LAWRENCE — Les Miles’ answer may have surprised some Kansas football outsiders.
To one man on the inside, though, the response made perfect sense.
Miles held his second news conference of fall camp Thursday at Anderson Family Football Complex, where the first-year Jayhawks head coach was asked to identify any position group that has stood out to him through the team’s first six practices. With a handful of padded sessions and one scrimmage in the books, Miles didn’t hesitate in his response.
“Linebacker,” Miles said.
“With Kyron Johnson moving inside, to me, he’s made a tremendous difference in that team,” Miles said. “I think (Steven) Parker and Azur (Kamara) — I think Azur’s an older Parker. They’re two big, tall, running, athletic men.
“So I think that position has been very productive.”
As indicated earlier, Miles first identifying linebacker as the position group he’s been most impressed with to date is perhaps unexpected, though one shouldn’t count out the remark being a calculated one by the former national championship-winning head coach.
The Jayhawks’ depth at the position has been challenged this offseason.
Gone to graduation are former standout Joe Dineen (142 total tackles in 2018) and fellow senior Keith Loneker (68), the team’s leading and third-ranked tacklers a season ago, respectively. KU also lost Kenny Bastida, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound rising sophomore linebacker and former three-star recruit. Bastida was listed on the Jayhawks’ spring roster but was arrested in May on assault and battery charges and is no longer with the program.
Just last week, junior linebacker Drew Harvey entered the transfer portal, with Miles confirming Harvey is no longer on the team — Harvey appeared to be a candidate to start for the Jayhawks this fall after a strong showing in the spring.
Despite the attrition, Miles remains publicly bullish on those in the unit still with the program, including Johnson, a 6-1, 210-pound junior out of Arlington, Texas, who recently made the switch to inside linebacker.
For his part, Johnson appears to share that optimism. He said the linebackers’ role in relaying plays to defensive teammates makes top performance at the position paramount.
“We are the core of the defense and we are the ones to make the calls,” Johnson said. “We rely on everyone else, but most likely, they all rely on us to get all the calls and make sure they all line up where they’re supposed to line up. As a linebacker, it’s pretty intense, so you really have to be dialed in, ready to go.”
Johnson played sparingly as a sophomore, collecting 18 total tackles, a pair of sacks and two forced fumbles. Despite Miles singling him out as a top performer this offseason, Johnson said there’s enough skill at the position for the entire group to carry its weight.
A little unselfishness has helped, too.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the leader of the unit. I’d just say we’re all collective as a unit,” Johnson said. “There’s no, ‘Who’s higher? Who’s lower?’ We’re all just working together and trying to make each other better. ...
“With Joe (Dineen) being gone, I mean, it really wasn’t much of a setback. It was really more of just a, ‘Who’s going to step up now?’-type of deal. Just step up and be the man and just do you — try to be the best you that you can be.”
Johnson said the move to inside linebacker hasn’t been a challenging one. He’s played the position before, along with outside responsibilities and even time as a defensive end. Those past duties, he said, have given him the experience needed to direct traffic from a more informed position.
As for other linebackers Johnson expects to rely on, Kamara and fellow senior Najee Stevens-McKenzie have both been identified by Miles are candidates to take big steps forward, though the pair combined for just 16 total tackles in limited action last season. Parker and fellow freshman Gavin Potter should also see time at the position.
For as much trust as Miles apparently has in his linebackers, Johnson could say the same for how he feels about the head coach at this point.
“I would have to say, because of the new coaches and because of the type of energy that we all have with each other, and the things we’ve been through and have gone through, I can tell we’re going to be an even stronger team than last year,” Johnson said. “So it should be a good season this year.”