be that twitchy. But for a young guy, I think he can get some really good reps in early.”

photo by: Chance Parker/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas freshman Dakyus Brinkley runs through drills during the spring showcase at Rock Chalk Park on Friday, April 12, 2024.

Then there remains an unknown quantity in highly touted Arizona native Deshawn Warner, a four-star prospect and one of the top edge rushers in his class, who will arrive during the summer.

And most recently, KU has taken to the transfer portal, with LSU transfer Jaxon Howard, a former top recruit in the state of Minnesota, reporting that he has an offer from the Jayhawks. That said, they don’t have much room to work with under the 85-scholarship limit, even with safety Akili Hubbard’s decision to the enter the portal on Thursday.

Borland is ultimately confident that the staff will work things out when it comes to the pass-rush end spot — as assistant Taiwo Onatolu had been earlier in the spring.

“We’ll be able to piece together that position,” Borland said.

A less pressing question but a salient one all the same is where KU goes at cornerback behind standouts Cobee Bryant and Mello Dotson, with periodic contributors Kalon Gervin and Kwinton Lassiter having graduated.

“It’s a lot of competition for those guys who are coming behind Mello and Cobee,” co-defensive coordinator D.K. McDonald said on the “Hawk Talk” radio show.

McDonald singled out another freshman, Jalen Todd, as a player to watch in that domain.

“You talk about another guy who’s a sponge,” he said. “Loves to compete. A guy who sits on the edge of his chair and just wants to learn as much as he can. So he’s been great, I’m really excited about him.”

But he also praised Damarius McGhee, the LSU transfer whose 2024 season was limited by a back injury, and his fellow coaches have done the same in recent days. Leipold mentioned he had an interception in a scrimmage during spring practice.

“He’s been healthy, finally, wasn’t healthy at all last fall, and so he’s a really good cover person,” Borland said.

Kansas redshirt junior Damarius McGhee during the first day of spring practice at the practice field on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Lawrence.

Even with some level of uncertainty, Borland said he was pleased with how his unit fared in the spring.

“I’m happy. I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot of things that we’ve set out to accomplish. Number one, I thought we practiced hard and competed hard every day. That’s kind of where it all starts.”


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