With the plethora of wide receivers running around the league this year, it's going to be imperative that KU's secondary is up to this task. Last year they resuscitated what was one of the country's worst units in '06 to, statistically, one of the better ones last year. By the end of the season they had put together a unit that allowed 223 ypg (9.5 ypc) and yielded 17 touchdowns, while picking off 23 passes (to be fair, some of those INTs were not made by the secondary). Now those numbers are nothing to be overly heralded, but they are to be acclaimed, especially considering that the defense only allowed 94 ypg on the ground, so teams were looking to pass.
Now we've already chronicled our concern for a better pass rush. One of the reasons it has to be better is because this year's secondary will be without its star, Aqib Talib. After declaring early, Talib officially went from 2 star recruit to first round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But alas, he is gone. And replacing him is the guy who was originally lining up opposite of him last year. After going down with an early season arm injury, Kendrick Harper was replaced by true freshman, Chris Harris. Seeing as how Harris went on to become a Freshman All-American, I'm sure you know that Harper never really got his job back. However, he did get some PT, participating in 8 games, starting 3 of them. And in that time, he showed why he is the preemptive starter this time around.
In that limited action, Harper showed the ability to lay some wood and the overall ability to be a solid zone corner. I don't think he has the speed to cover 1-on-1, but in the spread offense, who really does? Harper racked up 19 tackles (10 S, 9 A, 2 FL), 1 interception, 3 PD, and he recovered a fumble. Not exactly a record breaking year, but solid production out of your # 3 CB. This year, though, he won't have the luxury of being #3. He needs to be at the very least 2, if not 1A, as we still have yet to see how Harris handles the conversion to being "the guy."
Speaking of Harris, can he become a true #1? My instinct tells me he'll be great, but not quite there. Not to take anything away from what he did last year - because he went far and above what we could have realistically expected from him – but it's undeniable that it's much tougher being the #1 guy. Still though, when you look at what he did as a true freshman you have to believe that this kid is going to become a star either this year or the next. He played in all 13 games, starting 10, and in that time he racked up 65 tackles (40 S, 25 A, 1.5 FL), intercepted 2 passes, broke up 4 more and recovered a fumble. Unfortunately, what those stats also tell you is that he tackled his guy a lot more often than he defended him. This is always going to be true with a corner, but it especially was with Harris last year as it seemed that he preferred to concede the small gain, while remaining in position to never give up a big one. There certainly is a lot of merit to this mindset and as you saw, he's about as good an open field tackler as you'll find. But as a second year guy trying to make the leap, I think the Big Man would like him to do a bit more.
Aside from those two, however, there is not much depth at the corner position. Isiah Barfield (6', 175) is a RS Freshman and appears to be the clear # 3. Mangino has been speaking extremely well of his abilities and he was originally signed as a WR who could fly. However, I would expect a third safety more often than a third corner in most nickel packages, but we'll get to that in a moment. Aside from him, there isn't another player officially listed as a corner on the entire roster. As they go deeper on the depth chart though, I would expect to possibly see some of Anthony Davis (6', 192), the RS Freshman out of Tulsa. But since I don't know a thing about him, I'll just leave it at that.
On to the safeties. Now here is a crowded spot on the field. Darrell Stuckey returns as the team's fourth leading tackler (72 – 36 S, 36 A, 2 FL) and the only player from the secondary that started all 13 games a year ago. In addition to those 72 tackles, Stuckey intercepted 2 passes, broke up six and recovered a couple of fumbles. Long story short, the guy found his way to the ball more often than not. He's a natural leader and a guy that loves to hit. He's much better at run defense, but as you can tell, he plays a pretty good centerfield back there also. I find that to be the strength of the guy next to him though.
That guy is Justin Thornton, who came on strong at the end of last year, ultimately starting the last four games. While playing in all thirteen he racked up 46 (26S, 20 A, 1 FL) tackles, broke up 9 passes and tied for the team lead with 5 INTs. Again, a long story short, the guy has a nose for the ball. Because of that, along with his speed, I look at him as the better of the two in pass coverage, but he's no slouch against the run either.
Behind these two are a few guys waiting in the wings. The first of which, Patrick Resby, started the first 8 games last year before losing his job to Thornton. In that time he had 22 tackles and he recovered a fumble. He has all the tools to play a solid safety, but he often appeared out of position, which I believe is what ultimately lost him his job. Aside from him are Tang Bacheyie and Olaitan Oguntodu, which if paired next to each other would easily lay claim to the coolest duo of names at the safety position. Tang saw time in all 13 games last year and notched 8 tackles in that time. Olaitan didn't do nearly as much, but if you think Stuckey and Thornton like to fly around, wait until you see these guys. Again, it's hard to say how much time they'll get with the guys in front of them, but I wouldn't be surprised to see either making a contribution.
In short, it's unlikely they'll fully replace Talib and his 65 tackles (42 S, 24 A, 3.5 FL), 5 INTs (195 return yards) & 13 break ups. And they definitely won't replace the fear factor that he put into opposing QBs. Sure, he got beat from time to time, but you can't discount how rarely he was thrown at and how he nearly eliminated his side of the field. But that's part of what makes zone coverage so useful. Harper is no Talib and neither he nor Harris can probably cover as well 1-on-1, but when you put the two of them back there with Stuckey and Thornton helping out as well, they form a pretty solid unit. I wouldn't expect the numbers to be quite as good this year – partly due to competition, partly the loss of Aqib – but if the Ends can produce a decent pass rush, this isn't a unit that's going to get torched either.
Before we go, here are a few links of interest…
First, Barking Carnival's Henry James has posted the Kansas Preview: State of the Union. Not nearly as entertaining as last year's, but worth a read nonetheless. And it's always good to read an objective opinion, especially when they're at least semi-informed, unlike most of the national media.
Next, here is a different look at the Top 25 from Deadspin's Balls Deep column, by Drew Magary, giving you a reason to hate every team on the list.
And finally, it appears that Josh Freeman, or "J-Free," will be doing some blogging this year. We'll look forward to that…
And lastly, if you didn't catch Jesse Newell's Sideline Report with Joe Mortensen, be sure to.