Tom Keegan: Optimism surrounding KU defense starts up front

Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise (96) grabs a fumble by Oklahoma during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Oct.29, 2016.

Kansas defensive end Dorance Armstrong, with his long-and-strong arms and growing list of accomplishments, casts such a wide shadow it leaves little room for teammates from a 2-10 squad to get much of the spotlight, but Daniel Wise manages.

If Armstrong is the Michael Jordan of the Kansas defense, then Wise is the Scottie Pippen. Wise, who lines up at defensive tackle and even plays a little defensive end, is too big and too explosive to ignore.

Armstrong, No. 2, is the No. 1 reason to believe Kansas has a shot at having its best defense since the 2007 squad that won the Orange Bowl and finished the season with a 12-1 record. Wise, No. 96, is the No. 2 reason.

That defense had All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, safety Darrell Stuckey, who is entering his eighth season with the Chargers, and second-team All-American James McClinton at defensive tackle. Given that, it’s not reasonable to expect this coming season’s defense to measure up to that of the one that led Kansas to a 24-21 victory against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

But becoming the school’s best defense since that one has a realistic ring to it. In the nine seasons of college football statistics tracked by cfbstats.com, Kansas has ranked in the top 100 in the nation just three times: 2008 (83), 2009 (84), 2013 (94).

Last season, the Jayhawks ranked 113th and allowed 37.3 points per game.

Safety Fish Smithson, an extremely smart football player who mixed in four interceptions to go with his sure tackling, will be missed, as will smart, hard-hitting nickel back Tevin Shaw.

But overall, the Kansas defense should be significantly better than last season’s and the cause for optimism starts up front.

Wise and Armstrong consistently are cited as two of the most committed weight-room competitors on the team. That should help them become even bigger, faster, more flexible and more confident.

They will be working for their fourth defensive line coach in four seasons, certainly not an ideal situation for most players, but for two athletes who blend big doses of smarts and desire, they might figure out a way to turn the instability into a positive, as in picking up pointers on executing pass-rush moves from their previous coaches, discarding the ones that didn’t work well for them, and picking the brain of Jesse Williams, stolen from Ohio University to replace canned Michael Slater.

The Bobcats’ defense that Williams had a hand in coaching limited Kansas to 35 yards rushing on 1.7 yards per carry in Ohio’s 37-21 victory last season. From the outside, the other coaches seem a good deal higher on Williams than they ever were on Slater. Williams also has more talent with which to work at defensive tackle.

KU recruiting coordinator Kenny Perry spent two years on the trail of Hutchinson Community College defensive tackle J.J. Holmes and landed him. Nobody on the defense will have a more crucial conditioning season than Holmes, who has a tendency to put on weight when he returns home to Florida. If he can use the long, hot summer to get down to playing weight, he has a chance to make a big impact immediately as a junior because of his raw strength and unusually quick feet for a man his size.

DeeIsaac Davis started 10 games last season. Isi Holani battled his weight all season and still showed flashes of quickness that suggest that if he can keep his weight under control he can make big contributions. Senior Jacky Dezir appeared in 17 games the past two seasons and can join the rotation in event of injury. Kansas has better numbers at the position than it typically does, which is important at a spot where players tire more easily than any other.

KU also has numbers at linebacker, where they use just two players at a time.

Juniors Joe Dineen and Keith Loneker top the depth chart and four intriguing prospects will push them: juniors Osaze Ogbebor and Denzel Feaster, red-shirt freshman Dru Prox and true freshman Kyron Johnson.

Defensive end depth isn’t as good as at tackle or linebacker, but better than in the secondary. Putting weight on ultra-quick defensive end Isaiah Bean has proved a much bigger challenge than it was for Armstrong. Josh Ehambe enters camp as the lead candidate for the other starting defensive end spot. Juco transfer Willie McCaleb, hybrid linebacker/D-end Maciah Long and senior Kellen Ash will battle for snaps.

Mike Lee, coming off a big freshman season at safety, is the most proven, talented member of the secondary. Tyrone Miller, the other projected starting safety, had a terrific spring after a disappointing sophomore season. Bryce Torneden will be counted on as top reserve at both safety and nickel. Quick, fast senior Derrick Neal is the projected starter at nickel back.

The single biggest key to the defense: Cornerback Shakial Taylor. He played against Kansas for South Dakota State as a freshman, transferred to junior college as a sophomore in hopes of landing a Div. I scholarship and will be given every opportunity to win a starting job. Sophomore Kyle Mayberry and juco transfer Hasan Defense, a sophomore, also are promising cornerbacks.

Kansas lacks the depth of most Big 12 schools, so as always it’s important to avoid injuries. If they have good fortune on that front, with Armstrong and Wise leading the way it’s reasonable to expect the Jayhawks to slow down high-powered Big 12 offenses better than they have in many, many years.

Comments

Dirk Medema

It wasn't just losing Fish and Tevin that hurt the DB's, but that we also lost both starting CB's as well. That's a whole lot of experience to replace.

The good news is that after a year of losing all our LB's, and having walk-on's filling in admirably, we now have their experience, and the starters back.

5 months ago

Report

Chris DeWeese

I like having our linebackers back in Dineen and Loneker, but I still think they need to get a whole lot bigger. I watched Loneker get boxed in time after time by these huge B12 linemen last year. I see he is a bit bigger and presumably stronger than last year, but at 225 I just don't think that's quite big enough. I'd like to see more LBs around 240 or 250, guys who can consistently hang with these 300 plus pound linemen. Our Orange Bowl team had big 250lb linebackers in Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen (both around 240-250). I suppose most teams hope for LBs of that size, but I guess you play with what you have.

5 months ago

Report

Michael Maris

The 2007 KU Defense (in the Orange Bowl season) seen less turf minutes (due to having a productive offense).

However, the 2007 defense played like swarming bee's. When an opposing receiver secured a pass, the KU defenders automatically swarmed to the opponent and gang tackled. It was a lot of fun to watch. Bill Young was a hell of a defensive coordinator and his exit (to the U. of Miami, Florida) had a lot to do with the overall defense numbers trending backwards in 2008 and 2009 seasons. The defense in 2007 played with a swagger, and I would've loved to have seen them play OU and Texas that season.

5 months ago

Report

Bob Bailey

We still don't have a really good DC! We've had the same guy -- good Jayhawk but not worth a whit as DC. That's one of our main problems; can't tackle; out of position a good part of the time.

5 months ago

Report

Jim Stauffer

What Bowen has done with the talent he has had and playing well over half the game due to an ineffective offense is just short of miraculous.
Bowen is a very good coordinator. You just need to buy some season tickets and sit next to someone who knows something about the game.

5 months ago

Report

David Robinett

Jimmy's and Joe's, Bob.

5 months ago

Report

Greg Ledom

Exactly!

5 months ago

Report

Dale Rogers

Slater still shows on the roster page. Maybe someone could update it?

5 months ago

Report

Chris DeWeese

I would love to see an updated roster.

5 months ago

Report

Dirk Medema

I seem to recall the roster not being updated until released by the uni in August.

If you look at the players that have been developed under Bowen it does give a lot of credence to his ability though not having the numbers to compete as a team.

5 months ago

Report

Bob Bailey

Staufer:

My first lesson in Defense came in 1932. I followed 'The Notre Dame Defense' very closely. Do you have any idea what the original defensive assignments were? ND beat Ala Bear Bryant with the first experience of that Defense. Have you any idea where the Defense should line up and their assignment? About the only guy in the stadium who understood defense. None could even discern the assignment -- nobody was covering.
My recommendation is that you sit next to someone who knows Defense. There are damn few attending KU games. There is me and the Dr., my next door neighbor. Four games was enough 6 yrs ago. The Dr is big enough to have a whole wing of the hospital named after him. And Hurd, who was a well known surgeon at KUMC was the key to instructing how to tackle in a football game.

KU''s problem is that not even Zenger knows the difference between good and bad coaching!

5 months ago

Report

Len Shaffer

Bear Bryant was coaching in 1932???

And you first watched Notre Dame's defense 85 years ago???

5 months ago

Report

Dirk Medema

It is a good thing they replaced the grass with artificial turf or they'd need to get off it. 😉

5 months ago

Report

Commenting has been disabled for this item.