Kansas coach Mark Mangino had been hinting that changes were coming on the defensive side of the ball. Finally, after weeks of buildup, Kansas lifted the curtain last Saturday against Colorado and unveiled their new defense. You ready?
Redshirt freshman and former offensive tackle John Williams jumped across the trenches and is now the new starting defensive tackle. Cornerback D.J. Beshears had his redshirt pulled and saw the field for the first time at corner. At safety, Lubbock Smith jumped ahead of Justin Thornton on the depth chart, and wide receiver Bradley McDougald will see spot duty at that position as well.
Still, as defensive coordinator Clint Bowen points out, the motive behind the moves this year was different than last year's midseason defensive shakeup that also saw several players switch positions to help a struggling defense.
"I felt like last year we had to make those changes because guys truly weren't getting the job done and we needed to make the moves," Bowen said. "This year, it seems like we are making the moves in more of a positive way. Some of the guys really showed up."
One of those players is Beshears, who maybe has been the most improved player since fall camp started in August. In high school, Beshears mostly played wide receiver and had little experience at corner. Still as this season progressed, coaches couldn't help but notice Beshears on the scout team. During the team's bye week two weeks ago, they knew that Beshears was eventually going to play this season.
"D.J. is a physical kid," Bowen said. "He is just another guy that can help with some matchups against some bigger guys."
After playing most of the game against Colorado, Beshears could find himself starting as soon as next week. If so, it would be the fourth straight year that Kansas has had a true freshman start at corner. The player Beshears would be replacing is Daymond Patterson, who as a true freshman just a year ago found himself moved from wide receiver to cornerback midseason to replace Kendrick Harper. Now, Patterson could be on the other side of the roster shakeup.
"You can't be upset about it," Patterson said. "He is working just like I am. If he is out there, then he should be out there. I should help him like people helped me when I came over to the defense."
Another returning starter who is now struggling to see time on the field is senior Justin Thornton, who was replaced by redshirt freshman Lubbock Smith.
One reason for the change was the gameplan for last week's match-up against Colorado's more balanced offense. Smith is considered a better safety against the run, while Thornton played mostly on 3rd downs.
"[Smith] did what we thought he would do for us," Bowen said. "He is a kid that will come up and tackle people and he just needed to learn the whole position a little bit better and be a little more disciplined to earn more playing time. When he figured that out, he was ready to go."
For Thornton, he will have to adjust to his part-time role after being a regular starter in the secondary since 2007.
"It's a rough deal but there is competition at all Big 12 schools," Bowen said. "We always tell them that the best guys are going to play."
Wide receiver Bradley McDougald also saw several plays on defense against the Buffalos. Kansas has been slowly integrating McDougald into the defense for several weeks in practice before Saturday's game.
In the future, McDougald will stay primarily on the offensive side of the ball but should be expected to play in the secondary when Kansas needs an extra safety in passing situations. So far, the true freshman has handled the double duty well.
"It's not that bad because you don't throw everything at him," Bowen said. "It is not like he came over and had to learn our entire defensive package, every technique and every responsibility. You focus on things you want him to do and keep increasing."
Finally, maybe the player that has the coaches most excited is John Williams. While Kansas recruited Williams on the offensive line, in the back of Mangino's mind, he always pictured him on defense. As this season progressed, Williams was stuck on the second team behind Brad Thorson at offensive guard, Mangino couldn't shake the feeling that he had Williams in the wrong spot.
"The more I watched him in practice, the more I kept saying 'this guy is a defensive lineman.'" Mangino said. "He has quickness, explosion and a low center of gravity. He plays the game with power in his lower body. He can jump the ball. He is extremely quick for a guy his size. So, I finally decided to pull the trigger and said 'we are going to do this.' And I really think it is for the better. There is no question he will help us on the defensive line. I think he is very talented."
Williams only had several weeks to learn his new position before last Saturday's game against Colorado. He played adequately in his first start.
"He got more push in the middle and controlled is gap," Bowen said. "There is no point that a guy with his ability to be standing on the sideline watching an entire football game."
Kansas appears to be done with the defensive changes. Will it work? That remains to be seen.
"Competition always seems to be good because it keeps guys working hard," Bowen said. "You just got to be careful and not mess the thing up too much and have too many things on going on."