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Kansas: Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

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Yesterday we looked at an offense that actually improved from 2007 to 2008.  How about the defense?  Was the biggest difference between 2007 and 2008 simply the schedule?  Was the 2007 schedule really that easy (or the 2008 schedule that hard)?

Defense

Overall Stats

S&P+: 111.9 (#30)
Success Rate+: 113.9 (#19)
PPP+: 109.7 (#45)

Standard Downs S&P+: 107.2 (#41)
Passing Downs S&P+: 113.5 (#35)

Redzone S&P+: 106.4 (#46)

Q1 S&P+: 108.9 (#40)
Q2 S&P+: 126.2 (#15)
Q3 S&P+: 100.0 (#54)
Q4 S&P+: 10.42 (#49)

1st Down S&P+: 108.0 (#43)
2nd Down S&P+: 109.7 (#38)
3rd Down S&P+: 112.3 (#40)

Rushing Stats

Rushing S&P+: 111.1 (#38)
Rushing SR+: 118.7 (#18)
Rushing PPP+: 102.0 (#61)

Standard Downs: 107.5 (#42)
Passing Downs: 95.7 (#68)

Redzone: 110.0 (#39)

Line Yards+: 109.2 (#31)

Passing Stats

Passing S&P+: 113.3 (#27)
Passing SR+: 110.8 (#21)
Passing PPP+: 116.0 (#26)

Standard Downs: 109.4 (#30)
Passing Downs: 119.5 (#24)

Redzone: 107.5 (#41)

Sack Rate+: 88.7 (#77)


So let's play the same game we played yesterday--the 2007 vs 2008 game.

  • S&P+: #12 in 2007, #30 in 2008
  • Success Rate+: #13 in 2007, #19 in 2008
  • PPP+: #14 in 2007, #45 in 2008
  • Rushing S&P+: #8 in 2007, #38 in 2008
  • Passing S&P+: #20 in 2007, #27 in 2008
  • Standard Downs S&P+: #12 in 2007, #41 in 2008
  • Passing Downs S&P+: #6 in 2007, #35 in 2008
  • Line Yards+: #12 in 2007, #31 in 2008

Ahh, so it wasn't just the schedule that made a four-game difference in the loss column.  While the offense actually got better, the defense got measurably worse despite nine returning starters (sound familiar, Mizzou fans?).  They lost a second-team All-American in James McClinton at defensive tackle--the only loss other than Aqib Talib--and it seems to have made a difference.

Kansas was a bit worse defending the pass, a lot worse at defending the run, and in particular they gave up a ton more big plays (PPP+).  This year, they return their entire secondary and three of four starters on the defensive line (losing only end Russell Brorsen)...but lose all three starting linebackers.  So the passing numbers improve and the rushing numbers regress, maybe?

Meanwhile, with so much returning experience in 2008 and a seemingly rock solid secondary, I can't really explain the significant regression in PPP+.  KU allowed a ton more big plays, particularly in the running game, so we'll pin the blame mostly on the D-line and a linebacker corps that didn't achieve nearly as much as it should have with three solid players in Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera, and James Holt.  We'll also point out that Defensive Coordinator Bill Young left for Miami after 2007, and that might have made a bigger difference than anything else.

Defensive Line

2008 Unit Ranking: #49 in the nation (#5 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
DT Caleb Blakesley (6'5, 292, Sr.)
DE Jake Laptad (6'4, 258, Jr.)
DT Jamal Greene (6'4, 303, Jr.)
DE Jeff Wheeler (6'7, 260, Sr.)
DT Richard Johnson (6'2, 280, So.)
DE Quintin Woods (6'5, 230, Jr.)
DE Maxwell Onyegbule (6'5, 257, Sr.)
DT Darius Parish (6'4, 341, So.)

So if KU felt the absence of James McClinton more than any other in 2008, then it's up to either Jamal Greene (21 tackles, 7 TFL/sacks) to become a much more consistent force or Jeff City's own Richard Johnson (14 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks) to overtake him if KU's run defense is to improve.  If not them, then who?  Man-beast Darius Parish moved to OL.  Somehow, someway, there needs to be a better push up the middle.

And on the outside too.  Solid-not-spectacular end Jake Laptad (8.5 TFL/sacks) offers hope for a pass rush, but he'll need help.  The lack of a pass rush was bad enough last year that LB James Holt moved to end toward the end of the year, and KU fans seem to have hope that 4-star JUCO transfer Quintin Woods will thrive pretty quickly.  The other options (Jeff Wheeler, Maxwell Onyegbule, or some younger guy) don't seem ready or capable, so all eyes are on Woods.  If Woods doesn't catch on, KU fans start getting worried.

Linebackers

2008 Unit Ranking: #57 in the nation (#9 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Arist Wright (6'0, 226, Sr.)
Dakota Lewis (6'1, 209, Jr.)
Jake Schermer (6'2, 222, Sr.)
Angus Quigley (6'2, 226, Sr.)
Justin Springer (6'4, 242, Jr.)
Drew Dudley (6'2, 232, Jr.)
Steven Johnson (6'2, 225, So.)

When we say that KU lost all three starting linebackers from 2008, that's a smidge of an exaggeration.  When Holt was moved around to generate a pass rush, Arist Wright stepped in.  Still, though, Wright was only 10th on the team in tackles and managed only ten "successful" tackles (i.e. tackles that prevented a successful play) all year, two against the pass and eight against the run.  The other three LBs with any experience at all combined for just 5.5 successful tackles (two against the pass, 3.5 against the run).

While the RB situation isn't in wonderful shape right now, it's still no surprise that Angus Quigley was moved from RB to LB.  There's clearly a major void in terms of proven playmakers, so really at this point Kansas just needs as many warm bodies as possible to throw out there and see what they've got.  Never say never, but it's hard to see this unit gelling into a solid unit quickly.  Whether they call it this or not, you do have to figure that with an experienced secondary, KU will be playing a lot of 4-2-5 or nickel coverage.

Of course, Missouri doesn't play them for quite a while, so the team we're talking about now will change significantly, for better or worse, between now and then.  Probably shouldn't spend a ton of time figuring everything out, eh?

Secondary

2008 Unit Ranking: #23 in the nation (#5 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
S Darrell Stuckey (6'1, 205, Sr.)
CB Justin Thornton (6'1, 213, Sr.)
S Phillip Strozier (6'0, 200, Jr.)
CB Daymond Patterson (5'9, 175, So.)
S Chris Harris (6'0, 185, Jr.)
CB Anthony Davis (6'0, 192, So.)
CB Corrigan Powell (5'10, 171, So.)
S Olaitan Oguntodu (6'0, 220, Jr.)

As devoid of experience that the KU linebacker corps is, the secondary is the polar opposite.  Five players with solid starting experience return, led by Mizzou killer Darrell Stuckey, who almost single-handedly fended off the Tiger offense for the entire first half last November at Arrowhead.  He is an all-conference favorite heading into the season, and with good reason.  In 2008, he put together 4.5 TFL, 5 INT, 7 passes broken-up, 2 FF, 1 FR.  Plus, he managed a very healthy 23.5 successful tackles against the run, one of the highest run-support totals in the country (13th overall).  He's a stud.

Beyond that, Mark Mangino has some interesting ingredients, and he's not afraid to shuffle things around.  Justin Thornton's been around forever (seems like just yesterday that he was getting decapitated by Tony Temple at Faurot Field), and while he's a proven commodity, he's also in Mangino's doghouse.  If he doesn't end up starting (I assume he will, but...well, Mangino's got an angry side), then it looks like Anthony Davis will be the man opposite Daymond Patterson at CB.  Both are sophomores.  Meanwhile, junior safety Chris Harris was a star freshman in 2007 before losing his starting spot last year.  He still managed the second-most successful tackles in the secondary in 2008, however, and I'm going to figure he'll still play a role opposite Phil Strozier and Stuckey.

Special Teams

2008 Unit Ranking: #81 Net Punting, #26 Punt Returns, #118 Kickoff Returns

Projected Starters
K Jacob Branstetter (5'10, 182, Jr.) - 51-for-52 PAT, 9-for-12 FG (Long: 34)
P Alonso Rojas (6'3, 220, Jr.) - 58 Punts, 33.9 Net
KR Dezmon Briscoe (6'3, 200, Jr.) - 8 returns, 27.4 Avg
PR Daymond Patterson (5'9, 175, So.) - 22 Returns, 11.0 Avg, 1 TD

Rarely is there a more stark regression than what Kansas suffered in the kick return game last year.  KU ranked 7th in the country in kick returns in 2007, then fell 111 spots to 118th in 2008.  What made it strange was that, it was the same main return man (Marcus Herford) both years.  KU was decent in the kicking and punt return games, but kick returns produced eight yards fewer in 2008, and that really can make a pretty big difference.  It might help explain how KU's Offensive S&P+ actually improved in 2008, yet KU scored 10 fewer points per game.  Dez Briscoe was outstanding in limited opportunities, but it seems KU is making a concerted effort not to wear him out (Jeremy Maclin managed to do it all, ahem...just sayin'...), and early indications (according to Rock Chalk Talk) are that sophomore Isiah Barfield might take over the duties, at least to start.

If KU gets anything from the kick return game, this is a decent special teams unit, not as good as Nebraska's (NU really does seem to have the best special teams unit in the North at this point), but solid.  Alonso Rojas leaves something to be desired punting, but this is an offensive conference--kicks matter a hair more than punts, right?

Summary

After seeing a pretty solid across-the-board drop in 2008, it's hard to see where KU's baseline is with a potentially great secondary and serious question marks among the front seven.  The linebacker corps returns almost no quality experience, and while experience isn't a problem on the defensive line, playmaking is.  KU needs to be able to limit the big run plays and generate a pass rush if they're going to fully utilize the strong secondary, and it's not a given that they can do that.  Everybody in the North has question marks, so while KU's no different in that regard...KU's no different in that regard.  With a South schedule that screams 0-3, they really do need to be better than everybody else in the North if they want to win the division this year, and with the holes at offensive line and in the defensive front seven, it's hard to claim they are at this moment.  I've been talking up KU all offseason (not in a "Hey, gosh, you're alright, KU!" kind of way, but in a "We better start accepting that they're probably going to win the North" kind of way), but the more I read and talk about them, the less sure of them I am.

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Projections on Friday.