Long before he made his debut as a head coach, David Beaty talked about how Kansas needs to become the smartest football team in the country. By that, he largely meant becoming a team that consistently wins the turnover battle.
It hasn't happened yet for Beaty's teams — it last happened at KU in 2008 — and, in fact, the numbers have gotten worse each year under Beaty. KU ranked 105th in turnover margin in 2015, 123rd in 2016 and 128th in 2017.
But I don’t think that means there were 104, 122 and 127 smarter football teams in the FBS. It’s closer to meaning there were 104, 122 and 127 squads that were stronger, faster and more skilled.
Beaty knew he was inheriting a team that would be physically overmatched in most of its games and figured one way to close the gap was to be “smarter” by winning the turnover margin.
“I’ve said a long time ago, I think the way you get better faster is you've got to be the smartest team in the country, don't give anything and don't go backwards,” was how Beaty put it one of the many times he addressed the issue. “Just don't go backwards and don't give anybody anything. Be smart.”
Yet, let’s look at what causes turnovers. It’s usually not stupidity. It starts with getting physically overmatched up front, continues with having less speed closing in on a ball in the air and is compounded by predictable play-calling that is a consequence of playing from behind all the time.
When the quarterback hurries to unload the ball or is hit in the middle of his throw, he’s more likely to fumble or throw an interception. When the defense knows a pass is coming because the score is so lopsided, it has the advantage.
And then, there is the issue of the speed and hands of the receivers. When they don’t get separation on defenders, the quarterback has a smaller window to throw into and is more likely to get picked off. If he’s hurried, he’s more likely to throw behind the receiver or lead him too much. In those cases, the intended target doesn’t get a chance at a clean catch, the ball gets tipped and the ball is headed the other way.
All of those factors made much of what happened during the offseason so encouraging. First, defensive tackle Daniel Wise returned for his fifth season in the program. He led the team in sacks with 7.5 in 2017, and the more attention the defense pays to him, the better chance the new defensive ends have of getting to the quarterback and hurrying him into turnovers.
Second, new offensive line coach A.J. Ricker did a very impressive job during the spring and summer of recruiting veteran offensive linemen into the program, which should give Bender the time he needs more regularly than a year ago.
Regarding Ricker, while I was covering Gary Woodland’s exciting performance in the PGA Championship in St. Louis, I ran into former Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel, and he’s super high on Ricker, his former lineman, as an O-line coach.
But Ricker is fighting through an extremely tough challenge in trying to put an offensive line together on the fly. Football players always talk about the importance of the chemistry of the offensive line and how it takes time to develop it. KU's issues up front have been so severe in recent years that giving the new linemen time to work together before using them in games simply isn't an option.
Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham said that he thought 9 of 10 Bender interceptions came on tipped balls, but as he said it, I envisioned a hurried Bender throwing behind a receiver on a couple of those.
On the topic of tipped balls, Beaty was asked: Is that something you’re working with the wide receivers on or is it fluky?
"It's certainly not fluky," Beaty said, passing on the offered alibi. "From a wide receiver position, we talk about it all the time. Tips equal picks. You have two choices: Every time that ball comes towards you, it's catch it or catch it. That's it. Those are your two choices."
KU will field a more experienced team than at any point in Beaty's tenure, so smarts come into play in that the longer you play and the older you get, the more ways you figure out how to gain a physical advantage on your opponent.
And if the blocks are better, the passes will be more accurate, the catches more clean. And KU will get credit for playing "smarter" football when the actual improvement easily will be traced mostly to physical factors.