Early last week, in the first days of a bye, Kansas coach David Beaty gave his staff a simple directive: For the next two days, they were going to track every mistake. Every wrong hand placement. Every missed assignment. Every time a player used poor technique. Every little detail on every single play. OK, they couldn’t log everything, of course, but Beaty says they came pretty close.
“We did some unique things,” Beaty says.
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The focus on the nitty-gritty stemmed from a desire for better execution, but one specific goal appeared obvious: Fixing a porous defense.
In consecutive home losses to South Dakota State and Memphis, the Kansas defense was a consistent culprit. The Jayhawks surrendered 96 points in two games, and their defensive numbers plummeted across the board. Three weeks into the 2015 season, KU ranks 125th (out of 127 teams) in scoring defense and 123rd in total defense, surrendering 557 yards per contest.
The Jayhawks’ up-tempo offensive style is one reason for some inflated defensive numbers, of course, but one thing is clear: If Kansas wants to pull out of its early-season struggles — starting at 11 a.m. Saturday at Rutgers — a young defense must take a step forward.
“Obviously,” KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen says, “we have a lot of improvement to make.”
In this way, Bowen says, the bye week came at the ideal time. The Jayhawks are making do with a defense littered with newcomers and underclassmen, and on most plays, there is little margin for error. Against Memphis, the KU secondary included true freshman cornerback Tyrone Miller Jr. and walk-on safety Michael Glatczak. Opponents have exploited the inexperience.
In the season opener, FCS opponent South Dakota State unleashed an early avalanche, piling up 31 points in the opening 18 minutes of the game. The following week, Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch gutted a young secondary, putting up numbers — 22 for 25 for 354 yards — that would have seemed out of place in a video game. Last week, the KU defense took a breath.
“It allowed us to kind of step back and review our defense,” Bowen says, “and (we) ask ourselves: ‘The players that we have, what are they best at? What do they do the best? And how do we get them in position to take advantage of that?’”
Some of the issues, Bowen explains, have come when young players have missed their “keys” on plays, reacting too slowly or missing an assignment completely. Hence, the focus on fundamentals.
“There is improvement,” Bowen says. “There was just a large hill to climb … and it doesn’t look great until you get to the top of the hill and look over. But we see it, day to day.”
Moments later, Bowen singled out one such moment from practice. Miller, the freshman cornerback, stayed with a receiver, kept his eyes in the right spot and maintained solid technique for an entire play. It was something small, Bowen says, but it did not go unnoticed.
“To us, that’s progress,” Bowen says. “Is it good enough yet? Probably not, because he probably still has to fix something else along the way. But there’s little things like that.”
Kansas at Rutgers
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
WHERE: High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
TV: Big Ten Network
Three story lines
▪ 1. Can KU adjust to the road environment? The Jayhawks’ road struggles have been well-documented, but here are the numbers once more: 30 straight true road losses and 33 losses away from Lawrence. Saturday is Homecoming at Rutgers, and a crowd in the 40,000s is expected at High Point Solutions Stadium, which holds 52,454. By most accounts, Rutgers doesn’t offer the most intimidating home crowd. But how will KU handle the new surroundings?
▪ 2. Rutgers still missing star receiver: The Scarlet Knights have lost six players to various off-field incidents this season, and a seventh player — star receiver Leonte Caroo — remains suspended after an allegation of assault following a reported altercation after a Rutgers home game earlier this month. The Caroo incident remains entangled in the legal process, but from a football standpoint, it’s a substantial loss for Rutgers. Caroo finished the 2014 season with 55 catches for 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns.
▪ 3. Will Montell Cozart respond after a shaky performance? Cozart, Kansas’ starting quarterback, completed just 13 of 28 pass attempts for 118 yards in a loss to Memphis. He had trouble connecting on a handful of deep balls, and the Jayhawks’ offense struggled to sustain drives. That came after Cozart threw for 291 yards in the opener. KU coach David Beaty spoke of quarterback competition during the bye week. If Cozart struggles, will Beaty hesitate to go to junior Deondre Ford or true freshman Ryan Willis?