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Offseason Overview: Getting more explosive at linebacker

The Kansas football team's defense will be looking for more physical and explosive plays from its linebacking corps during the 2023 season and it looks like they may have the personnel in place to get that

4 min read
The Kansas football team's defense will be looking for more physical and explosive plays from its linebacking corps during the 2023 season and it looks like they may have the personnel in place to get that. [Matt Tait photo]

We’ll learn a lot more about the Kansas football program and its outlook for the 2023 season in a couple of months, when preseason camp is in full swing and the Jayhawks really begin preparing for the encore performance to last year’s Liberty Bowl appearance.

For now, though, let’s set the stage for how things look heading into camp.

What’s important? What’s known? Key question marks and players in need of a breakthrough performance for the Jayhawks to take that next step all will be covered in our Offseason Overview series.

Next up: The transformation at linebacker

If you were to pick one position that had the farthest to go when Lance Leipold arrived in Lawrence, you probably would’ve picked linebacker.

Not only were the Jayhawks lacking speed, depth and overall talent in the middle of their defense in those early days, but they also were missing experience.

That changed a little when Rich Miller came with Leipold from Buffalo, but even he was still an underclassman looking for valuable snaps and reps to transform into the player he is today. His familiarity with Leipold, DC Brian Borland, linebackers coach Chris Simpson and that group’s system and culture were huge. But KU still needed to upgrade the talent.

That’s happened in a big way during the past couple of years and KU’s hoping to see serious evidence of that this fall.

If it shows up, you’ll most likely notice it in the way this group hits and runs.

Miller’s the old steady veteran in the bunch these days, no longer needed to make every play and cover every mistake. That fits his game and should make him a reliable leader. He’s motivated to have his best season yet. And maybe he will. Be even if not, as long as he’s steady, he’ll be doing his job.

It’s the following players that you’ll really want to keep an eye on — JB Brown, Taiwan Berryhill Jr., Craig Young.

That group, when playing at its peak, can be explosive, using speed and power to blow up plays and bring down ball carriers.

Brown (6-2, 230) was one of the most talked about players throughout the spring, and the transfer from Bowling Green will have an opportunity to play a starring role for the Kansas defense right away. He’s fast and physical, and if he’s on his game he’ll bring a different dimension to the KU defense.

Berryhill (6-2, 230) is possibly the best equipped player on the entire roster to excel in the areas of running, hitting, being hit and still being explosive. He also brings good experience, having played in all 25 games of the Leipold era thus far.

Young (6-3, 225) came to KU from Ohio State, where he first played wide receiver and then safety, and he’s still learning the position. But his raw skills in the areas of speed, athleticism and passion make him a candidate for big things if he can put it all together.

After the top group, which includes Miller, the Jayhawks have a solid crop of developing linebackers who may be on the verge of breaking through to the next level. That might not make them candidates to be breakout stars, but if they can make the jump from seldom-used to in the mix or a depth piece to being in the regular rotation, that will be big not only for their prospects but also for those guys mentioned above and the Kansas defense as a whole.

The most intriguing names on that second list are: Cornell Wheeler, Jayson Gilliom, Donovan Gaines and Tristan Fletcher, along with freshman Logan Brantley.

The first three may factor into battles for playing time and could help push the guys ahead of them.

Brantley might not play much just yet, but he should be in the mix to learn a lot. Back on signing day, Leipold called Brantley the kind of player who will be a captain at KU someday.

If that group can develop and the guys ahead of them can perform up to or beyond their expectations, this could be the best bunch of linebackers we’ve seen at KU in a while.

Remember when you’re watching, though, it’s all about speed, physicality and explosive play. That’s what the coaches are looking for from this group and the guys who deliver will be the guys who play the most snaps.

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Here's a look at the other entries in our KU football Offseason Overview series:

• What depth & talent bring to KU's QB room

• The race for running back reps

• Examining the D Tackle position

• The value of the old men of the O-Line

• How many tight ends will KU utilize in 2023?

• Major upgrades for KU's kicking game

• Getting more explosive at linebacker