Summertime Blues: Jayhawks Need Defense Bad

The conclusion of spring football and the barrage of TV and radio commercials beseeching me to buy tickets so I can enjoy Rock Chalk Saturdays have kick-started the football juices already.

Water cooler discussions have begun in earnest at the day job. E-mails between me, Phog.net football n00b Aaron Cedeno and Kevin Flaherty, who has gone over to the dark side, are flying. With an uber-disappointing end to the college basketball season behind me and the wastelands that are Major League Baseball and the NBA playoffs facing me, I can only look forward. September 4th can't get here fast enough.
 
Or maybe it can.
 
Defense was a big concern for the 5-7 Jayhawks, who looked shaky in a 5-0 start only to lose their last seven straight. The main reason it was such a concern was, because they were awful.
 
Kansas ranked 76th in the country in total defense: 56th rushing, 96th passing. KU defenders gave up 383 yards of total offense per game. The KU defense allowed over 28 points per game, good enough for 85th in the country. In a related note, Kevin Flaherty and I led the nation in number of times saying, "Can anyone out there tackle?"
 
KU defenders intercepted seven passes last season. By comparison, UCLA's Rahim Moore intercepted 10. By himself. Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel and Texas' Earl Thomas each picked off one more than the entire KU team. Four more individual players matched the Jayhawks' total.
 
Rookie coach Turner Gill and his staff said early and often that this spring was all about evaluation. "We just want to see what we have," they said. Now that camp has broken and they've had some time to think about it, I wonder if the answer to that query is, not much.
 
There are some good players on the team, don't get me wrong. The coaches should be very high on safeties Prinz Kande and Lubbock Smith. Kande (6-0, 195) brings tremendous speed and athleticism to a safety spot, and Smith showed last year flashes of what he can do. I can only imagine that he'll be even better now that the possibility of landing in someone's doghouse until he's 26 for making a mistake no longer exists.
 
Always-dependable Olaitan Oguntodu (6-0, 218) and Philip Strozier (5-11, 205) are also back. So KU looks pretty settled at safety.
 
But looking at the corners, no one really stands out. Chris Harris (5-10, 190) will provide senior leadership, and quite frankly, he should be playing with a chip on his shoulder. He followed up an impressive freshman year with two years that made you say, "Meh." He has the ability to make a big impact on the Jayhawks; not he needs to get it done on the field.
 
Calvin Rubles, at a freakishly athletic 6-3, 205, could have been really good with careful development. There aren't a lot of 6-3 corners around. He could've been a real headache to Big 12 receivers. He might turn in a good season this season.
 
Once you get past Harris and Rubles, though, there's not a ton to get excited about.
 
KU appears to have plenty of beef at the defensive tackle position, even with the recent idiocy and prompt dismissal of Jamal Greene. Patrick Dorsey (6-0, 273), Richard Johnson (6-3, 283) and Darius Parish (who should have his own area code at 6-4, 327) are all a year older, a year wiser and a year more experienced. They should be solid on the interior.
 
But there seems to be a glut of tackles and only one legitimate defensive end. Max Onyegbule and Jeff Wheeler are gone. That leaves Jake Laptad (6-4, 260). I does love me some Jake Laptad. He was 10th in the Big 12 in tackles for loss last season (1.00 per game), and he's collected 13.5 sacks the past two seasons.
 
Beyond him, though, there aren't many names we've heard, either from the postgame stats or because coaches have been talking them up. This team desperately needs someone who can come off the edge and make opposing quarterbacks nervous, and right now, it looks like they have one – count ‘em – one of those.
 
Kevin Young had a terrific spring game, but one always has to be cautious about spring game success. Good on the kid, but it remains to be seen if that will translates to fall Saturday afternoons when the lights go on.
 
Linebacker at Kansas is an especially intriguing position. You have three good players returning from last year: hopefully-healthy Justin Springer (6-3, 237), Drew Dudley (6-2, 241) and feisty Huldon Tharp (6-0, 217). If I was drafting a fantasy college team, I'd take any one of these three guys, each for their own unique reasons. They all bring something unique to the table.
 
Springer brings toughness and leadership. Tharp is just a football player, a home-grown Kansas kid who would eat broken glass if it would help the team. Dudley is a senior and always seems to be around the ball.
 
Problem is, these three don't seem to complement each other very well. They seem sort of mish-mashed together. The LB corps of Rivera, Mortensen and Holt was an odd trio, too, but Mort was the strong one, Holt was the athletic one and Rivera was the crazy one who played like John Favreau in "The Replacements." The law firm of Kane, Floodman and Reid was a weird combination, too, but you saw chemistry. For some reason, I just don't see it with this group.
 
Steven Johnson (601, 237) practiced all spring with the ones, but how much of that was his own play and how much of it was a product of Dudley's being hurt is unknown.
 
There will be some really good Big 12 football players starting on the Kansas team this fall. It wasn't that long ago that KU fans couldn't say that. One cannot deny that the talent level on the first-string at KU has increased tremendously. There are no more unathletic-QBs-turned-unathletic-DBs on the two-deep anymore. So at least Gill has that going for him. Y'know. Which is nice.
 
Problem is, looking at the two-deep, there seems to be a glut at some positions and not nearly enough warm – let alone talented – bodies at others. Once again, it seems like Kansas Football, business as usual: lots of good players – just never enough.
 
Depth and talent are still a huge issue. Obviously no one can say a word about whether or not Gill and his staff can bring in talent, and the best we can hope for is that they can coach the existing talent up. Way up.
 
The Jayhawk defense is an injury or two away from being absolutely abysmal this fall. That lack of depth could mean a hot, humid Kansas summer will simply roll over into a cold, rainy, crappy fall that makes too many Jayhawk fans wonder, out loud, "When does basketball start?"