Kansas football's defensive success could start at the line of scrimmage this season

Jordan Guskey
Topeka Capital-Journal
South Dakota freshman quarterback Carson Camp looks for a path around Kansas defensive lineman Malcom Lee in the first half of Friday's game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

LAWRENCE — The only thing Kyron Johnson thought about Friday, as he barreled toward South Dakota’s quarterback on the final play of the first quarter, was speed.

Kansas’ super-senior defensive end was playing the role his head coach, Lance Leipold, had envisioned for him in clear passing situations. As the Coyotes, faced with a 3rd-and-7, attempted to get a first down, Johnson went screaming by South Dakota’s right tackle so fast the lineman fell over behind him trying to recover. Johnson crashed into the quarterback, collected the sack he set out for and surprised himself with the fumble his hit caused.

The Jayhawks didn’t recover that fumble, just as they didn’t the other two times the Coyotes lost control of the ball — once earlier in the first quarter and then later on in the third. It’s unclear if that was one of the two times Leipold referred to after the game as moments when Leipold felt as if the ball was on the ground for “five seconds.” But the play itself well represented what was potentially the best-performing and most reliable position group in Kansas’ 17-14, season-opening win.

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As a secondary with key, young pieces continue to develop and the defense as a whole continues to adapt to a new system, the defensive line could be the key to the unit finding success in 2021. If the Jayhawks’ four-man front can cause enough pressure on its own, defensive coordinator Brian Borland will have more flexibility when it comes to how many guys he drops back in coverage. If the Jayhawks’ four-man front can control the line of scrimmage, it’ll only help defending against the run.

“I think we played excellent,” said Johnson, speaking to the defensive line specifically after the victory. “Of course … we’ve got some stuff to tighten up. But I think we played excellent.”

Kansas coach Lance Leipold reacts to a play in the first half of Friday's game against South Dakota at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.

Against South Dakota, two of the top four leading tacklers were defensive linemen in Johnson and senior Malcolm Lee. Four of the five tackles for loss came from defensive lineman, Johnson’s one joined by sophomore Kenean Caldwell’s one and redshirt freshman Caleb Taylor’s two. Kansas’ defensive line even had success despite starter and super-senior Sam Burt exiting with what appeared to be an arm injury in the first quarter.

As Johnson mentioned, there’s room for improvement. There were times the Jayhawks pressured the quarterback that could have ended in sacks that didn’t, as well as other examples. But their play was critical during some significant stops.

When South Dakota went for it on fourth down early in the first quarter inside Kansas’ 40 yard line, the pressure the line caused kept the Coyotes’ quarterback from having enough time to find a couple different open receivers for likely first-down completions. Part of the way through the fourth quarter, South Dakota with the ball on fourth and short just outside the red zone, the line helped force the Coyotes’ ball carrier to bounce outside and a Jayhawks safety was there for the tackle. Then on South Dakota’s final offensive drive of the night, this fourth down coming at the Coyotes’ own 30 yard line, senior Hayden Hatcher and later Johnson created the havoc in the backfield that helped lead to a drive-ending incompletion.

Kansas stopped each of South Dakota's three fourth down attempts Friday, which complemented an effort on third downs that held the visitors to 3-of-13 in such attempts.

“D-line, I thought, had a very good night,” said Leipold, who was proud of Taylor for being one of the guys who stepped up in Burt’s stead. “Kyron Johnson’s our most athletic defensive lineman. He’s got great twitch. He can come off the edge. He’s got a great motor. And … we’re going to need that from him all year.”

Speaking to the defense as a whole, Leipold also said: “Played well up front. I just like the way, the passion that they played with. We talked about playing with motors and doing things and giving great effort and straining and good things are going to happen and … I thought it was an excellent performance. Both teams didn’t light it up yardage-wise, but at the same time we got a lot of key stops when we needed to and again those are all confidence builders as we go through things.”

Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki said in the week leading up to the opener that the thing championship organizations have in common is good line play on both sides of the ball. It was clear, at least against South Dakota, that there’s talent along the Jayhawks’ defensive line that can make an impact in 2021.

Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at jmguskey@gannett.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.