Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen was asked about his team’s defensive success, and his mind wandered back to a quote from Tom Osborne.
The longtime Nebraska coach used to always say: “You can enter a donkey in the Kentucky Derby, but he’s never going to win, no matter how hard you train him.”
Bowen has always taken the underlying message to heart: You can’t ask your players to do something they’re not physically capable of doing.
Start from that, and it becomes easier to see how Bowen has helped turn this defense from the worst in the conference to a respectable unit in just one season as KU prepares to face 11th-ranked Baylor on Saturday.
KU coach David Beaty often preaches how his staff must “innovate or evaporate,” and Bowen’s schemes this year are a perfect example of a team not afraid of playing unconventionally to get results.
The genius, so far, has been with the defense’s versatility. The Jayhawks started their last game by playing four down linemen the first three plays of the game. On the next three plays, they used three down linemen, seamlessly shifting their fronts with the same personnel on the field.
“It creates a little bit of disruption and confusion,” Bowen said. “It allows us to move and just be a little bit more aggressive with our front seven.”
The creative game plan was only made possible after Bowen changed course during the 2013 season. KU was blessed then with talented defensive tackles such as Keon Stowers, Keba Agostinho and Tedarian Johnson but lacked numbers at the defensive end position.
Though Bowen had always considered himself a four-down lineman coach, he switched to a three-man front to play to the strengths of his players. The Jayhawks also used that for part of the 2014 season before switching back.
This year presented a different set of circumstances. KU’s defense had a number of guys frequently referred to as “tweeners” — players who were somewhere between a defensive end and linebacker who also had some pass-coverage skills.
So what was the best way to utilize the talents of such players as Dorance Armstrong, Josh Ehambe and Cameron Rosser? Bowen consulted with linebackers coach Todd Bradford, who had run a three-man front previously as Southern Miss’ defensive coordinator, and came up with a defense that merged those principles with what KU used in 2013 and 2014.
“It gave us some flexibility,” Bowen said. “And it allowed us to stay on the move and not turn every game into a, ‘Can I beat the guy over? Am I physically better?’ ”
The “tweener” guys now move each play, with the goal being to keep them out of physical mismatches.
Bowen also has not been afraid to shift course when one of his ideas hasn’t worked. Early in the season, he turned Armstrong into a stand-up pass-rusher, moving him up and down the line to try to get him advantageous matchups.
Armstrong never took to the role, struggling to produce in the first few games while recovering from a knee injury. Bowen recently switched him back to being a permanent edge rusher, moving Rosser to that standup position last game.
The payoff was immediate.
Armstrong produced a sack-fumble — he now has five sacks in his last three games and is second in the Big 12 in sacks — while Rosser had three sacks and four combined tackles-for-loss.
“This was the first time I think all phases worked together, trusted their teammate, did their job, did their responsibility and counted on their teammates,” Bowen said. “It was the first time all 11 guys stuck to the plan and executed the plan.”
As a whole, KU’s defense has made significant statistical leaps in just one season with help from standouts Armstrong and defensive tackle Daniel Wise. Opponents are averaging 5.6 yards per play after posting 7.0 last season, while the Jayhawks have gone from last in the conference in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.8) to third (6.8).
“I’m encouraged that we seem to be getting a little bit better every week,” Beaty said, “and that has really been the goal.”
There’s also a question of whether this can be a sustainable recruiting strategy for KU moving forward. It’s often difficult for the team to get a large number of ready-to-play defensive linemen, as they are typically in demand and often go to traditional powerhouses.
Could KU make a habit of building defense out of the “tweeners” — guys who are starting to show they can succeed with Bowen at the Big 12 level if they’re put in the right position?
“It’s hard to find the Dorance Armstrongs and the Daniel Wises. Those are tough,” Bowen said. “But there are a lot of kids in that 6-2, 230 range that you can find.”