LAWRENCE — Kansas cornerback Chris Harris has seen it all in his three-plus seasons as a Jayhawk. He's started an Orange Bowl victory, been relegated to the bench and nickel-back duty in later years and pushed through it all to be named a team captain as a senior.
At this point, Harris realizes a defense is only judged by its results. And two games into 2010, he's feeling pretty good about his unit as it gets ready to take on Southern Mississippi on Friday.
"It's another opportunity to show our defense has gotten a lot better," Harris said. "When I tell you we're gonna be prepared and ready to go, we will be."
Harris didn't guarantee the Jayhawks would shut down the Golden Eagles' high-octane spread offense. He just said they'd be prepared. It's not very hard to figure out the source of his certainty.
"We've got all the confidence in the world in Coach Torbush," Harris said. "We are lovin' that man right now."
So far, veteran defensive coordinator Carl Torbush has looked like a difference-maker in his first year at KU. Against North Dakota State, the Jayhawks gave up 168 yards. A week later against a virtually unstoppable Georgia Tech offense, the Jayhawks gave up 407 yards but just 25 points. Kansas certainly seemed prepared for the Yellow Jackets, performing at a level unseen in Lawrence since 2007.
Those are positive signs, to be sure. But tonight the Jayhawks should learn a lot more about how far they've come and how far they have to go the rest of the season.
Let's face it: Kansas' problems defensively in recent years have not surfaced while playing against run-oriented attacks. The Jayhawks have been sieve-like against spread offenses like the one Southern Miss runs — the one that came into Memorial Stadium last year and threw for 331 yards and had the Golden Eagles tied with KU in the fourth quarter before the Jayhawks won it 35-28.
Last season, opponents passed for 245 yards a game against Kansas, which placed the Jayhawks 96th in the country.
Torbush, a veteran coordinator of 20 years, took over the defense from Clint Bowen, who was learning as he went for two seasons. Torbush preached an aggressive mind-set from the beginning, promising more man-to-man coverage instead of the stale KU zone that had been picked apart over and over again. Of course, one of the reasons Mark Mangino's teams played so much zone was because he didn't feel he had the athletes to challenge opposing offenses' skill players in the open field.
According to players, Torbush has scrapped that theory. The Jayhawks are going to attack. They just haven't had a chance to show what they're capable of against a passing offense — North Dakota State and Georgia Tech threw 37 passes combined.
"We'll find out more about our football team on the defensive side," KU coach Turner Gill said. "Really, I think on both sides this team here is a little bit faster in all areas than the teams we've played the first two games. It's going to be a challenge to our guys to see how we respond."
From day one on the job, Gill has focused on speed. He wants to find out who has it on his current team, and he's trying to find more of it in recruiting. Each game is a chance for Gill to learn about his players, and he should know how fast the Jayhawks are by around 10:30 tonight.
Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis is a threat to pass it or run it. He's got 6-foot-6, 239-pound receiver DeAndre Brown and a bevy of playmakers from which to choose. Last season, Harris was one of the Jayhawks to draw the Brown assignment.
"That's a guy, he's gonna make plays," Harris said. "He's 6-6, 239, and he can run. He is gonna make plays. You can't get discouraged. Last year, I would say, as a secondary we weren't as prepared as
we will be this weekend."There's that word again: Prepared.
"Every week is a challenge," KU linebacker Steven Johnson said. "Every week you gotta show that you're capable of being a great defense."