The question was never one of speed. The senior linebacker from Wichita always possessed that gift.
Michael Reynolds would line up on the edge, sprint around an opposing offensive tackle and maybe find his way to the opposing quarterback.
The real question was everything else. Would Reynolds be in the right spot? Would he play with a purpose? Would the speed translate into sacks?
“He is a talented guy,” Kansas interim coach Clint Bowen says.
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Now in his final season at Kansas, Reynolds is answering some of those other questions. In KU’s last four games, Reynolds has notched four sacks, giving the Jayhawks’ often-quiet pass rush some much-needed bite.
Reynolds, a graduate of Kapaun Mount Carmel in Wichita, had two sacks in last week’s 27-20 loss to Oklahoma State, wreaking havoc in the Cowboys’ backfield. The recent surge has provided cover to the Jayhawks’ talented secondary. And the solid cover skills of senior cornerbacks JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald have provided more opportunities to get to the quarterback.
The results have been promising, a defense coming into its own. For the past two weeks, the Jayhawks held a Big 12 opponent scoreless in the second half. On Saturday, Kansas will take its defensive unit on the road to Texas Tech, where the Jayhawks will try to notch their first Big 12 victory and snap a 26-game road losing streak.
“As a defense, we just really want to implement our image,” Reynolds said this week. “Hard hitting and hard working.”
The idea of an identity has been key to Bowen, who enters his third game as Kansas’ interim coach. When Bowen took over in late September, Bowen offered a simple question to his player: What do we want to be known for?
For Bowen, the answer was toughness, a throwback to the old Kansas teams that found ways to win against more talented competition. But toughness and determination can have residual effects. Like pressure on the quarterback. Over the last three seasons, the Jayhawks’ pass rush has been one of the most non-existent forces in major college football. In 2011, Kansas finished with just 10 total sacks in 12 games, tied for second-worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision. A year later, in Charlie Weis’ first season, the sack total improved to a modest 12 while the Jayhawks finished 1-11.
A year ago, Reynolds led the Jayhawks with a team-high 6 1/2 sacks — a number that qualified as a near sack party in Lawrence. But his recent run has been particularly important. In six games, the Jayhawks have managed 10 sacks. And after Reynolds’ four sacks, no other Jayhawks has more than 1 1/2 sacks.
“He’s one of the guys on our team that has the ability to rush the quarterback and win matchups against offensive tackles in this league and get pressure on the QB,” Bowen said. “It’s critical that we do that, because we don’t have a ton of pure pass-rush guys.”
Last week against Oklahoma State, Bowen said Reynolds’ two sacks did not come on defensive stunts or designed blitzes.
“He beat the guy over him,” Bowen says.
You might put it like this: For a game, the speed translated into plays.
“His ability to get pressure changes a lot of things,” Bowen said. “If we can get pressure … it helps us in coverage to do things. And Michael stepping up has been big for us.”