Last week, during his first news conference of fall camp, Kansas University football coach Charlie Weis unveiled a new look for this year’s defense.
Sunday, KU’s defensive assistants revealed a little more about how the Jayhawks’ nickel system will work.
In addition to having more defensive backs on the field in order to match the fast-paced offenses in the Big 12, linebackers coach Clint Bowen will play a bigger part in coordinating the defense. It’s a role Bowen is familiar with, having spent six seasons as a defensive coordinator in the past, four at KU (2006-09) and one each at Western Kentucky (2010) and North Texas (2011). And it’s a change that he, Weis and Dave Campo, who remains KU’s assistant head coach in charge of defense, believe gives KU its best chance to slow down opponents.
“Being the linebacker coach, it’s on my shoulders to put the front and the coverages together,” said Bowen. “And it’s my responsibility to get us in a defense that’s sound and solid.”
The new-look KU defense — a versatile system with five defensive backs in its base look — hardly will be a dictatorship with Bowen calling the shots. Instead, each of KU’s defensive assistants, from Bowen and Campo to defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt and assistant secondary coach Scott Vestal, will have the freedom to provide input. But Bowen will be the guy responsible for meshing what happens in the secondary with what the Jayhawks are doing up front.
“Bowen’s gonna have to help put this together more than even Dave’s going to if we’re gonna be able to handle the tempo of the game,” Weis said. “The tempo of the game has dictated us going to almost no-huddle defense to match no-huddle offense.”
Although the new responsibilities given to Bowen certainly increase his importance, the move is not in any way a demotion for Campo. In fact, Campo said he was comfortable with the direction the defense was headed.
“We’ve got a lot of experience on our defensive staff and some of the experience is more geared to this style of offense than mine is,” Campo said. “Last year, it was more me telling everybody what to do, and, this year, we’re listening to each other and making those kinds of decisions. With the way things are going now, that’s the way to go.”
Added Bowen: “We work together. Buddy’s really strong at helping on pressures. Dave’s strong on coverages. And then on game day we put it all together and go.”
In order to be most efficient in doing that, Bowen, Campo and Wyatt all will be coaching from the sideline on Saturdays. Campo said being on the field instead of in the coaches’ box would allow him to have a more hands-on approach with the secondary, something he believed was missing in 2012. And Bowen said having the three main position coaches eye-to-eye with their defensive players would keep things from getting lost in translation. In the past, it operated a little like the children’s game of “Telephone.” One person would pass the message on to another and so on until it reached the intended recipient, by which time the message had changed. Now, if Bowen has something to tell to Ben Heeney or Campo needs to make an adjustment with Cassius Sendish, the coaches can walk up to a player and tell him themselves.
Bowen cut his teeth as a coordinator at KU under the tutelage of Bill Young, and said he felt comfortable in the Big 12 because that was all he had ever known.
“My first year ever coordinating a defense (alone) was 2008 when the tempo took off,” Bowen recalled. “This kind of tempo is what football has been my entire time. Facing a team that huddles is what’s different to me.”
In addition to understanding spread offenses, the 40-year-old Bowen said he learned a lot during his two years away from Lawrence that pushed him to grow as a defensive coordinator.
“That’s a different league,” he said of the Sun Belt Conference, which both UNT and WKU called home during Bowen’s time. “(Offensive coaches) tried things. You see things in that league that, if it doesn’t work, the one beat writer and the 20 fans in the stands saw it and nothing happened. Offenses in that league are crazy. It really tests you.”
Bowen said he expected his new role to be his biggest challenge yet, but added that he was eager to help the KU defense improve.
“Each year’s a little bit different,” he said. “And I’m just always excited to do whatever has to be done. Coach Weis came up with what he thought we needed to do to get our defense going and this is what we came out with. You gotta have rules and stuff in your defense so it stays consistent. If you can tell a kid that it’s always or never, you’re a lot better off. And we’ve worked really hard on giving our guys concrete rules that they can learn, understand and master. I think we’re a lot more on the same page, staff-wise, with exactly what we want to do with a lot of that stuff.”