I know plenty of people here at RCT have disagreed with my criticisms of the defense the last couple of weeks, but I'd say at this point we can all agree there's something wrong here. Last year, the Kansas defense had a pretty good effort against Georgia Tech. That Tech team featured a talented senior QB, a running back who is now in the NFL, and a much more experienced offensive line than what we saw Saturday. Yet we held them to 291 rushing yards and 25 points.
This, in combination with the poor showings the last two weeks, leaves me wanting an answer to the simple question: what's wrong with our defense?
I'll tell you up front, I can't answer the question. We all have our opinions as to what the main problems are, but the truth is that none of us are inside the program. None of us knows for sure how bad the players really are, or how bad the coaching decisions may be. With that in mind, I will simply lay out the four main factors in our defense's ineptitude, and let the actual answer to my question be debated.
Factor #1: Player Development
One thing brought up in the OGT was that our defensive players haven't improved. It's hard to argue with that. Steven Johnson has become an above-average linebacker over the last two years, and Toben Opurum has become a solid pass rusher. I personally believe Keba Agostinho looks like he's developing into a good defensive end. Outside of that, it's hard to pinpoint any improvement. Guys like Barfield, Brown, Richard Johnson, Dorsey, and Smith don't look one bit better than they ever did. McDougald is not adjusting well to the safety position, and Terry may have regressed since those first few games last year (though in his defense, he sustained a major injury in that time). Huldon Tharp doesn't seem to make plays the way he did as a freshman either (though like Terry, he missed a lot of time due to injury). The individual parts of this defense have shown very little improvement, which has quite logically led to a lack of progress for the defense as a whole.
Factor #2: Injuries
There's no disputing that injuries have played a part in the defense's demise. John Williams was the only player even close to being able to play a solid NT, and he's out for the year. Tunde Bakare is our most athletic linebacker and he sat out today. Pat Dorsey is, if nothing else, an experienced, heady d-lineman, and we won't have him back for a few more weeks. It's also worth noting again that Keeston Terry and Huldon Tharp are both a year or less removed from serious knee injuries, so it's possible that they are both functioning at less than 100% right now.
No team in the country can lose both their top DTs and continue playing at the same level. With KU's defense being bad to begin with, the injuries to Williams and Dorsey alone may have been enough to take the d-line from bad to unsustainable.
Factor #3: Talent
I hate to say it, but maybe this group of defensive players is just really, really bad. Mangino may have kept Kansas looking good in the Rivals rankings, but I think we can all agree that recruiting took a big step backward during his last couple of years in Lawrence. Our corners and safeties can't keep up with receivers downfield no matter how big their cushion is, and our d-linemen struggle to occupy even one blocker at a time. Can any coaching staff win with personnel like that?
The pursuit angles have been a big problem for the defense as well. Coaches can affect that to an extent, but for the most part, pursuit is a matter of instinct. It's all a matter of judgment, and if you don't judge your positioning against the opposing player's speed and path of travel accurately, you're cooked. It can't be done for you by the coaches, and many of our linebackers and DBs don't seem to have much knack for it. Mangino-era defenses succeeded largely in part because he had smart players with good instincts. Guys like Reid, Mortensen, Laptad, etc. didn't necessarily have a lot of speed or athleticism, but they always knew what they were doing. The players on this defense (also mostly recruited by Mangino) don't seem to have the same feel for the game.
Factor #4: Coaching
Though we clearly don't have much talent on the defensive side of the ball, is there ever an excuse for a Big 12 team giving up 768 yards? Does a well-coached team give up 700 yards under any circumstances? 600? Even 500? The defense isn't stopping anyone, but even Middle Tennessee held GT to less than 600 yards, and I find it hard to believe that our athletes on defense are worse than a Sun Belt team's.
The coaches have the corners back way off the line of scrimmage, yet we can't stop the short OR long passing game. Our blitzes are predictable and ineffective. Our linebackers are undisciplined and seem to stray around the field, leaving gaps large enough for quarterbacks to gain 10+ yards on a lot of their scrambles. We looked like we hadn't even watched film on the Georgia Tech offense. Unless our defense is actually comprised of a group of unmedicated schizophrenics incapable of following direction, some of the fault has to lie with the braintrust charged with telling them what they need to be doing out there.
Last spring, I downplayed the significance of the transition from Carl Torbush to Vic Shealy at DC. I felt like Shealy would essentially be doing a Torbush impersonation in his first year, and very little would change. But things have changed. They've gotten worse. Last year, with similar defensive personnel, Kansas gave up 291 yards to the Georgia Tech rushing attack. This year, we bled out a record-setting 604. That would seem to indicate that Shealy, at least right now, is not up to the job on gamedays.
Obviously, all four factors play their part. The real debate is what percentage of the total problem each represents. In the end, I suppose all that really matters is that Turner Gill figures out how to address these things. Gill is clearly an offense-first kind of coach, which means he needs to be sure the keys to the defense are in the right hands. He also needs to realize that the defense is in more dire need when it comes time to hand out scholarships to next year's recruiting class. No matter what the root of the problem is, watching this year's defense is going to be rough.