Earlier this week, Kansas defensive coordinator Clint Bowen prepared for Oklahoma State by doing what he normally does: putting in the tape from the previous year.
What he saw from last season’s 58-10 loss wasn’t pretty.
“There’s some times last year we weren’t very competitive,” Bowen said. “This was one of those games.”
Though it’s not necessarily fun to rewatch past struggles, Bowen does take some pride in knowing that the mistakes from last year aren’t happening as frequently this season.
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And as a whole, KU’s defense at the halfway point of 2016 is in a much better place than it was 12 months ago.
“It was eye-opening,” Bowen said of the replays. “We really have come a long way in terms of improvement and the way we’re playing.”
The numbers bear that out as well.
According to the advanced statistics from Bill Connelly at SB Nation, the Jayhawks have made overall progress defensively. After ranking 123rd in the all-encompassing and schedule-adjusted stat Defensive S&P+ last season, the Jayhawks have moved up to 92nd this year. That’s helped most by a 70-spot leap in pass defense from 96th to 26th.
“Last year, if you watched the game, you saw. There were a lot of times (opponents) didn’t have to do anything. We just busted a coverage or weren’t even competitive against covering a guy,” Bowen said. “In the coverage, it’s night and day.”
Another encouraging step: KU’s play calls are working as designed. Bowen says if he puts out a formation to stop the run, most of the time, other teams have a hard time running. When Bowen calls a pass defense, opponents have had problems moving it through the air.
“For the most part, we’re winning at the things we’re strong at,” Bowen said. “Where there’s times last year, we could put all of them in the box, and they’d still run the ball. Then that’s when you start getting frustrated.”
KU has elevated itself in another stat quickly. The Jayhawks were 126th last season in “havoc rate,” which measures how often a defensive play ends in a tackle-for-loss, forced fumble, pass breakup or interception. That ranking is up to 10th this season, with the Jayhawks creating “havoc” on 21 percent of their defensive snaps.
“I think it’s a strong indication that our personnel has developed and they’ve gotten better, because a lot of them are the same kids,” Bowen said. “The improvement there is good.”
Bowen admits his defense still has “a long way to go.” That includes being better at wrapping up, as his players are about 83 percent successful on attempted tackles — a number that is well below the 90 percent goal that Bowen sets for his team.
The defensive coordinator still has been happy with his players’ willingness to work. He believes the team’s second year switching back to a base four-man front has built familiarity, and the work of new assistants Michael Slater and Todd Bradford has helped accelerate the learning of young players.
Also, KU’s defenders appear to have been aided by another year in the strength and conditioning program. That might be most evident on the defensive line, as Bowen says the video looks different this season.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not the ‘86 Chicago Bears, dominating the line of scrimmage. But we are holding our own,” Bowen said. “We’re winning battles up there at a pretty consistent rate against good players.”