LAWRENCE — Kansas co-defensive coordinator Bill Miller carried a Styrofoam cup on Tuesday afternoon. Three days after the Jayhawks gave up 512 yards of offense to Iowa State, it wasn't at all shocking to learn of the cup's contents: coffee, black as can be.
"You bet," Miller said. "I drink a lot of this."
It's Miller's job to aid KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen and to coach the Jayhawks' young linebackers. Wired on caffeine and clearly awake to the Kansas defense's troubles entering Saturday's game at Colorado, Miller looked and sounded like a man who didn't plan on sleeping for a long time. He said he apologized to his linebackers after the Iowa State game.
"I told them I let them down and did a poor job preparing them and it ain't gonna happen again," the 31-year coaching veteran said.
Chalk up another humbled defensive mind to the spread offense. In the moments after the Jayhawks' 41-36 escape of the Cyclones, KU coach Mark Mangino indicated that his defensive players were overwhelmed mentally by the game plan the coaches' had come up with to stop Iowa State's spread. Miller revealed himself as a culprit.
"We had a hell of a lot of schemes for that Iowa State attack, and they were all good on the scoreboard, believe me," Miller said. "It's what those guys can execute and what they can do on the field at full speed that matters. It was a real poor job on my part."
Miller used the term "paralysis by analysis" to describe how linebackers Drew Dudley, Arist Wright, Huldon Tharp and Justin Springer played against the spread. The linebackers certainly weren't alone, though.
"At times it can be a little confusing out there," KU nickel back Justin Thornton said. "The coverages, it's not like I don't know what I'm doing, but there were a couple of times where I was slow to recognize things."
Kansas' defense being confused by a spread offense is nothing new, of course. Heck, Thornton's entire career has been one big reaction to the spread. He has played every position in the defensive backfield as the KU coaches try to find the right mix of players to stop the darned thing. Just this season, Thornton has moved from corner to safety to nickel back.
While other schools in the Big 12 — Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and even Texas Tech — have shown at times that they can contain top spread offenses, the Jayhawks have yet to do so. Now that it seems just about everybody has one, the only teams who can remain relevant in the future are the ones who can learn how to stop it.
"It's not just us that struggle with it," KU safety Darrell Stuckey said. "When you face a spread offense, you have to read and react. You have to read everything correctly. It decreases your margin for error. It comes upon individuals to make plays because you're on an island."
Each year, it comes down to the same question for Kansas: Does it have athletes talented enough to play on that island? The Jayhawks have all of their top defensive players back from last season except graduated linebackers James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen. As the season progressed and KU's defense began to show some improvement, it was Holt who led the charge, and Holt isn't walking through that door.
"The guy that we miss the most is James Holt," Mangino said. "Because James could play out in space, and he could come off the edge, and we don't have anybody that can do that. As far as the two inside guys in the box, I don't think the performance of those guys is much different than it was a year ago."
The rest of the way, the Jayhawks will face dynamic spread attacks against OU, Texas Tech, Texas and Missouri. To win the Big 12 North, they'll have to slow at least one and maybe two of them. KU's players will be on that island plenty the rest of the season.
"There's a lot of base fundamentals that help guys," Bowen said, "understanding leverage to take and how to keep it. There's never really an island. There's always something you can use to your benefit."
Confusion like the Jayhawks experienced against the Cyclones can only create doubt. That's why the KU coaches have spent the week trying to rebuild the defense's psyche.
"You get confidence by doing the right thing over and over and over again," Miller said. "Our guys, I believe in them more than I ever have right now because of how they responded after that ballgame. They're not happy. They're angry about how we all performed. Anybody with pride is going to feel that way, and we've got guys with a hell of a lot of pride."