Kansas Preview: Defense

JUCO-heavy class leaves Jayhawk defense high on solid players, but low on elite-level talent.

Head coach Charlie Weis elected to scour the junior colleges for talent this past recruiting class, focusing much of his effort on the defense. And pundits lauded the results, with the Jayhawks bringing in several potential impact transfers who were supposed to drastically upgrade the front-line talent with playmakers.

There was just one problem: out of those star players, relatively few are actually playing for the Jayhawks this season. Chris Martin, a former five-star prospect who was supposed to upgrade the Jayhawks' pass-rush immediately, was booted from the team following an arrest. Defensive tackle Marquel Combs, considered by many to be the crown jewel of the Jayhawk class, left the program a week or two into the season. Defensive end Andrew Bolton and Marcus Jenkins-Moore both redshirted this season to take care of injuries and Kevin Short, considered by many to be the top cornerback landed by the Jayhawks, was nixed by the NCAA for this season (he'll play next year).

And just like that, five players who were expected to start, and star, for the Jayhawks were out of commission for the 2013 season. Still, this is a group that has played fairly well at times, but has often gotten overwhelmed later in games because of a lack of depth. The best way to describe this unit is steady: there aren't really gaping holes here, but neither are there many playmakers.

Former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo is the defensive coordinator, though this year, Clint Bowen has taken on more of the defensive coaching. Bowen is not only calling the plays, but the Jayhawks are playing more man coverage and are leaning arguably more toward Bowen's tendencies — Bowen was Kansas's defensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009 under former coach Mark Mangino.

The general format of the defense still follows Campo's multiple system. Kansas basically plays with three defensive tackles and a BUCK end, meaning the Jayhawks can move seamlessly between 3-4 and 4-3 looks. But in addition to that, the nickel spot is filled by a hybrid linebacker/safety, meaning Kansas can also play 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 looks as well, all while keeping the same personnel. It's actually fairly similar to what Texas saw earlier this year against Oklahoma, though the Sooners used the 219-pound Eric Striker as the end/linebacker despite the fact that at 219 pounds, Striker is faster, but significantly smaller, than most players at that position. Kansas's answers at that position are both 240-pounds-plus.

Kansas is 66h nationally in Defensive S&P+, though the Jayhawks have been tough against the pass. KU is 25th in the nation in Defensive Passing S&P+ and 15th in Defensive Passing Downs S&P+.

The Jayhawks are actually fairly solid up front, thanks to a legitimate two-deep of players buoyed by junior college transfers from the last two years. Of the six players listed on that two-deep, four are from the JUCO ranks. Two of the starters — right end/tackle Keba Agostinho (6-2 277) and left end/tackle Kevin Young (6-3 287) — are not. Agostinho is backed by stocky end/tackle Tedarian Johnson (6-2 290), while Jordan Tavai (6-3 295) can play any of the three spots. The best player of the bunch might be nose tackle Keon Stowers (6-3 297), whose activity and quickness in the middle helps the defense go. He's ahead of Ty McKinney (6-3 300), a typical squatty nose tackle who can be tough to move. The job of this group is largely to keep blockers off the linebackers, though the end quartet has 11.5 tackles for loss between them.

The BUCK end spot is filled by Ben Goodman (6-3 245) and Michael Reynolds (6-1 240), with Goodman holding up better against the run (20 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss) and Reynolds leading the team in sacks (3.5).

The good news for the Jayhawks is that middle linebacker Ben Heeney (6-0 230), far and away the Jayhawks' star player on defense, is expected to play Saturday. Heeney has 43 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss and two interceptions in five games, and has displayed the sideline-to-sideline speed that can erase mistakes. He missed the last two games with an injury, which hurts because when he's in, the Jayhawks can dedicate fewer players to the box to stop the run. He's a first-team All-Big 12 type player, and on tape, appears to be more versatile (thanks to his athleticism) than former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Nick Reid.

If, for whatever reason, Heeney isn't able to go, sophomore Schyler Miles (6-2 225) would fill in. He chose Kansas over Florida and Notre Dame, though he's a downgrade from Heeney at this point. Starting at WILL will be Jake Love (6-0 220), who has 23 tackles in his past four games. He had six tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, against Texas last year. Darius Willis (6-2 235) had 81 tackles and eight tackles for loss in 2011, and is back at a traditional linebacker spot after playing some BUCK last year. He'll back up Love.

Victor Simmons (6-2 220) is the nickel back, and he's second on the team in both tackles (47) and tackles for loss (6.5). When Kansas goes with a more traditional extra defensive back, it's often Dexter Linton (5-10 195), a safety with very good speed.

Despite the fact that the Jayhawks won't get Short until next year, the Jayhawks' cornerback duo is arguably the best Kansas has had since its Orange Bowl season. JaCorey Shepherd (5-11 190) has made the most of his transition from wide receiver, causing three turnovers in his past three games. Included in that was a great performance against TCU, when Shepherd had seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception returned 32 yards for a touchdown. Right cornerback Dexter McDonald (6-2 200) probably would have been the boundary corner in Campo's scheme last year, though Bowen has been playing the two in a more traditional right/left manner. McDonald has great size and physicality. His eight pass breakups are second only to Shepherd on the year.

Free safety Cassius Sendish (6-0 195) was actually a zone cornerback in junior college, and he's still adjusting a bit to the position. Isaiah Johnson (6-1 210), a three-to-play-three JUCO transfer, has displayed potential in his first year in Lawrence. Johnson leads the team in tackles with 53 and has 3.0 tackles for loss, along with two interceptions. Johnson had eight interceptions in his lone year at Iowa Western Community College last year. He'll only get better as he continues to develop.

JUCO transfer Trevor Pardula (6-5 212) has improved the Jayhawk punting game immeasurably. He's averaging 45.2 yards per punt, with just four of his 51 punts going for touchbacks, as opposed to 13 punts downed inside the 20. He also performs kickoff duties, getting touchbacks on 17 of his 28 boots.

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