Clint Bowen, in his second stint as defensive coordinator for the Kansas University football team, has coached in the Big 12 long enough to know that better is not good enough.
Multiple sources have told me that Oklahoma State wanted to hire Bowen away from KU. He didn’t stay put with the intention of coordinating the defense for a “better” last-place team.
He candidly challenged the defense during a recent session with the media.
“I don’t think we’re where we need to be right now in terms of our mentality of what it takes to be good,” Bowen said. “If you’re not going to play hard and don’t have good fundamentals, the rest of it doesn’t matter until you get those two fixed. I don’t feel we’re playing as hard as we need to play right now.”
If Bowen and the position coaches can draw maximum effort and attention to detail out of the players, KU should field a competitive defense this coming fall. The blend of talent, experience and depth is the best it’s been in years.
KU’s base defense will feature three down linemen, a buck (hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end), two inside linebackers and five defensive backs.
Starting up front, where depth and experience are the least proven and working back to the secondary, the team’s deepest area, here is a unit-by-unit look at the defense:
“I spend a lot of time watching the positions that I think are the biggest question marks,” head coach Charlie Weis said. “I watch the offensive line. I watch the defensive line. I watch the wide receivers. You want to spend your time where you have questions yourself that you’d like to know what the answers are.”
One D-line question centers on junior college transfer Andrew Bolton, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound athlete who red-shirted last year while coming off a knee injury. Once healthy enough, he played for the scout team. The question: Bolton looks like an NFL defensive end. Some guys with that appearance are good football players, others look the part. Into which category does Bolton fit?
“I would say that Bolton is probably not as natural, instinctive as, take Keba (Agostinho),” D-line coach Buddy Wyatt said. “Keba was very instinctive. Now Bolton’s bigger than Keba and as strong and fast as Keba was, he’s just not as instinctive at this point in his career. A lot of that is lack of having played. He played one year in junior college and got hurt. He played a couple years in high school.”
Learning basics at the Div. I level isn’t ideal, but it’s clear that Wyatt is bullish on Bolton’s potential.
“He’s been used to making plays just on his athleticism, instead with his technique,” Wyatt said. “You get to this level, your stance has to be correct. You have to take the proper steps if you want to have a chance to be successful, and that’s what we’re working on with Andrew.”
The race is on as to which will come first, the season-opener or Bolton developing sound fundamentals.
“He’s still breaking those bad habits,” Wyatt said. “The good thing is he’s a hard-working kid. He wants to be good and when he does something wrong, he’ll be upset about it. Sometimes he’ll be too upset about it. You’ve got to forget about it and get ready for the next play.”
Wyatt said there were times last season when Weis would say in staff meetings, “He’s a load.”
Senior Keon Stowers is the most proven player up front and brings contagious enthusiasm. Less-talented but equally driven Tedarian Johnson is in the mix, as is 6-3, 310-pound Ty McKinney. Former buck Ben Goodman, 6-3, 250, has moved to defensive end.
“We’re not as big and physical as the group I had a year ago, or as experienced, but we’re a lot more athletic,” Wyatt said.
But not as deep, which is why recruits will be given every chance to get into the mix, as will third-year sophomore Tyler Holmes, lagging behind older players in terms of developing his strength.
California juco defensive end Kapil Fletcher (6-4, 255), to the delight of Wyatt, has been wearing out his position coach’s phone, asking playbook questions, seeking technique advice and wondering what else he can do to arrive as prepared as possible. Damani Mosby, 6-3 235, and Anthony Olobia are other juco transfers who will try to get in the D-line rotation.
D.J. Williams, 6-3, 244, was ranked as the fourth-best high school defensive tackle in Texas, which made the three-star defensive tackle a huge recruiting victory. Two-star Texas recruits Lay’Trion Jones, 6-3, 285, and Daniel Wise, 6-2, 244, were not as heavily sought after as Williams.
Depth is a must up front, which makes that issue the biggest concern for the KU defense.
“Big guys get tired faster than the small guys,” Bowen said. “A DB can play more snaps that a defensive lineman, so that’s the spot you need more of them to play. Those guys need to come out. You can’t leave a 300-pounder out there for a 12-play drive and expect him to live.”
Overall, Wyatt said, “We’re not as big and physical as the group I had a year ago, or as experienced, but we’re a lot more athletic. Where we are with that group, because of how many guys we lost this past year, we have to take a strong look at every one of these kids coming in. Hopefully, some will step up and play right away.”
Bucks and linebackers
They are coached by Bowen. An argument could be made nobody can elevate the defense more than talented senior pass-rusher Michael Reynolds. Weis had been critical of him in the past. Weis liked his ability, but wanted to see it show up more consistently.
Senior urgency appears to be having a good effect on Reynolds, a quick and fast Wichita native. A year ago, Reynolds led the Jayhawks in sacks (6.5 for 44 yards) and ranked second to middle linebacker Ben Heeney in tackles for loss with 10 for 51 yards.
“He had a good year and he’s picked it up,” Bowen said. “He’s matured, gotten himself to where he’s a dependable, every-down guy, plays physical, plays with some toughness. We’re happy with where he’s gotten himself.”
Victor Simmons, moving in from the secondary, backs up Reynolds.
Heeney and sidekick Jake Love are experienced, fearless inside linebackers who make their tackles hurt, especially Heeney, a second-team All-Big 12 selection. Heeney was the best player on the defense a year ago.
“I think he can make another jump,” Bowen said of Heeney. “Even a year ago, I think he left a lot of plays on the field, stuff that we’ve talked about. I’ve compared him many times to the dog that sits on the porch. When the car goes by, he can’t help himself, he runs and bites the tire. But sometimes if he (the dog) would just slow down a little he might not get run over.”
Bowen said if Heeney can play “a little bit smarter, a little better at reading and reacting, he could even show up on a few more plays. I think he could even have a better year than he did a year ago.”
Both starting cornerbacks, Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, return for their senior seasons, as do starting safeties Cassius Sendish and Isaiah Johnson (five interceptions). Some believe Kevin Short, academically ineligible last season as a juco transfer, could be the most athletic one of the bunch. He’s the man to beat at nickel back.
“I’m happy with how Dexter has matured and is working on his game,” Bowen said. “He’s taking the small things into consideration a lot better than he did at this time a year ago. You can see a bigger emphasis from him on being a better fundamental player.”
Shepherd’s evolution from wide receiver isn’t complete, but he came on strong at the end of the year and is primed for a big season.
“The two safeties are doing a much better job in being able to read and react to plays correctly more often than not,” Bowen said. “I always say in the Big 12 safety is the toughest position to play because the run-pass conflicts offenses put those kids in all the time. Their reads and reactions have to be great and I think those two have picked up really well.”
Newcomers Anthony “Fish” Smithson, a safety, and Ronnie Davis, a cornerback, also are in the midst of strong springs. Weis also praised the spring work of sophomore Greg Allen at nickel back.
To a large extent, a secondary is only as strong as the pressure the pass-rushers apply, one reason why Reynolds is as big a key to this defense as anybody.