LAWRENCE — The first place you notice the difference is in the meeting room. The space is filled with large bodies, back to front, taking up almost every desk.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
It wasn’t always like this. Last year, when defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt would look at his players, the surroundings felt half-empty, a position unit that wasn’t thin in size, but definitely thin in numbers.
“Last year, it’s only half of a room,” junior nose tackle Keon Stowers said. “And then now, it’s every seat. And in the film room, it’s full.”
The second place you notice the difference is on the practice field. Senior defensive end Jordan Tavai and senior nose tackle Kevin Young spent large chunks of last season as starters on the Kansas defensive line. Now they’re running second team, replaced by junior college transfer Marquel Combs and Stowers, who spent last year in a reserve role.
“Now we have guys on the second team that started 10 games last year,” Stowers said. “So we got on depth on top of depth.”
It may be too early to know how much the Jayhawks’ defensive line can improve this year, especially after a 1-11 season where the defense mustered just 12 sacks. But if there really is strength in numbers, the Jayhawks’ defensive front may be poised to make major strides in Charlie Weis’ second season as coach.
All last season, Weis used to joke that he had to keep Wyatt, the defensive line coach, from wandering onto some random ledge. The outlook was bleak. And the meeting room was devoid of impact players. This year, the joke is back. But Weis is using it as an example of progress.
“Buddy Wyatt told me this morning, ‘Thank you for talking me off of that ledge,’” Weis said earlier this week. “(He) was on that ledge ready to jump that first year. Now it is nice to be able to come out to practice and walk through the stretch lines and think okay, we have some guys that can play this year. Last year we were awful.”
If awful is the bar, the Jayhawks should be able to surpass that. But KU’s players would like to aim a little higher.
Stowers projects to start in the middle, with Combs and senior Keba Agostinho lining up at defensive end in a three-man front. Young is serving as Stowers’ backup at the nose, while Tavai and junior college transfer Andrew Bolton are rotating in at defensive end with the second team.
“It helps you feed off each other,” Stowers said. “You got more people in here to ask more questions; (questions) that maybe you wanted to ask, but you were scared to ask.”
Armed with an outgoing personality, Stowers has been a natural fit as the leader of the group. Last year, Stowers says, he was a timid junior college transfer, often unsure around the program’s veteran players. So this year, he wanted to make sure the fresh faces felt at home during fall camp.
“Now that I’m in that position now,” Stowers said, “I try to get with the younger guys and text them or tell them to come over to my room so they won’t feel as intimidated or as uncomfortable around me. And if they need anything, they can just ask.”
On some days, though, Stowers has a lot of new players to get chummy with. Still, he would prefer the extra conversations over getting run ragged in a thin defensive line.
The unit is deeper, Stowers says, and the meeting room is louder.
And for now, that’s the best kind of noise.
It’s always a difficult choice for head coaches. Do you run a physical camp with plenty of hitting and risk the potential for injuries, or save the hitting for the seasons and risk having a team of poor tacklers?
KU has begun full-contact practices in the last few days, and Weis has a strategy for rationing the hitting to the perfect amount.
“We break it into four-major periods, two of them were ‘thud’ and the other two were full-speed,” Weis said. “‘Thud’ means don’t cut on offense and don’t take them to the ground on defense. The idea is to not take them to the ground during those periods.
“(But) You can’t practice tackling without going full-speed, and you can’t practice cutting without going full-speed. In the past, I wouldn’t let them cut, but then you end up being the worst cutting team in America; it is part of what you do.”
Starting tight end Jimmay Mundine began Wednesday’s practice on the stationary bike in the far corner of the practice field, a space generally reserved for players batting injury.
In general, Weis doesn’t disclose much information about injuries if the player is only going to be out for a short period of time. And Mundine, who is expected to be a major component of the passing game, didn’t appear to be too limited while riding the bike.
Video of the day
During the opening moments of KU’s practice on Wednesday, KU’s offensive linemen and offensive line coach Tim Grunhard worked on a drill that simulated cut blocking.