LAWRENCE — This offseason, Kansas defensive backs Lubbock Smith and Greg Brown realized there was something missing from their games. As roommates at Jayhawker Towers, they had plenty of time to get to the bottom of it.
Turned out, the problem was simple. To have the careers they wanted at KU, they needed a new look. It was settled: Smith, a sophomore from Dallas, would ask to wear No. 1 instead of No. 13. Brown, also a sophomore from the Dallas area, would ask to wear No. 5 instead of No. 27.
"We talked about getting the single digits," Smith said. "To play up to our potential, we gotta change our numbers."
Well, there you have it.
"The single digit kind of brings more swag," Brown said. "You represent yourself with a single digit, you're saying that you're athletic."
Smith, expected to start at safety, and Brown, who is competing for time at cornerback, are asking for more attention and responsibility. KU coach Turner Gill recently said to Smith, "You gotta play like you're No. 1," and Brown knows the meaning of wearing Todd Reesing's No. 5. He has never done anything of significance in a Jayhawk uniform, but lots of people will be wearing his jersey.
"That's what everybody says," Brown said. "I'll try to make a name for myself with that number, too."
For KU, strength in the secondary is all about numbers. While KU is undermanned on the defensive line and at linebacker because of numerous injuries and suspensions, the Jayhawks have no shortage of depth in the defensive backfield. KU defensive coordinator Carl Torbush has said since the spring that six to eight cornerbacks have been good enough to see the field.
"Probably the most pleasing and deepest area we have is at cornerback," Torbush said. "If you want an abundance of players, that's where we'd like to have a bunch."
In the Big 12, where offenses are not pass-happy but downright giddy, having a suspect secondary is almost always a fatal flaw. The Jayhawks have been abysmal against the pass the last two seasons, finishing 114th in 2008 and 96th last season.
While Torbush and Gill have seemed comfortable with their personnel in the secondary, former KU coach Mark Mangino acted as if he couldn't find anybody satisfactory. In each of those seasons, Mangino moved true freshman wide receivers to cornerback and started them almost immediately. Daymond Patterson and D.J. Beshears, the players in question, are now back on offense, yet the feeling is that the Jayhawks will be fine with who's leftover.
Senior Chris Harris started most of the last three years and should start again at one cornerback spot. Junior Isiah Barfield and senior Calvin Rubles are competing for the other with Brown chomping at their heels. Redshirt freshman Tyler Patmon is slotted as the No. 1 nickel back.
At safety, Smith and senior Olaitan Ogontodu — rarely used under Mangino — are atop the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Prinz Kande, a four-star recruit by Rivals.com, and senior Phillip Strozier should be serviceable backups.
Other than wide receiver, secondary appears to be the position that Mangino's staff recruited best during the past two seasons.
"We have so much talent at that position," Brown said. "I don't know if the last coaching staff didn't think we had the right technique for their defensive schemes, but the schemes we have right now are working really well."
The main difference is that Torbush will call for more man-to-man coverage. Mangino's teams played zone most of the time.
"It's more free," Brown said. "We've got more respect for our safeties. Now we can jump routes and try to get a turnover."
Certainly, that would get the KU defensive backs noticed more easily than wearing a different number.
"I don't know what it is," said Kande, who wears No. 4, "but single digits just look good."