LAWRENCE — It was the first weeks of summer, and Kansas sophomore Ben Goodman was summoned for an unplanned meeting with KU coach Charlie Weis. What could this be about, he wondered.
Goodman, a sophomore linebacker, was under the impression he’d be moving to defensive end for the upcoming season, and he’d already started eating accordingly. Late-night food runs. Gorging on anything and everything. Goodman was focused on adding close to 20 pounds to his frame, and he’d already started to make headway.
But then a mini crisis struck the program in late May. Junior-college standout Chris Martin was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Weis would eventually dismiss Martin from the squad. And the Jayhawks were left with a sizeable hole at the pass-rushing “Buck” linebacker spot.
And that, Goodman says, is how he ended up in the football offices in early June.
“We called him in and said, ‘Whoa, not so fast big boy,’” Weis says. “‘Time to go on a diet.’ He went from eating like a pig to starving himself.”
For a moment, Goodman says, he was frustrated. No more feasting on “fourth meal.” No more loading his plate after morning workouts. Instead of bulking up to 270 pounds, he’d spend the summer in his own version of “Celebrity Fit Club.”
“I had to eat salads,” Goodman says.
But more than two months later, the strict regimen has paid off. Goodman, who is down to 245 pounds, is listed as the starter at the “Buck” position, a key role in a revamped KU defense.
“I just prayed that I’d have the opportunity to play this season,” said Goodman, a native of Beaumont, Texas. “And an opportunity presented itself.”
Goodman may not have the physical gifts of Martin, a former five-star recruit who wowed teammates with a blinding mix of strength and speed during spring practice. But Goodman does have some experience in the system. And after playing behind Toben Opurum last season, Goodman learned something about putting in your time and being patient.
“Ben Goodman is one of the hardest workers on our team,” junior linebacker Ben Heeney said. “There’d be plays where Chris Martin would amaze you, like ‘How’d he do that?’ He was almost superhuman or something. But the next two plays, he’s on the ground or loafing or something.
“But with Ben, he’s gonna go hard every single play and he’s not gonna take a play off, and that’s something that Chris would do. So as far as that goes, I’d much rather have Ben on the field than Chris.”
Goodman says he learned of Martin’s off-field trouble shortly after it occurred.
“I just felt bad for him,” Goodman said. “I was actually there for him, and he probably needed some people to talk to and pray for him, and I did that. And we just had to keep moving forward like he wasn’t going to be here.”
And so they have. Goodman, of course, is just one of many new starters on a defense that’s trying to shed its label as a Big 12 punching bag. The KU defense finished with just 12 sacks last season, and the inability to pressure the quarterback has manifested itself in plenty of problems over the last three seasons.
During the offseason, Weis addressed the problem on a number of fronts. First, he landed junior college defensive tackle Marquel Combs, one of the top-ranked juco players in the country. In limited time on campus, teammates say Combs has shown the athleticism required to plug the middle and get after the quarterback.
Weis also tinkered with the Jayhawks’ base defense. KU will begin series in a nickel package, playing with an extra defensive back, and Weis is hopeful that the change will help the Jayhawks’ combat the high-tempo offenses in the Big 12.
“The tempo of the game is dictated as going from almost no-huddle defense to match no-huddle offense,” Weis said. “And (you) go from base defense to a nickel defense to even dime or quarter or something even more extravagant to get guys on the field that are secondary-type players. You don’t have time to flip-flop them all over.”
To help implement the new system, Weis has indicated that linebackers coach Clint Bowen would take on a more important role in coordinating the defense. Bowen, who served as the Jayhawks’ defensive coordinator under Mark Mangino in 2008 and 2009, has a wealth of experience defending Big 12 spread offenses, and Weis’ says Bowen’s role could be just as important as defensive coordinator Dave Campo.
For now, though, after just three practices, the Jayhawks are still working on the little things, like pursuing the football and playing at the right pace.
Goodman, who will have to hold off senior Darius Willis and junior Michael Reynolds at the “Buck” position, is still working on the finer points of his new role, like when to drop into pass coverage or take off after the quarterback.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, because you’re a defensive linemen and a linebacker,” Goodman said. “So you have to know both positions. You have to know the D-line schemes and you have to know coverages.
“Now I get to see the whole field, I get to kind of diagnose the play before it starts.”