Spring football has been about change here: a new head coach, a newfangled offense, and a new vibe that permeates the building and practice field.
Kansas football is trying to move forward, away from the ugly past and losing seasons under Turner Gill and Charlie Weis. And yet on a rainy spring afternoon recently, there was a familiar voice echoing across the Memorial Stadium turn.
Clint Bowen was working with the safeties.
You remember Bowen, the Kansas lifer who has been part of the KU football program for the better part of 25 years, right? Well, he is still here, molding another defense under new head coach David Beaty.
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He doesn’t have to be here, of course. Bowen was a candidate for the head-coaching job after serving as the Jayhawks’ interim coach for eight games last season. The job went to Beaty, the former Texas A&M assistant, but Bowen elected to stay anyway, signing a three-year contract worth $400,000 annually.
So now Bowen is back, trying to rebuild a defense that was hit hard by graduation and a programwide talent drain. The process has begun this spring, with a programwide sorting on the defensive side of the ball.
“It’s the old saying,” Bowen said. “There’s no point in entering a donkey into the Kentucky Derby. No matter how you train, he’s not going to do it. So you got to find out what those kids are capable of doing.”
Across the Kansas program, which is coming off a 3-9 campaign, depth is a constant concern. On the defensive side of the ball, the Jayhawks are moving forward after losing All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney and four members of their starting secondary. The secondary losses include starting cornerbacks JaCorey Shepherd and Dexter McDonald, and safety Isaiah Johnson, who had one more year of eligibility but elected to finish his career elsewhere.
“It was a disappointment,” Bowen said of Johnson, “but not a surprise.”
The Jayhawks return a few players with experience in the secondary. Safety Fish Smithson and cornerback Greg Allen each played reserve snaps last year. Junior-college cornerback Brandon Stewart, who arrived in January, is drawing praise for his athleticism and ability. And Beaty also added a piece in the form of junior-college transfer Bazie Bates IV. But Bowen and co-defensive coordinator Kenny Perry, who arrived at KU from TCU, will largely be gluing together the defense — and specifically the secondary — in a piecemeal fashion.
Bowen said he feels confident about the Jayhawks’ two-deep depth chart on defense. But beyond that, Kansas is limited in the defensive packages it can run because of depth concerns. That will change, in part, when more recruits show up on campus in the fall. But the depth issue could present a persistent problem.
“We just don’t have those kinds of (numbers) of kids,” Bowen said. “You don’t want to wear them out by making them play different packages. It is what it is. And our kids understand it.
“But we talk about it with them — only 11 of them can play at one time. So as long as we got 11, we’re good.”
Bowen has spent part of this spring getting used to working alongside Perry, a former head coach at Arlington-Bowie High School in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Perry, who spent the past two seasons at TCU, had a longtime relationship with Beaty, going back to their days as high school coaches in Texas. Bowen said he came to know Perry while recruiting a couple of players from Arlington-Bowie, and the two share a fiery on-field temperament and a history of coaching defensive backs.
“It’s that alligator-hunter mentality,” Bowen said. “There’s no such thing as a pretty good alligator hunter. That’s the way you live as a (defensive backs) coach. We live on edge, and he lives on edge.”
This truth becomes most evident on the practice field, where Bowen and Perry take turns buzzing around and intensely screaming instructions and critiques. Perry coaches the cornerbacks. Bowen guides the safeties. And each makes his presence felt. At one practice earlier this spring, Perry jumped into the middle of a play and returned an interception for a touchdown. At other times, Bowen takes the lead, ramping up the energy level with some full-throated yelling.
Even with a roster in flux, Bowen is happy to be back at Kansas.
“In reality,” Bowen said, “it’s a brand new secondary. All of those kids are really stepping into that role for the first time. And so I believe with (defensive backs), the first thing you have to do is find out their skill set and find out what they’re capable of doing.”