Of all the position groups on the Kansas football team, this was the one in most dire need of an upgrade in personnel. With Richard Johnson Jr. and Patrick Dorsey graduating, the defensive line lost two primary rotation players from a unit already thin to begin with, and not just on depth but, if we're being honest, on talent.
Fortunately, the upgrade to both should be significant when the Class of 2012 arrives on campus in June. Head Coach Charlie Weis signed a trio of junior college defensive tackles, brought in a fifth-year senior transfer at d-end in Josh Williams, and a high school standout at DT in Tyler Holmes. That's five new bodies right off the bat, and at least four of them are going to play - likely start - immediately.
The gem of the group is likely to be Jordan Tavai. A 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle from Torrance (CA) El Camino Community College, he is extremely explosive off the ball and still big enough to hold his own in the run game. Alongside him should be Ty McKinney, another JUCO transfer - this time from Texas - a 6-foot-3, 315-pound run clogger of massive proportions.
At the ends should be fifth-year transfer Josh Williams, who is headed to Lawrence after a long career at Nebraska. Highly-rated out of high school, Williams has exceptional size and length and will be the most talented prospect Kansas has had at event end in a long-time.
And then there's Michael Reynolds, the star of the annual Spring Game. Reynolds might be a little small for the position, but his athleticism and speed are absolutely off the charts, earning him significant praise from Weis during the spring. The plan is for he and linebacker Toben Opurum to share time at the position, and the two could be the answer to many a prayer for an improved pass rush since the graduation of Charlton Keith and Jermial Ashley years ago.
SAM: Toben Oprum (Michael Reynolds)
WILL: Huldon Tharpe (Tunde Bakare)
After essentially playing a stand-up defensive end spot last season, Opurum has been moved to a true linebacker role for his senior campaign. The strong side - or SAM - backer needs to be able to not only get involved in the pass rush, but hold up at the point of attack against the run, and Opurum has the size and strength to do both. He and Reynolds will platoon at DE and OLB throughout the season, giving the Jayhawks a nice one-two punch in the pass rush.
The middle backer spot is a bit harder to predict, and it's risky to put a true freshman there. Our predicted two-deep could be reversed, with the fith-year transfer and veteran Anthony McDonald winning the job due to his experience, but uber-talented freshman Schyler Miles playing significant snaps because of his natural ability. We think Miles will win the job at some point during the season, and have an excellent career at Kansas. He's a guided missile versus the run, a tackling machine, and that's just what the position needs.
The WILL spot needs to go to someone with the athleticism and/or savvy to perform well against the pass, even acting as - essentially - an extra defensive back on passing downs. The two quickest WILL candidates on the roster may Huldon Tharpe and Tunde Bakare. Injuries have slowed Tharpe a tad, but as a true freshman he showed excellent instincts in defending the pass, and Bakare can run like the wind.
A dark horse would be freshman Courtney Arnick. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds he's not yet physically ready to play every down, but he has incredible speed and comes from one of the most dominant programs in big-class Texas football - Dallas Carter.
The two corner spots should be locked down, with veterans Greg Brown and Tyler Patmon locking down the starting jobs. Both have shown flashes throughout their careers of some top-tier playmaking ability, and with Dave Campo showing them the ropes this is poised to be their best season yet. Backing them up, we're putting our money on two newcomers - Houston freshman Greg Allen and JUCO transfer Nasir Moore. Allen in particular is an intriguing prospect. His film is outstanding, and makes one wonder how he was available so late. He has the potential to be a star.
At safety, expect Lubbock Smith and Bradley McDougald to be solid starters in their final seasons. McDougald was a bright spot defensively a year ago, on a unit that didn't feature many - possibly even a future NFL prospect. Behind them, Ray Mitchell and sophomore Victor Simmons are the most likely rotational players. Simmons saw time last season and has excellent speed and size - he just needs time to hone his football instincts. With Clint Bowen back in the saddle as safeties coach, it will be fun to watch how this unit improves.