University of Kansas

Campo tackles KU defense’s transition

Kansas junior Tyler Patmon grew up in Round Rock, Texas, a football obsessed kid from a football-centric family. Patmon’s dad played college football. So did both of his grandfathers — one at Oklahoma, one at Oklahoma State. Two uncles played at Oklahoma.

His is the type of Texas family where the Dallas Cowboys are mostly sacred, and folks from back home still call Lawrence to talk a little pigskin. And during the past few weeks, Patmon says, the relatives from back home have really only wanted to ask about one thing.

“Dave Campo,” says Patmon, a cornerback.

Campo is Kansas’ new defensive coordinator, a 64-year-old football lifer whose resume is as long and winding as one of those sidewalks that line the hill behind Memorial Stadium. Campo has been a successful college assistant at Miami, and a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. But most, including the Patmon men, know him from his time as an assistant — and later head coach — with the Dallas Cowboys.

“His name is a legend in Texas,” Patmon says.

Of course, the question is not about Campo’s resume or his credentials. The question is if this old football coach can turn around the worst defense in college football. In 2011, the last year of Turner Gill’s regime, the Jayhawks ranked 120th among the 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense and scoring defense; they also finished 117th in rushing defense and 110th in rushing defense.

So in comes Campo in mid January, just days after he was let go as the Cowboys secondary coach — his second stint in Big D. Campo hadn’t coached on a college staff since 1988, a time when KU coach Charlie Weis was still a lowly assistant coach at South Carolina and most of the current Jayhawks weren’t even born.

Weis and Campo have similar East Coast roots and NFL pedigree. Campo says he was always an admirer of Weis’ from afar. And Weis, well, he believed he’d found someone that could overhaul a unit that was beaten into a bloody puree during a series of historic blowouts in 2011.

“At this point in my life,” Campo says. “I felt like the challenge was something that I wanted to get back into.”

On Thursday afternoon, the Jayhawks’ defense took the field for the fifth spring practice. Players say you can start to see Campo’s fingerprints on the defensive side of the field. One example: KU’s secondary will likely play more man coverage. But for now, most of the tweaks are basic; most of building has focused on the foundation.

“I told our defense that when we first got together,” Campo says, “I said ‘Guys, if you want to know what we’re doing in the next month, I could give you a sheet of paper and tell you how we’re going to install certain defenses … but really, you should only know one thing: This is a tryout.’”

In the simplest terms, Campo wants to know which players he can count on; which players will still be running to the football in the fourth quarter. As Weis and Campo often say, the program will likely get an infusion of new players in the summer. And this spring is about finding the defensive players that will rise to the top.

“They weren’t very good defensively last year,” Campo says. “So to come in here, and think that we’re gonna walk out, and we’re gonna just start dominating people, that’s not gonna happen. But what we are gonna do, we’re gonna make everybody accountable.”

For now, most players are reluctant to compare the new regime to the old one. But one thing appears clear: If you don’t do things right, Campo will soon be in your ear.

Clint Bowen, the program’s special-teams coordinator and defensive backs coach, sees it another way. Bowen, a KU grad, was an assistant under Mark Mangino before spending the last two seasons elsewhere. And if nothing else, Bowen says, the new regime has brought some hope to some weary players.

“They see Coach Campo,” Bowen says. “They see Coach Weis; they see people that have proven the system that we’re gonna do works.”

Will Campo’s NFL success — and the hope and confidence it sparks among players — translate into more stops on defense and more wins? Time will tell.

But in just five practices, Patmon has seen the transformation start to begin.

“You definitely listen,” Patmon says. “Those guys have both been coaching in the NFL for plenty of years. I mean, you just kind have a kind of respect for them, and you listen to every word they say.”