LAWRENCE — Kansas football linebackers coach Chris Simpson is singing Taiwan Berryhill’s praises Wednesday.
Minutes later, Berryhill is explaining how they reached this point.
Berryhill, a junior linebacker this fall for the Jayhawks, first points back to last season. He allows that as he went through it, appearing in 12 games and starting four, he didn’t know the playbook all that well.
Then came a turning point — after players met with coaches at season's end, after he was told he just needed to trust the process and buy in, so everything could come easier for him.
Berryhill went home to talk to his mother and others about it. From there, he decided he would turn over a new leaf when he returned. He began to study the playbook an hour each day, even multiple times a day, while noting if he was ever confused, he’d go to Simpson or a teammate.
And now, because of those efforts and the physical improvements Berryhill’s made, Simpson is calling Berryhill the “most improved in the room, period.” Simpson is adding it is “not even close in my opinion.”
And while Berryhill is noting he isn’t satisfied by any means, he’s glad the results are there and being noticed.
“Taiwan’s always had a great skillset, OK?” Simpson said. “He’s always been that guy, in terms of what you want physically, size-wise, speed, those types of things. But he has really elevated himself to make sure he knows what he’s doing and because of that, he is playing so confident — which allows him to play even faster.”
Senior linebacker Gavin Potter added: “I’ve seen (Berryhill) go from him just being here and him not really knowing, ‘Am I going to get to play?’ But I knew he wanted to play the whole time. And then, all of a sudden, he starts playing. And then he’s playing more. And then I just saw a shift in his attitude, really.”
Why Taiwan Berryhill’s attitude shift matters
That shift in attitude, Potter explained, manifested itself in the way Berryhill trains and goes about his day. Potter described it as completely different than it’s been in the past. Much like Simpson, Potter noted it’s only added to the ability Berryhill already had.
Simpson said there were moments last season when he could tell Berryhill, then a sophomore, would be frustrated to the point Berryhill would almost stop midplay. That isn't happening anymore. And it leads to Simpson’s excitement about what Berryhill may be capable of doing for the Jayhawks moving forward.
Kansas addressed the linebacker position with multiple transfers after the conclusion of the 2021 season. If the likes of super-senior Lorenzo McCaskill (Louisiana), redshirt senior Eriq Gilyard (University of Central Florida) and redshirt junior Craig Young (Ohio State) aren’t starting, one would expect them to at least provide quality depth. Berryhill is in a much better position to compete for playing time with them and others than he would have been otherwise.
“It’s all love,” said Berryhill, discussing what it’s like to adapt to who’s in the room now. “I mean, yeah, we’ve got new guys in the room and we just want to get better as a group. … Iron sharpens iron. So, every day we’re coming in, competing.
"Lorenzo just came in, and he’s like — first practice, he’s giving me tips on, like, my pass rush. So, we just all building each other up.”
How Chris Simpson illustrates the position’s competitions
Simpson has a way he describes the state of competition within the group, and brought up guys either being the lion or the gazelle. Either someone is chasing someone else because they’re trying to eat, or they’re running from someone so they aren’t eaten. He believes it’s elevating the room both because of the heightened effort, and because teammates are still helping each other out.
Berryhill has heard his position coach use that example. He couldn’t remember if that’s something that was said a lot last year, or if the additions to the room led to it. But when Berryhill was asked about it, it certainly wasn’t his first time hearing it.
“If you’re the lion, you got to get up and find something to eat or else you’re going to die,” said Berryhill, who noted he’s slimmed down while adding muscle. “If you’re the gazelle, you better get your ass running or else you’re going to get ate. So, it is true. Every day, just come in, lock in, do you what you’ve got to do, do it to the best of your ability.”
Potter added: “Oh, (Simpson)’s always saying stuff like that. It’s always about competition with him, too. And that’s why I like him as a coach, just because, like, we don’t have the same personality, but we have the same kind of mindset of, like, stuff like that.”
Where Taiwan Berryhill, others may line up
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Simpson noted that they’ve done some cross-training, when it comes to which positions the linebackers have been at in practice, but Berryhill allowed he’s been at WILL. Berryhill thinks he fits there because he considers himself physical enough to play in the boundary, where the space is more compact, while also being quick enough to get sideline to sideline at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds.
Because he knows the playbook that much better, he thinks he can now react to everything as quickly as he’ll need to do so.
Simpson explained what the Jayhawks ask of their WILL and HAWK linebackers is similar, but the WILL just operates with less space on the outside. Considering that, at HAWK they’re trying to have more of a hybrid-type talent who’s more athletic and may not spend as much time in the box. Young, because of his length at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and how he can run, is someone to watch there.
At MIKE in the inside, Simpson said Gilyard’s had as much feel defending the pass as anyone when it comes to play-action situations. Gilyard’s also shown a willingness to defend the run, something Kansas struggled to do effectively in 2021. But while that’s another example of the transfer portal treating Simpson’s room well, senior linebacker Rich Miller is back and Simpson described him as the heart of their defense.
When it comes to who starts, Simpson expressed confidence in having five or six guys he’d feel good about.
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Why a Kansas football coach was singing LB Taiwan Berryhill’s praises