LAWRENCE — Mike Lee is never short on confidence.
For proof of that, just look to what Kansas football’s hard-hitting senior safety had to say Thursday when asked a relatively innocuous question — that is, with the team’s season opener just over a week away, does it finally feel like it’s time to stop tackling one another and to start bringing the heat to an opposing offense?
“Yes sir,” Lee responded. “I’ve been trying to (back) off of trying to hit all players at practice. As you know, when game time starts, nobody really can stop me.”
Truth be told, as Lee enters what he labels his “last ride,” the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder out of New Orleans appears to have as much confidence in his secondary as he does himself.
When the Jayhawks kick off the season at 11 a.m. Aug. 31 against Indiana State at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, Lee will join senior safety Bryce Torneden, senior cornerback Hasan Defense and sophomore cornerback Corione Harris in making up a secondary that has high outside expectations. Junior safety Ricky Thomas and senior cornerback Elmore Hempstead are likely to provide quality depth at their respective positions, with freshmen cornerbacks Valerian Agbaw and Kenny Logan candidates to see playing time.
“We lookin’ really good out there right now,” Lee said of the secondary. “Everybody competing out there, even the young guys, Val and Kenny Logan. Everybody is stepping up in the back end — getting a lot of rotation going, putting people in different positions, letting them know what they need to learn so when the game time comes everybody knows what they need to do. ...
“We’re getting close to game season now. Next week first game of the season. We ready.”
Lee’s high hopes for the secondary likely reflect those carried by Jayhawk fans, buoyed by confidence gained in how the group aided what was a rare bright spot in an otherwise disappointing campaign.
Last year’s team finished 3-9 but was near the top of the country in takeaways, tying for eighth nationally and just five off the country’s best mark with 27 turnovers gained (16 interceptions, 11 fumbles). In fact, KU ranked third nationally in takeaways per game at 2.4, up dramatically from 2017’s mark of 0.7.
“We’re in a good place overall, you know, progressing,” said Defense, who finished tied for the team lead with three interceptions. “We’ve got two young dudes who we’re trying to make sure we get in the rotation, but as far as the older guys who’ve been there, we’re in a really good place — great communication, great play calling. We’re all on the same page, so things are looking up.”
Defense has seen particular strides made by Harris, a 6-1, 180-pounder out of New Orleans. A former four-star recruit and the nation’s No. 27-ranked incoming cornerback prospect last year according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, Harris finished his freshman season with 44 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 5 passes defended, the latter the second-highest mark on the team.
“He’s improved a lot. He’s impressed me a lot,” Defense said of Harris. “I tell him every day, ‘Just keep working. Keep getting better.’ We’ve got receivers that are pushing us to be great every day, and I feel like he’s really taking big steps maturity-wise, physically-wise and mentally.
“He’s been really working and I can tell. Co knows I would never lie to him and I tell him every day: I can see him getting better.”
One more name to keep an eye on in the secondary, Defense said, is junior cornerback Kyle Mayberry. Listed at 5-10, 180 pounds, the Tulsa, Okla., native has apparently done a good job this offseason combating any negative notions about his lack of size affecting his play.
“We seen him making plays, but no one really had faith in him. And then he made them continuously, like day after day after day,” Defense said of Mayberry. “So it got to the point where it’s like, all right, this guy is somebody who’s going to play a lot and have a big role in our defense. As the days have gone on, he’s just continued to make plays.
“From my eyes and from everybody in our room’s eyes, he’s holding his own. He’s doing what he needs to do.”
With inexperience abound along the defensive line and at linebacker, Lee said the members of the secondary are aware the group will be relied upon as both communicators and playmakers this season. The team is already devoting half its practices to preparing for Indiana State, Lee said, with everyone understanding the importance of giving first-year head coach Les Miles a good first impression with fans.
“All the hard work we put in going through fall camp, also in the spring — we have a lot of great athletes, a lot of great talent on our team,” Lee said. “It’s going to be a big, big deal for Coach Miles, because it’s our opener and everybody wants to see what we’re really about.”