LAWRENCE — It’s often referred to as the “island,” the place where cornerbacks spend most of their time during games. They are isolated, playing a demanding position, often operating without the security blanket of a safety or linebacker.
For KU junior Dexter McDonald, it has never felt better to be all alone. Last year, he was trying to remake his reputation at Butler Community College. One season later, McDonald, a former Rockhurst High graduate, is bolstering a rebuilt KU secondary, leading the Jayhawks with five pass break-ups and one interception in two games.
For a KU squad that sits at 1-1 after a disappointing loss at Rice last week, McDonald and junior cornerback JaCorey Shepherd have stabilized a pass defense that ranks third in the nation at 122.5 passing yards allowed per game.
“It’s a blessing and I’m just going with the flow right now,” McDonald says, sitting inside the KU football offices on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s definitely amazing thinking about what I had to go through, and I’m lucky to be back where I am now to have a second opportunity.”
The perks and pageantry of Division I football — the plush facilities, the television exposure, even the food — can feel like a foreign world after spending a year in the juco ranks. Butler wasn’t quite football purgatory, of course — it’s a national juco power that regularly sends players to top programs — but McDonald was motivated to prove he could get back to the top level of college football.
“I had to work and get back on the map, because a lot of people thought I might not make it back to Division I,” McDonald says, “or (they thought) that might be the last they saw of me when I transferred from KU.”
McDonald started at KU in 2010, choosing to play for coach Turner Gill after drawing heavy interest from Missouri. After redshirting, he played in seven games in 2011 before being dismissed by then first-year coach Charlie Weis in early 2012.
In a surreptitious twist, McDonald’s one-year sabbatical may have altered the trajectory of Shepherd’s career as well. Last year, Shepherd was entering his sophomore season as a reserve wide receiver. The Jayhawks, though, had a shortage of viable options at defensive back — partly because of McDonald’s departure. Shepherd was soon converted to cornerback — despite having no experience at the position.
After some shaky beginnings, Shepherd appears to have settled in at the spot, recording three pass break-ups entering KU’s matchup with Louisiana Tech at 11 a.m. Saturday in Lawrence.
“He flips over to defense and he’s an offensive player playing corner,” Weis says. “Now he’s a corner playing corner.”
When fall camp began, Weis had all but penciled in junior college transfer Kevin Short as one of KU’s starting cornerbacks. Then the NCAA ruled Short academically ineligible for this season.
McDonald and Shepherd bonded. In 2011, when Shepherd arrived on campus, he would often line up against McDonald in practice, a freshman receiver going after a redshirt freshman cornerback. Two years later, he’s happy to be lining up next to him.
“When I got here my freshman year, just going up against him, he was one of the toughest (defensive backs) to go against,” Shepherd says. “So now, actually being able to play on the opposite side of him, it actually helps me.”
Back to Houston — Four days after suffering a 23-14 loss at Rice, the KU football program announced it’s returning to Houston — in six years.
KU will begin a home-and-home football series with Houston on Sept. 14, 2019. The return game will come the following year on Sept. 12 at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.
“This is another great series for Kansas football,” Weis said. “The state of Texas is an extremely important area for our program in terms of recruiting. In addition, we have a large alumni base in Houston area so being able to play Houston is ideal for both the team and our fans.”
Kansas leads 3-0 in its series with Houston, with the last victory coming in the Fort Worth Bowl in 2005.