When spring football wrapped up April 30 with the annual Spring Game, few outside the program assumed something big might be brewing with the Kansas defense.
There were personnel switches here and there - most notably redshirt freshman defensive end Pat Lewandowski to defensive tackle for a couple of weeks - but beyond that it was assumed the Jayhawks would open the 2011 season rocking the same 4-3 base defense they'd utilized in 2010.
As it turns out, however, new defensive coordinator Vic Shealy - promoted after former DC Carl Torbush retired from football to deal with a thankfully low-grade case of prostate cancer - did have a trick or two up his sleeve.
The 3-4 defense, it seems, has come to Lawrence, Kan., with fans and media (essentially) none the wiser until the start of fall camp.
Well played, Kansas coaches. Well played indeed.
But what does the switch mean? Does it represent a complicated shift in strategy and philosophy, or is it as simple as making the defense faster by replacing a down lineman with a speedier linebacker?
The 3-4 defensive scheme has its roots all the way back in the 1940s at the University of Oklahoma, where it was concocted by legendary Sooners head coach Bud Wilkinson. Despite his outrageous success, it took more than 20 years for the system to find its way to the NFL - where it has since become increasingly widespread.
Today, as many as 13 professional teams run a base 3-4 alignment, and the system is winding its way back to the college football as well, with some of the most prominent programs in the game making use of it - including Alabama, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Texas A&M.
Several reasons exist for the renewed popularity. For one, the college game - and this is particularly true in the Big 12 - has become spread-happy on the offensive side of the ball. Adopting the 3-4 is one way in which defensive coordinators have attempted to respond. Adding an extra linebacker means adding more speed, which in turn means minimizing the number of possible mismatches in favor of the offense.
It can make sense from a recruiting perspective as well. Linebackers are typically much easier to find in the prep ranks, or create on campus. True defensive linemen on the other hand are something of a rarity. For proof, all Kansas fans need to do is take a look at the program's 2011 recruiting class.
Of the 27 signees, five were true linebackers with several others candidates to make a switch. By contrast, three defensive ends were signed, and not one defensive tackle.
The recruiting and personnel angle is a big reason why, on the surface at least, the switch to the 3-4 makes sense for the Jayhawks. Plagued with injuries and a lack of depth on the defensive line in 2010 and with a glut of new and returning talent at linebacker, the system helps to minimize potential deficiencies and maximize what many view as a likely area of strength.
The philosophy behind the 3-4 is relatively simple. A traditional four-man front is viewed as more effective against the run due to the presence of one more defensive lineman with which to occupy an offensive lineman. Theoretically, this means more freedom for the linebackers to operate and find their run "fits," filling gaps and tracking the ball carrier as the play develops.
With the right personnel in place up front, a 3-4 defense can offer the same benefit against the run with greater versatility in pass coverage.
It all starts with the nose tackle, who lines up directly over center as opposed to shading toward one side or the other. Typically a player of considerable size and mass - 300-plus pounds is viewed as the ideal - if the nose is disruptive enough to occupy two linemen on his own during the majority of snaps, there is a greater possibility for everything else to fall into place.
Failing that, Shealy explained offensive guards running free to tie up linebackers begin to create a "bow" effect in the defense that typically results in bad news.
"Sometimes when you eat up two guys you can flatten out that line of scrimmage a little bit," he said. "Those backers can press the line and flatten it, and you're able to do some things to help. So that position becomes critical."
Shealy was quick to point out that the defensive ends are hugely important in their own right. If they're effective in getting upfield, they begin to draw off guards from aiding the center, leaving the nose-tackle in a one-on-one situation. Because he has to snap the ball safely before all else, the center typically requires at least some degree of help at the point of attack when taking on a nose tackle, due to the split second it takes them to get their hands up in pass protection.
That's really just a long-winded way of saying "every position is important."
"To generalize it, you can't be weak at any position," Shealy said. "I know that kind of sounds like 'Yeah, Coach,' but every position must hold up. If you get banged up with injury, you put the next guy in and that guy's gotta play. If he can't, then you've gotta adapt your scheme somehow, maybe to help that situation out."
Heading into the 2011 season, the personnel at Kansas would seem to be much better suited for this type of scheme in the trenches. While they lack that traditional physical ideal at nose tackle, it isn't an absolute necessity in order to be effective. As long as he is capable of occupying two blockers, it doesn't matter what he weighs.
Enter John Williams. The junior had a great spring and is following it up with an even better fall camp.
"He was one of those guys that was a 330-pound guy at one time, that realized he wasn't athletic enough to play that heavy, and began the process of getting down to 300," Shealy said. "At 300 he actually stayed there for a little while, then became a 285-290-pound guy, which is probably where he'll play this year."
Though depth at nose tackle isn't as bountiful, Williams should be aided by a plethora of capable of ends, most of whom are closer to that ideal size. Sophomores Keba Agostinho, Lewandowski and Kevin Young will all figure heavily into the rotation, while senior Richard Johnson Jr. is the most likely candidate to aid Williams at the nose. Freshmen ends Julius Green and Ben Goodman are also candidates for playing time.
Which brings us to the linebackers.
Linebackers in the 3-4 have a different set of responsibilities than their 4-3 counterparts. The linebacking corps in this system is comprised of two components - a pair of inside linebackers (ILB) and a pair of outside linebackers (OLB).
In the 3-4, ILBs are expected to be physically cut from a mold not so different from that of the traditional middle linebacker. With perhaps a somewhat greater emphasis on speed, they typically play at a standard depth off the line of scrimmage and still must be able to take on an offensive lineman or fullback without being overwhelmed. Between the tackles, these are the guys making the plays.
The OLBs, on the other hand, are usually required to be more versatile. Hunting the ball carrier, dropping back into pass coverage and - perhaps most importantly - providing a pass-rushing presence all fall under their purview. Physically, they can be a little more diverse, though speed is typically at a premium.
The Jayhawks look to have more than their fair share of talent and depth at linebacker this season, a stark contrast from a year ago, thanks to newly-arrived JUCO talent, players returning from injury, transfers becoming eligible and, yes, talented freshmen. While they might not be heavy on experience, the athleticism upgrade can help bridge that gap.
Manning the inside spots Kansas will have sophomore Buffalo transfer Darius Willis - a highly-touted prep prospect who converted from quarterback to linebacker while playing for Head Coach Turner Gill two years ago - and senior Steven Johnson. Freshman Colin Garrett might be a little undersized at 215 pounds, but his 6-foot-1 frame still has plenty of room to grow and he's made such an impression in camp that he'll likely be called upon to provide depth right away.
Johnson started all 12 games at outside linebacker last season, recording 95 tackles, before bulking up during the summer for the shift to the inside. Now 6-foot-1 and 240-pounds, he's been as impressive as any defensive player during fall camp.
"I'll tell you what, it's phenomenal the growth that's occurred in Steve Johnson as a football player," Shealy asid. "And we've got a few others, but I mention him just because it seems as if every practice he does something that we just kind of say 'Wow.'"
On the outside, the options are more numerous.
First and foremost, of course, is Toben Opurum. The junior running-back-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive-end made a splash at the end of 2010 as a rush end with essentially no formal training at the position. At the program's Aug. 9 Media Day event, it was revealed he had shifted back to outside linebacker in the new alignment, and from the sounds of things the coaches plan to use him much as Texas A&M used Von Miller, and the Kansas City Chiefs use Tamba Hali.
That is to say, there's an awful lot they can do with someone possessing his combination of size (6-foot-2, 240-pounds) and athleticism when it comes to creating mismatches and wreaking havoc in opposing backfields.
According to Shealy, Opurum is only scratching the surface of how good he can be.
"What we want to do is take advantage of the guy," he explained. "We're going to play against some really good offensive linemen, and we're going to play against some teams that may have a weak link in there. We want to have the flexibility of taking Toben and maybe moving around a little bit, and create a match-up (problem)."
Opposite him looks to be junior college transfer Akintunde "Tunde" Bakare. At 5-foot-10, 220-pounds - and owning a 4.5-second 40-yard dash - Bakare plays like a guided missile with his speed, agility and love for delivering devastating hits.
Beyond that, sophomore Huldon Tharp - back from an injury that kept him sidelined during all of 2010 - will be counted on to contribute major snaps. Tharp was extremely impressive as a freshman in 2009, flashing the athleticism and instincts that made him a highly-touted prepster out of Mulvane (KS) High.
Another name for fans to keep an eye out for is that of JUCO transfer Malcolm Walker. Like Opurum, Shealy sees an opportunity to utilize Walker's athleticism to create some serious problems for opposing offenses.
"Boy he's dynamic," the first-year DC said with a smile. "He is a fast guy. I don't think some of our corners probably want to race him to be honest with you. They may beat him, but it's going to be a close race. He plays fast."
Other guys in the mix for playing time are JUCO transfer Isaac Wright, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound monster at ILB and Wichita, Kan. native Michael Reynolds, a freshman whose outstanding speed and motor could earn him snaps in pass rushing situations if nothing else.
Among the front seven, the learning process has been steady during fall camp, with some days moving more slowly than others due to what Shealy described as a "heavy install" - days when the coaches delve more deeply into the playbook to add new packages and wrinkles.
It's helped that many of the teaching fundamentals have remained the same, both from the 2010 season and the spring. In order to ensure the new system is implemented as completely and quickly as possible, simplicity is key.
"When you go to more of a four-backer scheme, you have to link the terminologies different than a three-backer scheme," Shealy said. "You can't stay in the old, because there's another moving part. So you've gotta make it simple."
The one component of the defense that won't see their responsibilities change much is the defensive secondary.
However, they've got challenges of their own with which to deal, such as the incorporation of Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald, two newcomers for all intents and purposes, into the starting safety slots.
Terry burst onto the scene early in 2010 after making the shift to defense just a week before the season-opener with North Dakota State. He quickly worked his way into major reps, and was a disruptive force in the team's Week Two victory over Georgia Tech, before a leg injury suffered in Week Three put him on the sideline for the rest of the year.
McDougald's case was almost the opposite. A wide receiver during his freshman campaign and most of 2010, he started at safety during the final two games of the season - recording eight tackles versus Oklahoma State, in addition to five tackles, an interception and a pass break-up in the season finale versus Missouri.
"I think with Keeston and Bradley not having a lot of reps last year, kind of getting them up to speed on some stuff again was early on kind of a goal of ours, and that's happened extremely well," Shealy said. "Those two safeties are really playing well, and Lubbock Smith is playing really well. We have three safeties that we've got great confidence in."
At cornerback, the Jayhawks have more experience than anywhere else on the defense. Senior Isiah Barfield started all 12 games at corner in 2010, while junior Greg Brown and sophomore Tyler Patmon emerged as guys with big-play ability last season as well.
Patmon was instrumental in the monumental comeback victory over Colorado, intercepting a pass, breaking up three more, racking up five tackles and returning a fumble 28 yards for a touchdown. Brown, meanwhile, played in all 12 games and eventually earned a spot as a starter opposite Barfield for the final five, registering 10 tackles versus Nebraska, breaking up three passes versus Oklahoma State and logging an interception versus Missouri.
Senior Anthony Davis, a three-time letter-winner, rounds out the rotation, and will be counted on to provide valuable depth after seeing action in 11 of 12 games in 2010.
So the Jayhawks defense might not be a finished product yet, but the coaching staff is confident they're taking steps in right direction - potentially big steps. But right now, they're still trying to find out exactly what this bunch of guys can do.
"You don't want to anoint certain guys," Shealy said. "But you see guys every day that are showing up and doing something, where maybe an interception is made, a break on the ball or a sack."
The pieces are in place, but certain question marks linger as they do every season. What happens if Opurum goes down with an injury? Or what about John Williams? Will the depth at defensive line hold? Will the personnel take to the new scheme under the lights on Saturdays as smoothly as they have at times on the practice field?
Who knows? Nothing in football is ever certain. But maybe, just maybe, the Kansas defense can catch the breaks this season that evaded them the last. And if that happens, with the new scheme, improved athleticism, better depth and new attitude?
The possibilities sure are fun to consider.