"SEC! SEC!" How does that old saying go…? Oh ya, “It’s not that our offenses are bad, it’s just that our defenses are so good.” I guess Utah and the Mountain West conference can boast a similar sentiment. Unfortunately, Texas Tech shit the bed this afternoon so I can’t really talk up the Big XII either. But even that couldn’t dampen my enjoyment of watching the most arrogant conference in the country get humiliated by the Utes from Salt Lake - anyone else think they have a pretty convincing case for claiming the national championship? Moving on to the task at hand…
In looking back at the entire season, or simply just Wednesday’s game, it’s pretty apparent that we’re returning our three most important players. For obvious reasons, this is good, as you don’t have to look back very far to measure the impact of losing your biggest stars (i.e. Talib, McClinton, Collins, Fine, McAnderson, and even Henry and Rodriguez). But despite retaining these offensive stars, we will be losing several important cogs on both sides of the football. Today, I want to discuss the significance of those losses by ranking them and projecting how they'll be replaced.
1. James Holt (OLB). And it’s not even close. Coming into the year he was the least heralded of the three LBs, but he had far and away the best year of the three, culminating in being named first team All-Big XII and Defensive MVP of the Insight Bowl. He finished with a team-leading 105 tackles, 19.5 for a loss – 10 of them sacks. He also forced six fumbles and picked off a Joe Ganz pass. In the spread happy Big XII, we took our most athletic linebacker and asked him to do just about everything. And for the most part, he did. Stuckey might have been the heart on that side of the ball, but Holt was still the MVP. He will not be easy to replace.
Likely replacement: Arist Wright (RS Sr). Short and stout, Wright is pretty quick for a linebacker, sound in tackling, but not especially great at any one thing. However, we’ve never really seen him play for an extended period of time. As the likely incumbent, hopefully he’ll cherish the role and develop into a very dependable player, because we’ll need him.
2. Ryan Cantrell (C). The offensive line took a lot of blame for many of the struggles this year and most of the criticism was warranted. As the leader of that group, Cantrell was not absolved from any of this blame. However, he was still our best lineman and won’t be easy to replace. Aside from his ability in both single and combo blocking, something we take for granted from Cantrell is his snapping. For a team that takes 50+ snaps out of shotgun, it’s no small feat to never have one get away.
Likely replacement: Brad Thorson (Jr). The extent of my knowledge on Thorson is that he transferred from Wisconsin and the rumored reason is some sort of fighting at practice. As I’ve said before, I won’t condone that, but I don’t hate it from one of my linemen either. Those around the program have high hopes for Thorson, so for now I feel pretty good about this transition.
3. Mike Rivera (OLB). Despite taking quite a bit of criticism this year, Mike had himself a solid year and won’t be easy to replace. He ended the season with 93 tackles, 8 of them for a loss and 2 of them sacks. He also defended four passes and forced four fumbles. So while he looked a little lost in pass coverage at times and had his lack of lateral movement exposed more times than I like to remember, he was still a vital piece of our defense. There aren’t many better or scarier when they’re running downhill – you’re just not afforded that opportunity too often against the type of offenses we saw most of this season.
Likely replacement: Either Steven Johnson (So) or Dakota Lewis (RS Jr). Johnson has the better typical linebacker size, but as we saw with Holt this year, that’s not always important. Also noteworthy is the apparent trust the staff has shown in Lewis with his position placement on special teams. There’s also a slew of other young LBs on the roster that could slide in here, most notably, Drew Dudley – so we’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out.
4. Adrian Mayes (LG). I probably got madder at Mayes than anyone, but I’ll never underestimate the effort and work ethic he displayed each and every time he took the field. He was probably the least athletically gifted starter we had on either side of the ball, but by being assignment sound and playing his ass off he became a pretty dependable lineman for a team that won 20 of the 26 games in which he played.
Likely replacement: Jeremiah Hatch (RS So). This is pure speculation on my part and entirely contingent on Spikes moving to LT, Leuken replacing him at RT and letting Hatch slide inside one spot. If this really happens, I think it’s a significant upgrade. He is much more physically gifted than Mayes and yet he’s also known for his tenacity. He just doesn’t quite have the height or arm length to be a left tackle – but he’d make a perfect left guard if the pieces fall into place. If none of this happens, I believe Trevor Marongelli would be next in line here.
5. Joe Mortensen (MLB). Like Rivera, Joe took some heat this year for not living up to the success he had a year ago. And while it was accurate, it wasn’t entirely justified. After having off-season knee surgery, there was no reason to expect a linebacker in Mortensen’s mold to have success in a spread happy conference. Yet despite his deficiencies, he ended the season with 90 tackles, 8 for a loss, 2 of them sacks. He also defended four passes, was credited with 9 QB hurries and recovered a couple fumbles. His struggles in pass coverage were clearly a hindrance, but very few close a hole better against the run.
Likely replacement: Justin Springer (Jr). Springer was actually starting to see significant minutes this season until he tore up his knee on special teams. A monster (6’4” 245) and weight room fanatic, Springer is very similar to Mortensen. The two things to watch with him will be how he recovers from his recent knee surgery and also how he fares in pass coverage, because he’ll surely be tested.
6. Chet Hartley (RG). As was the case with Mayes, Hartley battled some physical limitations and made an impact more on effort than ability. So while he struggled with some of the better DTs he faced, we always knew what we were getting out of him and he had a very positive impact on both the 2007 and 2008 Jayhawks.
Likely replacement: Sal Capra (RS Jr). As many of you likely noticed, Sal actually started splitting time with Chet throughout the last 2/3 of the season. A big part of this was letting Chet rest his knees for a series or two at a time, but part of it was ability. A converted LB, Capra has definitely put on the weight to be a legitimate guard and if he can continue to learn the position he seems like he could be a good fit there for the next couple years.
7. Russell Brorsen (DE). As was the case with Mike, Joe and nearly everyone on the defense, Brorsen took a lot of criticism this year for “regressing.” And just like them, it was simply a product of facing not only better teams, but also teams that liked to pass more than run – which is what he excels at defending. He ended the season with 30 tackles, 4 for a loss, 1 of which was a sack and two Josh Freeman interceptions. He didn’t have the ability to get to the QB very often, but no one was better in run defense, especially in stringing plays out to the sideline.
Likely replacement: Maxwell Onyegbule (RS Jr). That is, if we’re to believe the current depth chart. Onyegbule is seen as a pass rushing specialist, though he wasn’t really very productive in doing so. I think the real hope here is that Quinton Woods, the 4 star JuCo transfer from Bakersfield steps in and fills this role. Originally committed to Michigan out of HS, Woods (6’6” 245) went the JuCo route on account of academics and has since become a very productive player off the edge. Let’s hope it translates to the next level.
8. Dexton Fields (WR). After leading the team in receptions the last two seasons, big things were expected of Dex this year. Unfortunately, he got hurt in the first game and was never really himself. He finished with only 20 catches for 217 yards and 3 touchdowns – scoring once in each of the final regular season games (Nebraska, Texas & Missouri). Dex ends his career as a very valued Jayhawk and a big reason for the turnaround, but ultimately he was surpassed by Briscoe, Meier and even Wilson.
Likely replacement: Raimond Pendleton (RS Sr). I’m not sure how Pendleton would do in the slot on a consistent basis, but he seemed to be the guy that was next in line this year. Obviously a lot could happen here – Daymond could move back, Rod Harris could develop, and with a slew of other young guys on the roster you never know who is going to step up. But with Dezmon and Kerry returning, I feel pretty confident about our wide receivers as a whole.
We’ll be losing these eight players, all of which have been starters throughout the past two seasons. The loss of that kind of experience should not be underestimated. I consider us small favorites in the north simply because we’re the only team returning our quarterback – and he happens to be pretty decent – but we’ve got some holes to fill on both sides of the ball. I’m extremely confident in our ability to replace the interior of our line and Dexton on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, we need to brace for some falloff from the linebacking position and hope that by returning our entire secondary and improving our defensive line we can hide their deficiencies.
As always, feedback is welcomed.