University of Kansas

‘Embarrassed’ KU line looking for better run-blocking against Memphis

Kansas running back Khalil Herbert ran into a swarm of Ohio tacklers during last Saturday’s game in Lawrence. KU rushed for 26 yards in the loss.
Kansas running back Khalil Herbert ran into a swarm of Ohio tacklers during last Saturday’s game in Lawrence. KU rushed for 26 yards in the loss. Associated Press

Even in a tough situation, Zach Yenser isn’t searching for sympathy.

The Kansas offensive line coach has just three upperclassmen listed on his 11-person depth chart. He has a pair of walk-on freshmen starting on the right side of his offensive line, both weighing less than 300 pounds.

“I would love to be able to say, ‘We’ve got four redshirt juniors and a senior starting right now.’ We just don’t,” Yenser said. “But that’s not an excuse.”

Yenser knows it’s a results business, and that’s why he’s not avoiding reality when preparing for KU’s road game Saturday against Memphis.

The Jayhawks’ run game needs to improve, he says, after the team rushed for 26 yards last week against Ohio.

“Obviously,” Yenser said, “that’s the elephant in the room.”

It was the second straight week KU failed to run the ball early. Against Ohio, the Jayhawks were stuffed twice on runs at their own 1-yard line, the second resulting in a safety.

“It doesn’t matter what type of offense you run, whether you’re a pro(-style) or whether you’re a spread or whatever. You’ve got to be able to run the football,” Yenser said. “That’s our job.”

There were reasons that last week could be considered somewhat fluky. KU fell behind 25-0, meaning it had to go pass-heavy while running it only 15 times. The team also faced a crowded line of scrimmage in the first half as Bobcats moved defenders up while daring the Jayhawks to throw it deep.

For Yenser, the numbers are still the numbers. KU’s 3.9 yard-per-rush average is tied for 87th nationally, while the 26 rushing yards last week were the fewest by a Power Five team this season.

“I’m proud of the attitude of our guys. They came in (Monday) — they were embarrassed in the run game,” Yenser said, “and if they weren’t, then you have a problem.”

One issue for KU was getting to the second level. The Jayhawks often use double-teams on the line of scrimmage before a blocker is asked to move to a linebacker downfield.

KU failed to do this too often against Ohio, with Yenser saying the team needed to continue to work on fundamentals, whether that meant better footwork, getting a quicker second step or playing with lower pad level.

Weight isn’t being used as an excuse either. Though right guard Mesa Ribordy is 290 pounds and right tackle Hakeem Adeniji is 265, Yenser says they should be able to run block effectively with quickness and correct technique.

There has been some positive news with KU’s blocking. The Jayhawks have allowed one sack in two games, a number that is tied for seventh-best nationally. Yenser also says that from his evaluations, the team is much better up front than it was at any point last season.

“Those guys have worked their (butts) off,” Yenser said.

The offensive line coach still knows more progress needs to be made, believing that can come as soon as this week against Memphis.

“I’m going to encourage coach to run the ball and take shots down the field. Put it on us,” Yenser said. “My guys want that.”

Kansas at Memphis

  • When: 11 a.m. Saturday
  • Where: Liberty Bowl, Memphis
  • Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
  • TV: ESPNU

Three things about Memphis

1. The last two years, Memphis won nine games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1949-50.

2. The Tigers’ had the 13th-fastest offensive pace in the nation last season according to FootballOutsiders.com.

3. Memphis has four players from Kansas junior colleges, including starting quarterback Riley Ferguson, who was at Coffeyville Community College last season.

Key matchup

Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson vs. KU’s secondary: The Jayhawks have done a good job defending the pass so far, with Tevin Shaw and Fish Smithson standing out with their coverage skills according to film study done by Pro Football Focus. The Jayhawks pass defense will get their biggest test against the Tigers, who will speed up the pace and also use numerous run-pass option plays to try to gain an advantage.

Jesse Newell’s pick: Memphis 49-17

KU failed to handle Memphis’ tempo a year ago, as the Tigers turned a close game early into a 55-23 rout in Lawrence. Though Memphis has a new coach (Mike Norvell) and new quarterback (Riley Ferguson), its offense is still likely to find success against at home against a KU defense that has been gashed too often in the run game.

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