There are really only so many things you can do to fix a struggling defense. You can talk about discipline. You can focus on individual assignments. You can dissect tape and revisit general schemes. Or in some cases, you can put on the pads, line up at practice, and get back to the basics: A lot of running … a lot of hitting.
The Kansas defense did all of the above in the days after a 41-3 loss to Duke on Saturday, but it was the talk of added physicality that appealed to senior linebacker Ben Heeney. On Tuesday, the Jayhawks went full pads at practice and had one of their most physical days since preseason camp. Kansas coach Charlie Weis hoped to wake his team up after a miserable early-season performance. But the workout also served another master.
On Saturday, Kansas could face a physically grueling test against Central Michigan, an old-school offense that employs a fullback and a tight end.
“I’m going to let some aggression out for sure,” Heeney said. “But I think as a defense, we’re going to be more sound this week.”
For the Kansas defense, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not this year. Not after some measurable progress last year. In the preseason, the Jayhawks talked openly about being one of the best defenses in the Big 12. For a program like Kansas, it was a lofty goal. But with second-year defensive coordinator Clint Bowen having another year to install his scheme — and a veteran group of defensive players returning — it was not unreasonable to think that KU could be in the top half of Big 12 defenses.
The early results, though, have been mixed. After two games, Kansas, 1-1, ranks last in the Big 12 in total defense, allowing 466 yards per game, and ninth in scoring defense, surrendering 34.5 points per game. The sample size is small, skewed by the disaster at Duke. But in two games, the issues have been glaring. The Jayhawks surrendered 28 second-half points to Southeast Missouri State, while Duke freshman running back Shaun Wilson torched KU on a rash of big runs.
If you subtract Wilson’s big gains — three for 182 yards — the Jayhawks allowed a slightly more respectable 4.9 yards per play. But that provided no consolation for Heeney or Bowen.
“Terrible,” Heeney said. “We gave up 41 points; bad game.”
“The long runs hit us on some base things that we do every single week,” Bowen said. “Each one of them was a separate issue that came up, but at the same time we had a chance to make the play. Unfortunately, we didn’t get guys in the right position to get the job done.”
Looking back at the film, Kansas coach Charlie Weis blamed the big plays on a combination of factors. On a couple of the plays, a player missed his gap assignment. On one of the runs, the problem was a little more alarming.
“On one of them there was a player standing there unblocked, untouched,” Weis said on Tuesday. “And (he) didn’t even touch the guy. And I don’t know why. He just froze.”
In the days after the Duke loss, the defensive depth chart remained mostly status quo. Junior T.J. Semke replaced Andrew Bolton as the starting tackle, while reserve linebacker Victor Simmons could see more time after drawing praise for his performance at Duke. But for the most part, the personnel will remain the same. The answer, Heeney says, is more assignment-sound football. After allowing 331 yards rushing against Duke, the Jayhawks are ready to move on and bury the early setback.
“Based on how we played last week,” Heeney said, “you have to assume they’re going to run the ball a lot. It’s something we’re preparing for. And we’re going to be a lot better this week.”