LAWRENCE — The Kansas football team's first spring under Turner Gill has been all about changing perceptions, and no group has experienced a more positive shift during the last month than the KU secondary.
Throughout spring ball, Gill has singled out KU's defensive backfield as his most impressive position group. This after the Jayhawks lost key seniors Darrell Stuckey and Justin Thornton and moved two former starters at cornerback — Daymond Patterson and D.J. Beshears — back to wide receiver.
"Overall, the secondary has the best depth," Gill said. "That's why it stood out. It continued to be that one other guy does something pretty good in the secondary week after week, day after day."
Under former KU coach Mark Mangino, it often appeared that the secondary was in complete disarray. Mangino moved Patterson and Beshears from receiver to cornerback as freshmen in successive years seemingly because he felt he didn't have players who could do the job. Guys like juniors Corrigan Powell and Anthony Davis would get a start, make a couple of mistakes and then lose their job immediately.
The lack of stability in the secondary led to plenty of brutal days the last two seasons against the Big 12's pass-happy offenses. In 2009, KU gave up 35.9 points in league play, and only one team — Kansas State (17) —scored less than 31. KU's secondary picked off three passes in eight games, and opponents converted 46 percent of their third downs.
Yet, when KU takes the field today for its annual spring scrimmage at 1 p.m. in Memorial Stadium, the secondary will now be expected to highlight the unveiling of the Jayhawks under Gill.
While all eyes will be firmly fixed on quarterbacks Kale Pick and Jordan Webb, who are expected to duel for the starting job into the fall, the defense should be under just as much scrutiny. KU's offense will be inexperienced and is likely to get off to a slow start no matter who takes the quarterback spot, so the defense will need to be competent early on for the Jayhawks to have the season they want.
That responsibility falls into the hands of veteran defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, who left Mississippi State for KU this offseason because he wanted the chance to work with Gill. Because Gill, a former star quarterback at Nebraska, works mostly with the offense, the defense will truly be a Torbush production.
So far, here's what is known: The Jayhawks will attack more, and that starts with a switch from mostly zone coverage in past seasons to a much higher percentage of man-to-man.
"We gotta have that swagger," redshirt freshman cornerback Tyler Patmon said.
The question is, do the Jayhawks have the cornerbacks to do it and not get burned? Patmon, who has impressed the coaches during the spring, said there are still eight corners in the mix for the two starting spots.
"We're all good," Patmon said. "That's why we're one of the only groups that doesn't have a depth chart yet. We can all play."
Senior Chris Harris, a starter off and on for the last three years, figures to be heavily in the mix for playing time, along with junior Isiah Barfield, who drew praise from Gill earlier this week. Senior Calvin Rubles, who is 6-foot-3, could present an intriguing option for Torbush. At safety, senior Phillip Strozier and sophomore Lubbock Smith are players who have starting experience.
Apparently, Gill and Torbush like what they see. Gill has tried to have some fun with the corners, giving out "burnt toast" when they are beaten by a receiver or "handcuffs" when they lock up their man.
"You gotta hope the plays come to you," Patmon said, "and when they do, you gotta make them."