Kansas safety Cassius Sendish arrived on campus in January of last year, a junior-college transfer ready to provide immediate help to a lagging secondary.
He has now been on campus for all of 15 months and played in just 12 games. He is, in most categories, still a relative college football neophyte. So earlier this month, when a reporter began a question by referring to Sendish as a veteran, he paused for a moment, craning his neck in disbelief.
“It’s crazy just to hear you say that I’m a veteran,” said Sendish, who will be a senior this fall. “Because I just got here a year ago. It’s crazy.”
Crazy, perhaps, but also a pretty good symbol for the Kansas defense as a whole. One year after unveiling a retooled and inexperienced defense, the Jayhawks suddenly feature one of the most veteran units in the Big 12. Kansas is slated to return nine starters on defense, including six seniors and its entire secondary.
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That nucleus includes Sendish and fellow safety Isaiah Johnson, the reigning Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year. All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney is poised to enter his final season in the middle of the defense, while senior cornerback Dexter McDonald has emerged as a reliable cover man. .
In a way, it’s new territory for the Kansas defense, which was routinely shellacked during two lost seasons under Turner Gill and a 1-11 campaign in Charlie Weis’ first season.
“Honestly, I think we can be the top defense in the Big 12 this year, and I expect us to be the top defense in the Big 12,” said Johnson, who had five interceptions and 73 tackles last season. “We have great coaches and great players. I think, if we just put it all together, we can showcase it.”
The goals are being set high, especially for a defense that, for all its improvements, still finished eighth in the Big 12 in scoring defense (31.8 points per game) and total defense. Some of those numbers were inflated by an offense that provided little support, keeping the defense on the field for long stretches. But the Jayhawks will also need a more consistent push on the defensive line.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. Last year, the Jayhawks spent spring practice installing a new scheme under defensive coordinator Clint Bowen — who had yet to officially earn the title.
The scheme was designed to better combat the Big 12’s exotic spread attacks. And it worked well enough for Weis to officially anoint Bowen as the coordinator.
This year, Sendish says, it’s about fine-tuning and improving the fundamentals.
“For myself, the game has slowed down a lot,” Sendish said. “Last year, I was really jumpy. I can’t even explain it. I’m not just getting my feet wet anymore. I’m just a lot more comfortable.”
One year ago, while players like Sendish and Johnson were still feeling out the scheme, they often had to be on the field for close to 60 minutes. Depth was an issue, especially in the secondary, and when you’re lining up against Baylor’s spread offense, that can create major issues.
One solution: More bodies.
While the Jayhawks return nine starters, they are also set to add a handful of potentially impactful newcomers. Junior college transfers Marcus Jenkins-Moore, an outside linebacker, and Andrew Bolton, a defensive end, will both be eligible after taking redshirts last season. Weis says that sophomore cornerback Greg Allen is also making strides as a reliable backup in the secondary.
In other personnel moves, senior Victor Simmons is making the transition from nickel back to “Buck” linebacker — which is primarily a pass-rushing spot — while junior Ben Goodman will line up as a defensive end after playing the “Buck” position last year.
“It’s just the way we worked this spring,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working hard and we’ve been telling each other: ‘We can be the best defensive group in the Big 12 if we just keep pushing each other.’”
Crazy? Perhaps. But when the defense takes the field for the annual KU spring game on Saturday, the unit will get its first public crack against the KU offense’s new spread scheme. Perhaps the idea of Kansas turning out the Big 12’s best defense is a rather lofty goal. But for now, the Jayhawks are comfortable with those sort of lofty attitudes.
“Really, we’re shooting for a national championship,” Sendish said. “Why shoot any lower? So, of course, we’re going to have our goals set high.”