KU's Dion line shaping up

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Posted Saturday, October 30, 1999

By Andrew Hartsock

Journal-World Sports Writer

Kansas University's dual Dions haven't spelled double trouble for opposing offenses much this season.

OK, so one Dion -- Rayford -- leads the KU football team's defensive linemen in total tackles with 23. The other Dion -- Johnson -- ranks third with 21.

But those numbers rank 11th and 13th overall.

Further, until last week, Johnson didn't have a sack, and Rayford, the Jayhawks' pass-rush specialist who moved into the interior line, had just two.

But there are signs the Jayhawks' Dion, er, D-line is turning things around. Rayford made 10 of his 23 total tackles in the past two games; Johnson had seven of his 21 in the same time span.

What gives?

"Our guys up front played hard," KU coach Terry Allen said, "harder than they've played all year."

They'll have to play even harder today, when the Jayhawks (3-5 overall, 1-3 Big 12) play host to eighth-ranked Nebraska (6-1, 3-1). Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Memorial Stadium, with a live telecast available locally on cable channel 45.

KU's defense in general and its line in particular are coming off their best performances of the season. Last Saturday, the Jayhawks defeated archrival Missouri, 21-0, KU's first conference shutout since 1993.

Kansas held the Tigers to a mere 44 rushing yards.

And though Mizzou is no Nebraska, the Jayhawks think they can build on the MU experience.

"The shutout really boosts our confidence," said Rayford, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior end. "We feel a lot of confidence now that we can stop people. Early in the year, we weren't really in synch. Now we're in synch. We're starting to run a little smoother."

Maybe, but they haven't faced the likes of the Huskers yet. NU ranks second in the league and eighth nationally in rushing offense with 254.9 yards per game and 30th nationally with 406.1 total yards per game.

What, Johnson worry?

"That program is an exceptionally good program. But they're not as bona fide and strong as they were in the past," said Johnson, a 6-4, 290-pound senior. "Last week gives us a lot of confidence. Now the players believe in the team again. Our season's not over. They're like us. They put on their pads like we do. They're not superior to us."

The Huskers' pad-donning routine sounded like a mantra around the KU football team this week.

That's by design, too. Allen is doing everything he can to get the Jayhawks' minds off their 30-game losing streak to NU.

"Some of the newer guys buy into the mystique," Rayford said. "Some of the young guys don't think it can be done, but the older guys think it can be done. We just have to make big plays and do our job."

Rayford isn't intimidated. He played last year, when the Huskers racked up 545 total yards in a 41-0 whitewashing of the Jayhawks in Lincoln, Neb.

But Rayford no longer is awestruck by the Big Red mystique.

"I played against them," he said. "As you get older, you don't look at them the same way. Last year we gave up a lot of yards. This week will be a big test to see how much we've improved from last year."

Johnson, meanwhile, just wants to prove how much he has improved since the early part of this season. He had to sit out KU's season opener for a violation of team rules

Through three games, he had just one total tackle and he was held without a sack until he collected two against Mizzou.

"I've been trying," Johnson said. "At the beginning of the season, I was dealing with a little adversity. By the third or fourth game, I got my fire lit. I went in and had a little talk with coach, and I've been working hard ever since.

"I should have been playing that way from the start. But I've had a little adversity. I've got that settled now. Dealing with those other things besides football took a toll, but that's all straight now."

-- Andrew Hartsock's phone number is 832-7216. His e-mail address is ahartsock@ljworld.com.

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