Why KU football expects improved D-line play in 2023, even after losing sacks leader

Kansas football released its Game 1 depth chart on Monday, with one group featuring an “OR” at every position: the defensive line.

The “OR” signifies a position battle on the two-deep leading into the Jayhawks’ season opener against Missouri State on Friday.

“I think the ‘ORs’ are because we do have some depth,” Kansas defensive coordinator Brian Borland said. “We can see (that) number of guys playing, so I feel like defensive end-wise, there’s probably six guys that will get a decent amount of snaps. Defensive tackle, probably five or six. So I think there’s been good competition.

“It kind of fluctuates day by day sometimes — like guys look really good the last couple of days and then (some) other guy will start coming on. So, I mean, I think that it’s been good for us because I think it helps our depth and makes us feel like we can put a number of guys in there and not really see a (drop).”

During fall camp, Borland said KU’s defense (ranked No. 127 last season) is “done being the weak link.” For Kansas, that starts with improving the play of the defensive line.

KU ranked No. 92 in sacks (24) in 2022 and lost its sacks leader, defensive end Lonnie Phelps Jr., who turned pro after the season. Phelps had seven of KU’s 24 sacks.

Kansas turned to the transfer portal to upgrade its defensive line. The Jayhawks brought in defensive linemen Austin Booker and Gage Keys from Minnesota, Devin Phillips from Colorado State and Dylan Brooks from Auburn.

Phillips has earned a starting role against Missouri State — per the two-deep — but the other three are battling for backup positions.

Borland also wants KU’s defense to play faster, starting against the Bears. Still, don’t expect Kansas to change its scheme too much.

“There’s no difference (scheme-wise), but we’ve tweaked, touched up and punched some things up,” KU defensive end Jereme Robinson said. “But I think that’s why our defense is going to play faster because there’s no difference. We’ve gotten better and used to what we’ve already seen.”

Robinson has high expectations for his group this season.

“My group is looking to improve upon playing strong,” he said. “From snap one to the last one, we want to remind everybody how physical we can be.”

Don’t just take Robinson’s word for it — KU offensive lineman Dominick Puni has faced off against KU’s defensive line all offseason. He likes what he’s seen.

“The whole D-tackle room had to step up and they have,” Puni told The Star. “Tommy Dunn Jr., D.J Withers, Gage Keys and Devin Phillips — a great addition. Gage Keys is a great addition. I think those two can very well step up and replace (the departures) and Tommy and DJ (can) also.

“Those are four dudes I love going against; the others are great as well. But the defensive ends are crazy. I think the D-ends are going to surprise a lot of people. (They) are very, very good pass rushers.”