Preview 2008 - Defense
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What you need to know: The whole is better than the sum of
the parts. There might not be a whole slew of all-stars, but
this is a tough, hard-nosed, veteran group that'll be a rock
against the run and should be decent against the pass. The
biggest question mark will be the coaching with Clint Bowen
taking over the Big 12's best D. With nine starters returning,
any slip will be blamed on the new defensive coordinator; he has
pieces to work with and he's not going to change too much, if
anything. The secondary will be worse without CB Aqib Talib, but
there are three good returning starters and Kendrick Harper is
ready to shine in a full-time starting corner role. The line
needs to get to the quarterback more, but it's good at getting
into the backfield and should be a rock against the run if the
four-man tackle rotation can make up for the loss of DT James
McClinton. The strength of the defense, and maybe the team, will
be the linebacking corps that gets the team's top three tacklers
back. Joe Mortensen is a terrific all-around playmaker in the
middle, while Mike Rivera and James Holt will each make around
100 tackles on the outside.
Max Onyegbule, 3.5
Interceptions: Justin Thornton, 5
Star of the defense: Senior LB Joe Mortensen
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Jamal Greene
Best pro prospect: Mortensen
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Mortensen, 2) LB Mike
Rivera, 3) LB James Holt
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, run defense
Weakness of the defense:
Proven depth, pass rush from the
Projected Starters: Three starters return to the line, but the
one loss, tackles James McClinton, is a big one. Looking to step in and
fill the void will be 6-4, 290-pound senior
Todd Haselhorst, who made 17
tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss as a key reserve. He has good size and
decent experience, but he won't be the regular in the backfield like
McClinton was. Injuries have been a problem throughout his career so
he'll have to prove he can hold up against the run for a full season
playing on the nose.
Needing to play an even bigger role on the inside will be 6-5, 290-pound
junior Caleb Blakesley, who only made 13 tackles and a sack
despite starting in every game. By no means is he a sure-thing to be the
starter throughout the year and will have to battle to get the job going
into the fall. Very strong with the potential to become an anchor up
front, he does a lot of things that don't show up on the stat sheet,
like occupying blockers to let everyone else work.
Starting again on the left side will be senior Russell Brorsen
after making 36 tackles and 1.5 sacks. The 6-4, 240-pound former tight
end has the speed and quickness to grow into more of a pass rushing
force now that he knows what he's doing. While he's a smart player and
is extremely consistent, he needs to be more of a backfield terror. He
made four tackles as a sophomore and showed great promise, and he has
the potential to blow up into a big-time producer.
Back on the right side will be 6-3, 250-pound senior John Larson
to potentially be the team's best pass rusher. He only made 2.5 sacks,
but he came up with 12 tackles for loss and 43 stops on the year. He
doesn't have high-end, all-star ability, but he always goes 100 miles
per hour and makes plenty of plays on want-to. A strong part of the
rotation, he'll put up good numbers if he's able to go in bursts of
Projected Top Reserves: The starting tackle
situations are far from settled. 6-4, 301-pound sophomore Jamal
Greene ended up started at the end of spring ball and could end up
getting the call on the nose instead of Haselhorst. With his size,
he clogs up the middle better than Haselhorst, and while he's not going
to be a consistent threat to get into the backfield, he's athletic.
6-2, 2379-pound redshirt freshman Richard Johnson Jr. was running
with the ones at the end of spring ball and will be a big part of the
tackle rotation if he doesn't beat out Blakesley outright. Very
smart and very athletic, he's the eventual replacement for James
McClinton as far as a dangerous interior pass rusher, but it might take
a year for him to get there.
6-4, 237-pound sophomore Jake Laptad is one of the team's
brightest young defensive stars. He stepped in as a freshman and lived
up to his prep hype making 20 tackles, three sacks and 4.5 tackles for
loss. He still has room to get bigger and he could stand to get
stronger, but he has excellent upside in the rotation on the left side
Former linebacker Max Onyegbule only got a little bit of work on
the end, but he made 13 tackles and led the team with 3.5 sacks. The
junior is a pure speed rusher with good upside, and he got bigger over
the last year willing out his 6-5 frame getting up to 251 pounds.
Watch Out For ... the tackle situation to be a
revolving door. That's actually a good thing. There are four good
tackles to create a good rotation to keep everyone fresh. It doesn't
really matter who the starters are going to be; everyone will get a
Strength: Run defense. The stats are better than
they appear. The Jayhawks were third in the Big 12 against the run two
years ago because everyone threw the ball. Last year, the run D was
eighth in the nation despite not having much of a pass rush to help the
overall stats. For the second straight year, no one ran for more than
200 yards. With three starters returning and good promise at the open
tackle spot, there's a chance it could be three in a row.
Weakness: Sacks. The pass rush comes from other
places. The line won't be bad at making plays behind the line, but its
job will be to hold up against the run.
Outlook: There isn't any star power and there
isn't any one irreplaceable player, but everyone works well together and
everyone holds up well against the run. Three starters return with the
one open tackle spot the easiest to fill with four decent prospects to
rotate in for James McClinton. It'll be a revolving door on the inside
with Haselhorst, Blakesley, Johnson and Greene
all able to produce. The ends are serviceable, but unspectacular.
Projected Starters: 6-1, 245-pound senior Joe Mortensen
has been a major presence in the middle for the last two season making
82 tackles as a sophomore and a team-leading 106 stops as a junior. Last
year he became even better at getting into the backfield making 15
tackles for loss and three sacks while also doing more against the pass
with five broken up passes. One of the team's strongest players, he's a
natural for the middle, while he has great range and could be moved to
the outside if absolutely necessary. He's the leader of the defense and
a possible Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year if has another season
like 2007, and if a knee injury that limited him this off-season isn't a
While Mortensen blossomed into the defense's signature star, 6-3,
255-pound senior Mike Rivera wasn't far behind. With 186 tackles,
18 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks over the last two years, he's
ultra-productive. While he's a natural for the middle, he's been
terrific on the weakside where he's been strong against the pass. A huge
hitter who shows surprising quickness for a player of his size, he's all
over the field all the time.
Back on his starting spot on the strongside is 6-3, 222-pound senior
James Holt after finishing second on the team with 99 tackles with
two sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Even though he's safety-size, he's a
big hitter and a monster in the weight room. Quick enough to get into
the backfield on a regular basis and more than tough enough to hold up
against the power running teams, he's a great all-around outside force
who should be a lock for All-Big 12 honors.
Projected Top Reserves: Expected to be a starter
going into last season, junior Arist Wright stayed as a good
backup making 17 tackles. He beefed up a bit to 6-0 and 220 pounds, but
he didn't do more to get into the backfield and make plays against the
pass like he was expected to. He's a natural for the weakside spot, but
he can play either outside position.
6-4, 232-pound sophomore Justin Springer will be the apprentice
behind Joe Mortensen in the middle after making 23 tackles as a reserve.
Mostly a special teamer so far, he's a good reserve with excellent
athleticism and plenty of upside. Not necessarily a strongside
linebacker, he could play there if needed.
6-2, 220-pound junior Jake Schermer is a smallish,
speedy outside linebacker who regressed after a strong first season and
was only a special teamer making seven tackles. He's a great athlete who can hit,
but he needs playing time on the weakside.
Watch Out For ... Springer to be more in the
fold. He'll never push Mortensen for the starting job in the middle, but he could
use more time in the rotation to be ready for next year and to keep the
star fresh. Mortensen might be the type of leader and star who'll never
want to come out, but he'll be needed at 100% over the second half of
Strength: Experience. Kansas has three players
who'll be on the All-Big 12 team in some way. Mortensen, Rivera and Holt will combine to make 300 tackles.
Weakness: Sure-thing backups. The KU starting trio
started every game last season and didn't like giving up a play of time.
That's good, but the reserves are hardly seasoned despite being around
the program for a while.
Outlook: As long as the starters are healthy,
this should be a scary-good unit and one of the strengths of the team.
While Mortensen, Rivera and Holt form a strong do-it-all
corps, there are reserves waiting in the wings to shine. They might not
get much of a chance, but the prospects are there. Can young players
like Dudley and Lewis see any playing time with an entire
two-deep in front of them? Not unless injuries strike.
Projected Starters: Step one in the secondary is to replace
all-star Aqib Talib, an All-America star who was the team's playmaker in
the secondary. Looking to step in is senior Kendrick Harper, a
5-9, 190-pound backup who got hurt early and was never quite right all
year, but made 19 tackles and an interception. The former JUCO transfer
is a good ball-hawker with nice speed and quickness, but he's not Talib.
A willing tackler, he'll put up nice overall stats.
Starting on the right side will be sophomore Chris Harris, a find
in his first season finishing sixth on the team in tackles making 65 to
go along with two interceptions and four broken up passes. At 6-0 and
180 pounds, he's a decent-sized, smart playmaker who has an all-star
career ahead f him. He split time with Harper last year, but
now will likely emerge as the team's No. 1 corner.
6-1, 205-pound junior Darrell Stuckey was fourth on the team with
72 tackles with two interceptions and six broken up passes as a steady
starter at free safety. While he's been a great tackler and earned
honorable mention All-Big 12 honors, he could stand to do a bit more
against the pass, so he'll move to strong safety this year. He's not
going to miss and tackles and he's terrific in run support.
Stepping in at free safety is 6-1, 202-pound junior Justin Thornton,
who had problems this off-season with an ankle injury but is expected to
be fine by the fall. A fantastic tackler who made 46 stops and a
team-leading five interceptions even though he only started in four
games, he should flourish with a full-time job. While the knock on his
is his consistency against the pass, he makes up for it by making big
Projected Top Reserves: Will there be a spot again
for Anthony Webb? As a freshman, he was one of the team's
emerging stars making 42 tackles and three interceptions with nine
broken up passes, and then he was completely out of the mix working
mostly as a special teamer making two stops on the year after Harper and Harris emerged. He'll be in the hunt for the nickelback
role and will start out behind Harris on the right side.
6-0, 196-pound sophomore Phillip Strozier will be one of the
team's most versatile defensive backs able to play free safety, corner
or nickel back. He made five tackles and two broken up passes as a
reserve, and he has the talent to become a strong, smart player with
tough tackling ability. He'll start out behind Thornton and will
see plenty of action.
Watch Out For ... Harper to be the corner
the team was hoping he'd be last year. While he won't be Aqib Talib,
he's a talented playmaker who was never right last year after suffering
a hand injury. Now he's right and now he should shine.
Strength: Holding up against decent passers. It's
not like KU faced a slew of good quarterbacks last season, and was
picked clean by Missouri's Chase Daniel, but the secondary dominated
against average quarterbacks. Even without Talib, it'll be strong again.
Weakness: Good quarterbacks. There won't be a
killer pass rush to help the cause and there will be times when the
secondary gives up a few big plays to the better passers. Again, the
secondary wasn't tested too often last year. It will be this season.
Outlook: After having the nation's worst pass
defense two years ago, KU improved dramatically and was among the
strongest in the nation leading the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense.
Now the defensive backfield will be tested against quarterbacks like
USF's Matt Grothe, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell,
Texas's Colt McCoy, and Missouri's Chase Daniel. Expect the overall
stats to be worse, much worse, but the safeties, Stuckey andThornton, will hit, and corners Harper and Harris
will own the mediocre quarterbacks. There will be more big plays
allowed, but there will also be plenty of interceptions.
Projected Starters: The kicking game loses steady Scott Webb,
who didn't have a ton of range but hit 18 of 26 field goal attempts.
6-4, 216-pound redshirt freshman Stephen Hoge will take over for
Webb. Ultra-efficient in high school and solid in practices, he has the
potential to be good. If he can hit everything inside the 35, the team
will take it.
Kyle Tucker was a decent three-year punter, but he's replaceable. It'll
be up to Alonso Rojas, a top kicker recruit for Bowling Green to
restart his career with the Jayhawks. He was abysmal for the Falcons,
but that was mostly because of the strange kicking style BGSU had him
employ. He has a huge leg and can be used as a placekicker if needed.
The punt return game was miserable, averaging just 5.97 yards per try,
but Marcus Herford is a special kickoff returner averaging a 28.6
yards per try with two touchdowns. Finding a steady punt returner will
be a job throughout the fall practices with Anthony Webb getting
the first look after averaging just 0.8 yards per try.
Watch Out For ... the punting to be better. It can't
be any worse. Rojas struggled at Bowling Green, but he has the
leg and the potential to be a bomber that Kyle Tucker wasn't.
Strength: Herford to be even more special.
A threat to take it the distance on every kickoff return, he'll force
teams to do everything to kick away from him. Even if he's not coming up
with a big return, he'll be a difference maker in field position.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage and punt returns. Both
have been a problem for a few years. The kickoff coverage unit gave up
22.3 yards per try, while the punt return production was non-existent.
Outlook: The special teams were decent last year,
but weren't anything special. The placekicking was solid with Webb
hitting everything close, and now it'll be up to Hoge to be as
steady. The punting was awful and the punt return game was abysmal, so
losing Tucker won't hurt too much. Kickoff returner Herford is among the best in America.