Young talent emerging on Kansas D

Much has been made of the handful of talented freshmen who have contributed to the resurgence of the Kansas offense in 2011. Last weekend versus Oklahoma, however, a trio of freshmen made their way onto the field for the Jayhawks D – and didn't waste any time in making their presence felt.

Despite the struggles of the first six games of the 2011 season, much has been made of the talented crop of freshmen making an impact for the Kansas Jayhawks on offense.

Players such as Marquis Jackson, Darrian Miller, Anthony Pierson and JaCorey Shepherd have all had a hand in the improvement of the Jayhawks O, which has seen a dramatic increase in both scoring and yards per game when compared with the results of a season ago.

However, with the season at its midway point the youth movement is showing signs of taking hold on defense as well. A trio of true freshmen saw snaps in the loss last weekend to No. 3 Oklahoma - Colin Garrett and Michael Reynolds at linebacker, and Victor Simmons at safety.

Though, as defensive coordinator Vic Shealy acknowledged, an opponent the caliber of Oklahoma does not typically make for an ideal proving ground for such young talent, all three acquitted themselves admirably.

"This time last week we were talking about the freshmen, and we kind of felt like we were at that point where some of the kids were ready to play," Shealy said.

Simmons led the newcomers with five tackles, including two solos, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, while Garrett tacked on four and Reynolds added one, as well as a near-interception.

Though their repetitions were still tightly controlled, and they weren't immune to the usual freshman miscues, the trio's athleticism and speed were impossible to miss – and cause for a great deal of excitement among the coaching staff.

"A great surprise for us was how athletic Colin Garrett (looked)," Shealy said. "We knew he was an athlete, but when you go against one of the finest offensive lines in the country - with Oklahoma - and you look like you can play at the speed everyone else is playing at, that's a credit to him."

"We were just so excited about how he played," he added. "But more by what we think he can become by the end of the season."

That the freshmen on defense came along more slowly than their offensive counterparts isn't unusual, Shealy noted. Particularly in a league featuring as many explosive offenses as the Big 12.

The learning curve is simply larger, but as the weeks go by the game begins to slow down. There's less thinking, and more reacting - which means fast athletes finally looking like fast football players on the field.

"It's hard to play on that side of the ball young," Shealy said. "But now we're two months into the season they're starting to be more at ease and you see the less burden they're carrying mentally, to where they're playing more relaxed. That gave us encouragement."

In the weeks ahead, Kansas fans can likely expect to see additional freshmen lining up on defense - players such as linebacker Ben Heeney who, like Simmons and Reynolds, has already made a name for himself this season as a force on special teams.

First thing is first, however. While the Jayhawks defense took steps forward versus the Sooners, Saturday's opponent - the Wildcats of Kansas State - represents a different type of challenge with their grind-it-out, power running attack.

While their handling of the transition in styles remains to be seen, it's clear the freshmen will continue to see the field as the season wears on, playing more snaps and a bigger role in the performance of the Kansas D.

"And they earned them," Shealy said. "They deserve it."


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