Under Campo, Kansas defense taking shape

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) Dave Campo has a national championship, three Super Bowl rings and 23 years of NFL experience.

So what’s he doing at Kansas?

Taking on the challenge of his life.

A year ago, the Jayhawks were ranked 120th nationally in total defense. Eight games into this season, Campo’s defense has climbed to 81st and is ranked 58th against the pass.

“As bad as it is being the head coach, I think the worst job in the Big 12 is to be a defensive coordinator,” said Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who made hiring the former Cowboys coach one of his priorities when he took over a program that had won just twice last year.

“I mean, you should just sign up for gray hair, you know, because it’s a tough job.”

Perhaps the biggest improvement under Campo has been in the red zone. While the Jayhawks are still just 1-7, and 0-5 in the Big 12, they’ve been in a handful of games into the fourth quarter due in large part to a defense that is only allowing teams to score 69 percent of the time.

That statistic is a conference-best and ranks 13th in the nation.

Kansas held Oklahoma State, the No. 1 offense at the time, to 20 points. Last Saturday, the plucky Jayhawks held Texas to 21 points – less than half of its season average.

“We’ve improved in a lot of areas on this defense and I think we have a lot more we can improve on,” said linebacker Toben Opurum, one of the team’s top defenders.

This is the third coaching staff for Opurum and the rest of the Jayhawks’ seniors. And judging by the fact the defense already has come up with nine interceptions and forced eight fumbles, it appears to be the most effective.

“His knowledge of the game has earned respect from the players,” Weis said of Campo, with whom he shares a long history dating to their days in the NFL. “He is a good teacher.”

Campo said he realizes how much Kansas has struggled in the past, and he also knows that he’s basically starting from scratch after working with polished professional players. But he’s also keen on tackling the challenge of making the Jayhawks relevant again.

“I only know how to do it one way: Make sure we’re grinding on our guys and making sure that they know we have to be disciplined and do the things we are doing,” he said, “and not throwing in the towel and saying, `We’re not good enough.'”

The next step is for those improved defensive numbers to add up to victories.

“I don’t know that our guys really understand what it takes to win right now, and that’s what we’re pushing and that’s what’s got to happen,” Campo said. “It is still a process.”

It sounds easy enough to change the atmosphere, but competing in the Big 12 comes with challenges, even for someone with Campo’s resume.

“This league is a unique league from the standpoint of the firepower offensively,” he said, “and I think that’s an area where we have to get good athletes and better athletes as we go and put the best athletes on the field.”

With wide-open offenses, four ranked teams and Heisman Trophy candidates in Kansas State’s Collin Klein and West Virginia’s Geno Smith, there are no breaks for a defensive coordinator.

“He really loves the game of football and I can’t say that he has enjoyed going against these defenses every week,” Weis said, “but it really challenges you to try to take your players and what they can do and try to figure out the best way to minimize what they do.”

Since Campo arrived in January, players appear to have bought into his style. Weis lets him completely control the defense, and so far the system has been working – or at least, has Kansas moving in the right direction.

“You’ve got to do whatever it takes to win whether it’s drawing up some new things on the board or calling different plays, you’ve got to be willing to do whatever,” he said.