D-Line feeling the benefits of depth

The struggles of the 2011 Kansas defense are well documented at this point, after the Jayhawks trudged through a season during which they had trouble performing fairly consequential tasks like stopping the run - or not letting the opposition into the end zone. Many of those struggles began up front, but 2012 brings with it newfound depth and dedication on the defensive line.

The struggles of the 2011 Kansas defense are well documented at this point.

Last season, the Jayhawks ranked as one of the worst teams - even the worst depending on the statistic - at fairly consequential things. Things like stopping the run. Or the pass.

Or not letting the opposition score points.

Much of that trouble began in the trenches, where the Jayhawks were not only thin on size and talent, but also depth. As the saying goes, games are often won or lost at the line, and Kansas simply didn't have the horses up front to compete.

Sticking with the equine metaphor here, it certainly didn't help matters when sophomore defensive tackle John Williams - a starter - was lot for the season with a torn ACL suffered in the second contest of the year versus Northern Illinois.

Since National Signing Day in February, first-year head coach Charlie Weis has pointed toward the arrival of significant reinforcements as reason for hope things will begin looking up on Mount Oread in 2012. And it didn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that one of the areas in which those reinforcements were needed most desperately was the defensive line.

In addition to getting Williams back - now 100-percent healthy - Kansas has added freshmen defensive ends Tyler Holmes and Neal Page, JUCO defensive tackle Keon Stowers and fifth-year senior transfer defensive end Josh Williams to the mix.

With two more highly-touted prospects still expected to arrive in the next week or so - Ty McKinney and Jordan Tavai - the newcomers have already proven to be a blessing, just five practices in to the season.

"Some of the players who have been on the team, they feel good about it too, because the don't' have to take as many reps," said defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt. "It's good to have those guys here. We've waited all spring, kind of held our breath and said 'Okay, we just wait until we get some reinforcements.' They're here now. Hopefully, we'll still get a couple more."

As Weis noted in his opening press conference of the fall, what the coaches want to find on defense is a reliable two-deep, not just a starting 11, and that desire certainly holds true on the defensive line.

The reasoning behind it is simple.

"In this league, obviously with teams being so up tempo you've gotta have as many guys as you can play to try and keep everybody fresh so they can be productive," Wyatt explained. "So we're looking for a two-deep at every position."

One advantage the defensive line has enjoyed since the spring is continuity. Aside from the running backs - who are coached by Reggie Mitchell - every other position group outside of the defensive line is still trying to become familiar with a new position coach. For many of the team's veterans, it's the third such change in as many years.

"I was glad to see that Coach Wyatt stayed," said John Williams. "There was some some familiarity there, and so it was kind of more of a home feeling in the defensive line room, churnin' and learnin', compared to have to learn a whole new coach, his agenda and his rules."

Another factor which is likely to play a part in any success the unit experiences in the season ahead is leadership. The addition of Josh Williams brings a veteran, experienced presence to a line without an overabundance of them.

Williams is a vocal leader, and has fed into the leadership qualities of team captain Toben Opurum, a rush backer and senior on the squad.

"Toben's been more vocal this camp so far," Wyatt said. "The team voted him the captain, and I think that has made him step up and say 'Okay, my teammates are counting on me so I need to do what I need to do to help them be as good as we can be.'"

One of the areas in which Wyatt believes his unit to be most improved is in the area of the pass rush. Putting pressure on the quarterback is something the Jayhawks have struggled with for years, even dating back to the historic 12-win Orange Bowl champion of 2007, and last year was certainly no step forward.

While Williams, Opurum, Michael Reynolds and others are candidates to provide that pressure from the outside with consistency, Wyatt believes it's on the interior where the difference will be truly noticeable. Players such as Keba Agostinho, Keon Stowers and Kevin Young provide enough athleticism to go with their size to cause problems.

Though Agostinho was a defensive end during his first two seasons, his body underwent a transformation at the hands of strength coach Scott Holsopple and he added approximately 15 pounds of muscle, bulking all the way up to 283.

"Now that he was able to put on some weight, Coach Weis and I thought that would be the best place for him," Wyatt said. "We were trying to get more athletic and active inside, and obviously so far it looks good."

Of course, there's always room for improvement. The Jayhawks hope to field a multiple-formation defense, but right now the defense is focusing heavily on personnel groupings that feature four down-linemen.

Still, Wyatt likes the progress being made and the potential he sees in his players.

"We're bringing them along slowly as far as our install defensively," he said. "We're not overloading them a whole lot because obviously we've got a lot of new guys, especially at our position, that weren't here in the spring. We're just trying to keep it simple so they can play fast, and get pretty good evaluations of them."

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