Big 12: Kevin Short

There’s a weak link on every team, but also a strength. This series will look at the strongest and weakest position groups for each Big 12 team heading into the fall.

On Wednesday, we continue the series with Kansas.

Strongest position: Secondary

The Jayhawks have arguably the best returning cornerback duo in the Big 12 with JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald. They combined for 27 passes defensed in 2013, each ranking in the top 10 in the conference in that category. And Shepherd and McDonald still have room to grow as individual players.

KU’s safeties are just as productive. Isaiah Johnson was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year after making 73 tackles and intercepting five passes during his first season in the conference. Fellow safety Cassius Sendish was right behind Johnson with 67 tackles of his own.

Add cornerbacks Kevin Short and Greg Allen, who looked ready to contribute during the spring, and the Jayhawks secondary brings experience, production and depth to the field on Saturdays this fall, three traits several other Big 12 teams wish they had on their rosters.

Weakest position: Offensive line

If KU has any hope of John Reagan’s offense taking off during his first season as offensive coordinator, the offensive line will have to reach new heights.

The Jayhawks return a league-worst 34 career starts along the offensive line, with All-Big 12 honorable mention guard Ngalu Fusimalohi as the lone returnee with double-digit starts (12). Reagan, who is the offensive line coach in addition to his coordinator duties, is tasked with making the inexperienced group the foundation of his offense’s success.

KU has five different returnees with starting experience and will add ESPN 300 center Jacob Bragg into the mix this summer so the Jayhawks have options to work with. Head coach Charlie Weis has promised the Jayhawks will strive to put their top five offensive linemen on the field, regardless of their previous position, so the summer and preseason could feature plenty of shuffling along the offensive line.

Fusimalohi is a great place to start but plenty of work remains for Reagan and Weis to transform this unit one of the strengths of the team.
Since last week, we've been analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. We conclude the series with Kansas' projected post-spring depth chart.

OFFENSE

QB: Montell Cozart (So.), Jake Heaps (Sr.), Michael Cummings (So.), T.J. Millweard (So.)

[+] EnlargeMontell Cozart
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerMontell Cozart was the clear choice at quarterback for the Jayhawks this spring.
Cozart was clearly the Jayhawks’ best quarterback during the spring game, so it made perfect sense when Kansas coach Charlie Weis named him the starter shortly after spring practice. If the sophomore continues to develop as a passer, he could help KU’s offense take a clear step forward. Heaps' status is unclear but, with Weis making it clear Cozart is the man, there’s no reason for him to stick around. Millweard and Cummings should be solid behind Cozart. It’s not the best group of quarterbacks in the league, but it’s not the worst, either.

RB: Brandon Bourbon (Sr.), Darrian Miller (Jr.), Taylor Cox (Sr.)

Bourbon had a solid spring and Miller returns after finishing second on the squad with 322 rushing yards in 2013. Yet it won’t be easy to replace James Sims, who was a mainstay in KU’s backfield for four seasons. Freshmen Corey Avery and Traevohn Wrench join De'Andre Mann as newcomers in the summer. KU should be able to replace Sims with a combination of these six running backs and its running game should be solid, particularly with Cozart providing a running threat at quarterback as well.

WR: Nick Harwell (Sr.), Tony Pierson (Sr.), Rodriguez Coleman (Jr.), Justin McCay (Sr.), Andrew Turzilli (Sr.)
TE: Jimmay Mundine (Sr.), Ben Johnson (RFr.)

With Harwell and Pierson, the Jayhawks could have two of the Big 12’s top big-play creators this fall. Both guys can be a handful in the open field and can turn a short gain into a long touchdown. Coleman came on in the spring and could provide another target for Cozart. The Jayhawks receivers looked solid in the spring. Now they just need to carry that momentum into actual production in the fall or end up being considered one of the conference’s worst groups of receivers again.

C: Keyon Haughton (Jr.), Joe Gibson (RFr.)
G: Ngalu Fusimalohi (Sr.), Joey Bloomfield (RFr.)
G: Mike Smithburg (Sr.), Bryan Peters (Jr.)
T: Damon Martin (So.), Zach Fondal (Sr.)
T: Pat Lewandowski (Sr.) Brian Beckmann (So.)

The Jayhawks' offensive line situation seems fairly fluid, so expect KU to continue to search for its five best offensive linemen during preseason camp. Fusimalohi is the best of the bunch and anchors the offensive front. This group had its moments last season, but needs to play better for KU’s offense to really take off.

DEFENSE

DL: Ben Goodman (So.), Tyler Holmes (So.)
DL: Andrew Bolton (Jr.), T.J. Semke (Jr.)
DL: Keon Stowers (Sr.), Tedarian Johnson (Sr.)

Goodman and Stowers are returning starters for the Jayhawks defense. Stowers is solid in the middle and Goodman has the talent to break out in 2014. The unit has a solid group of starters, but needs additional depth.

BUCK: Michael Reynolds (Sr.), Marcus Jenkins-Moore (Jr.) Victor Simmons (Sr.)
LB: Ben Heeney (Sr.), Courtney Arnick (So.)
LB: Jake Love (Jr.), Schyler Miles (Jr.)

This is a solid and deep group of linebackers, with several players competing for a job. Outside of Heeney and Love, nobody’s job could be safe, with players such as Miles and Arnick looking like contributors.

CB: Dexter McDonald (Sr.), Ronnie Davis (Jr.)
CB: JaCorey Shepherd (Sr.), Michael Mesh (Jr.)
NB: Kevin Short (Jr.), Greg Allen (So.)
S: Cassius Sendish (Sr.), Tevin Shaw (So.)
S: Isaiah Johnson (Jr.), Anthony Smithson (So.)

The Jayhawks have a solid secondary full of playmakers. McDonald and Shepherd can hold their own at cornerback, and Sendish and Johnson are a pair of active safeties. Short was one of the stars of KU’s spring practice. This starting unit could rank among the Big 12’s best if it continues to improve heading into the fall.
With spring ball done, we’ve been re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team. Wednesday, we finish up with defensive backs. Once again, these outlooks could look different in August. But this is how we see them post-spring:

1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 1): Juco safety Kenny Iloka was one of the storylines of the spring in Fort Worth, augmenting an already loaded secondary. In TCU’s spring game, Iloka scored a touchdown off a fumble return and picked off a pass, underscoring pretty much how he performed all spring. Iloka could probably start for the majority of teams in the Big 12. At TCU, he’s a backup. Coach Gary Patterson seemingly praised Ranthony Texada more than anyone else on his roster this spring, and the redshirt freshman cornerback looks poised to step into the starting role vacated by All-American Jason Verrett. At 5-foot-9, Texada isn’t big. Then again, neither was Verrett. Safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett and cornerback Kevin White could play for anyone in the conference. In other words, this TCU secondary is stacked.

2. Texas (2): Texas is one of the few teams in the Big 12 without really any position battle in its secondary coming out of the spring. Senior safeties Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner have been up and down throughout their careers, but they really buttoned up their play in the spring. Thompson delivered a pick-six in the Orange-White game. Turner had the hit of the day and intercepted a pass. At cornerback, Quandre Diggs isn’t an All-American, but he’s developed into a solid veteran leader. Duke Thomas can really run at the other cornerback spot. This is a sound group.

3. Oklahoma (3): The Sooners return two proven players in cornerback Zack Sanchez and nickel back Julian Wilson. Sanchez was erratic at times last season, but he displayed mental toughness and usually came back with big plays of his own after getting burned. Wilson will be a three-year starter. Safety Quentin Hayes had a decent junior season, too. After that, things get murky, and that’s not necessarily a negative. Dakota Austin, who was an unheralded two-star signee last year, is probably the favorite coming out of the spring to start at cornerback opposite Sanchez and over more heralded classmate Stanvon Taylor. Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd are both talented young safeties, but they have yet to prove they’re every-down players. Steven Parker II will be the player to watch here. Insiders in Norman believe the incoming true freshman has the talent and the temperament to win a starting job by the opener the way Tony Jefferson did in 2010. If he does, that will allow coordinator Mike Stoops to utilize Byrd and Thomas in certain sub-packages where the scheme will be more simplified.

4. Kansas State (4): K-State already boasts one of the best nickel backs in the league in Randall Evans and an up-and-coming safety in Dante Barnett. The Wildcats had a productive spring elsewhere in their secondary, as Morgan Burns stepped up to essentially nail down a starting job at corner. Coveted juco transfer Danzel McDaniel progressed after arriving on campus and exited spring ball on the cusp of earning the other starting cornerback gig. Dylan Schellenberg, who started the two games Ty Zimmerman missed last season, will go into the fall as the favorite to start at safety alongside Barnett.

5. West Virginia (5): The Mountaineers might have the best underclassman cornerback in the league in sophomore Daryl Worley, who locked up Mario Alford in West Virginia’s spring game. Worley was fabulous all spring, and he brings a maturity and attitude that defies his age. Like Worley, Karl Joseph started as a true freshman, and he could be on the verge of turning into one of the best safeties in the Big 12 as a junior. It will be interesting to see if incoming blue-chip freshman Dravon Henry can break into the rotation at cornerback, which would only make this secondary better.

6. Kansas (6): Senior cornerback Dexter McDonald put in the work during the offseason, and it showed in Kansas’ spring game. He's become a technically-sound player. Fellow cornerback Kevin Short, a juco transfer forced by the NCAA to sit out last season, can fly. Safety Isaiah Johnson, who became the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year after picking off five passes last season, had another pick in the spring game. With four starters back from last fall, plus the addition of Short, Kansas’ secondary will be the team's strength next season.

7. Oklahoma State (7): The emergence of Ashton Lampkin was a positive development for the Cowboys. Lampkin had a pick-six in the “Orange Blitz” scrimmage, and after two seasons as a key backup, looks ready to take over as a starting cornerback opposite All-Big 12 hopeful Kevin Peterson. The Cowboys are completely inexperienced at safety, with second-year players Jordan Sterns, Deric Robertson, Jerel Morrow and Tre Flowers basically comprising the position. Only time will determine how effective the Cowboys can be at the back end.

8. Texas Tech (8): The Red Raiders have to feel good about their safeties coming out of the spring. Keenon Ward was the defensive MVP and brought the hammer all spring. J.J. Gaines will soon be completely back from a season-ending shoulder injury. He played extremely well through five games last season. Justis Nelson is oozing confidence after earning a starting job as a true freshman last fall. The biggest question is at the other cornerback spot. Sophomore La’Darius Newbold is currently the starter, but speedy true freshman Nigel Bethel II could make noise once he arrives this summer.

9. Baylor (9): The rebuild of a secondary that graduated four starters remains a work in progress. Sophomore Orion Stewart had the best spring of the young players and looks primed to take over the deep safety role held by All-American Ahmad Dixon. Sophomore cornerbacks Terrence Singleton and Xavien Howard also won starting jobs, but they’ll have to fend off juco transfer Chris Sanders in the preseason. Walk-on senior Collin Brence was the surprise of the spring and is listed as the starter at nickelback. This a group, though, that still has more questions to answer.

10: Iowa State (10): Nigel Tribune, who was the only true freshman to play at Iowa State in the past two seasons, is one of the best young cornerbacks in the league and a cornerstone defender for the Cyclones. The rest of the secondary is a big fat unknown. Juco transfer Devron Moore, whom Iowa State beat TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia for, left school in the middle of spring ball with homesickness. He is dubious to return. That leaves juco transfer Qujuan Floyd, redshirt freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya and T.J. Mutcherson, who suffered an MCL injury in the spring game (he should be back in June), as Iowa State’s only remaining options at safety.
Kansas kicked off its spring football drills on Thursday with a lot of work to be done. The Jayhawks’ to-do list is lengthy, with finding a quarterback and offensive playmakers sitting atop of it.

Offensive returner ready to take next step: New offensive coordinator John Reagan wants to use the spring to find playmakers for his offense. Receiver Rodriguez Coleman showed signs of playmaking ability, averaging 26 yards per catch while finishing third on the team with 208 receiving yards on eight catches. He was inconsistent and never emerged as a staple in KU’s game plans, but he has talent, and this spring provides the opportunity to show Reagan he wants to be a major part of the offense.

Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Cornerback Kevin Short didn’t play in one snap in 2013, but this spring he could emerge as KU’s No. 3 cornerback and give the Jayhawks defense options and versatility alongside starters JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald. Short, who signed in February 2013 but was ruled ineligible in September, is a big cornerback (6-foot-2, 182 pounds) with athleticism and return skills.

[+] EnlargeCozart
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsKansas quarterback Montell Cozart hopes to get a chance to build on his freshman season.
Redshirt freshman to watch: Tight end Ben Johnson could emerge as a player who deserves playing time this spring. If that happens, he could join Jimmay Mundine to give the Jayhawks two talented pass catchers at tight end.

“I think he has a huge upside,” KU coach Charlie Weis said. “He hasn't played a down yet, so you can't anoint anyone at this point, but I think that Ben Johnson could be pressing [to play].”

Most significant position battle: Reagan needs someone to trigger the Jayhawks offense at quarterback. Jake Heaps, Michael Cummings, Montell Cozart and T.J. Millweard are the main contenders for the starting position, and Weis hopes the competition is settled this spring. It’s Heaps' last chance to prove himself as a quality college quarterback, Cummings is the forgotten man, Cozart hopes to put his freshman mistakes behind him and Millweard is looking to show he is the future at quarterback after transferring from UCLA before the 2013 season.

Key midterm enrollee: Offensive lineman Keyon Haughton could provide depth, and he adds competition along the offensive line during the spring. At 6-2 and 309 pounds, the junior brings terrific size to KU’s offensive front.

Question that could be answered: Weis hopes the quarterback competition ends before the summer. He was very candid in saying a prolonged quarterback derby wouldn’t be the ideal scenario because “it means you don’t have one.” KU has talent and options at the position, but if the Jayhawks can’t get better play from that position in 2014, their chances for a breakout season under Weis will decrease.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will replace James Sims at running back? Brandon Bourbon and Darrian Miller saw spot duty behind Sims last season, but KU signed three quality running back prospects in junior college transfer De'Andre Mann and freshmen Traevohn Wrench and Corey Avery. It would be a major surprise if the starting running back spot is finalized heading into summer workouts.

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