LAWRENCE — In the fourth quarter of Kansas' loss to Southern Mississippi, KU quarterback Jordan Webb unleashed a 41-yard touchdown pass to Johnathan Wilson on a vertical route down the left sideline.
As Wilson broke away from the defender into the end zone for six too-little-too-late points, it was easy to wonder why the Jayhawks hadn't taken more shots down the field in their passing game early this season.
KU coach Turner Gill says the issue has not been conservative play calling.
"We've called more (deep passes) than you've actually seen thrown," Gill said. "Protection has been a little bit of an issue."
A little bit? KU's quarterbacks have been sacked 12 times in three games — a pace that exceeds even last year's whopping total of 32 sacks allowed. A young quarterback running for his life is not a recipe for pristine downfield passing.
On the other side of the ball, the KU defense has registered just three sacks, none of which have come from a defensive lineman. That total is understandably low because North Dakota State and Georgia Tech only dropped back for 37 passes combined in the first two weeks, but the lack of pressure is a reason the Jayhawks have only forced three turnovers.
If the Jayhawks are going to turn their season around and qualify for a bowl game in Gill's first season, the change is going to have to start in the trenches. The KU offense doesn't have the experience at the skill positions to overcome poor line play, and the defense doesn't have the speed to cover the whole field without a defensive line that can force the issue at the line of scrimmage.
"To be a great defense, you gotta get pressure just bringing your front four," KU defensive end Kevin Young said. "That'll start opening everything else up in your blitz game and start giving your secondary a chance to get interceptions. It's definitely something we'll continue to work at."
Kansas seemed to find its groove rushing the passer last season, as defensive end Jake Laptad had 6½ sacks and opposite end Max Onyegbule had 6. The Jayhawks had 31 as a team. Onyegbule is gone, and Laptad, expected to be one of the top ends in the Big 12, has been quiet with five tackles and two quarterback hurries. He'll have a chance to get going the next two games against New Mexico State and Baylor, which run spread offenses.
"It's probably just a slow start," Gill said. "He's doing some good things that may not show up on statistics."
The main statistic Gill is concerned about defensively is turnovers. Players normally
don't turn it over if they're comfortable.
"If we're not getting sacks but we're getting turnovers, I'll take that," Gill said. "If we're causing pressure and doing those things that cause turnovers, I'd rather have it that way. The biggest thing we're emphasizing is creating the takeaways."
Offensively, considering how much pressure KU has faced, the Jayhawks have been fortunate to turn it over just four times. It's a testament to the maturity of the redshirt freshman Webb and true freshman running back James Sims.
Kansas may have minimized turnovers the first three games, but it hasn't been able to take enough chances down field. Apparently, the plays have been there.
"When we come in and watch film and we see that our guys are open, streaking down field, there's not much we can do," KU wide receiver Bradley McDougald said. "We just gotta wait on the offensive line to wrinkle out a couple issues that are happening up front."
Those issues burn for senior right tackle Brad Thorson, who is playing despite not being 100 percent. Gill said Thorson likely won't get there the rest of the season. The last thing Thorson wants is for his unit to hinder the KU offense.
"To see those passes that were open down the field and know that we could have hit Southern Miss a lot of times, it's tough," Thorson said. "It's individual breakdowns across the five guys. We need to get all five guys operating on the same page. We're trying to keep a good perspective about this."