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How the KU defense plans to handle one of the game's biggest challenges

Among all of the things No. 6 Oklahoma does well, there's one that puts more stress on a defense than the others

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KU defensive lineman Austin Booker lines up wide and waits for the snap in the Jayhawks' season opener against Missouri State. [Chance Parker photo]

Kansas defensive coordinator Brian Borland said this week that getting lined up fast and bracing for the breakneck pace that the Oklahoma offense likes to play at would be a key element in the Jayhawks’ game plan against the 6th-ranked Sooners.

So Wave the Wheat talked to KU defenders Austin Booker and Cornell Wheeler about what lining up fast looks like.

It’s easy to picture what it means — find your spot, get set and get ready. But there’s so much more that goes into both doing it and doing it effectively so that you have a chance to survive the onslaught that these up-tempo offenses try to hit you with.

Said Borland: “I think if they feel like you can't get lined up and they’ve got you on the run, I don't think they care what they run, they're just gonna snap the ball faster than you can line up and then things are gonna work.”

The stats certainly illustrate that OU’s philosophy works. The Sooners (7-0, 4-0) rank 7th nationally in total offense, at 497 yards per game, while ranking near the middle of the pack (68th) in time of possession at an average of 29 minutes per game.

Here’s more from Booker and Wheeler on how the Kansas defense will go about matching the Oklahoma offense’s pace of play.

The whole thing starts with shortening the calls from the sideline. KU first did this ahead of their 51-22 win over UCF, to deal with the Knights’ tempo, and Borland said this week that having an abbreviated call system in place already made things easier as the Jayhawks started to prepare for the Sooners.

KU defenders Craig Young (15) and Kenny Logan Jr. (1) wait for the snap during the season opener against Missouri State. [Chance Parker photo]

“We might have some calls that might have four or five words to them,” Borland said. “(Now) they've got one word. One signal. We just gotta know what they are.”

From there, the onus shifts to the actions of the players on the field. And their top priority is to remember that there’s no down time while facing the Sooners.

“We’ve got to stay locked in,” Booker said. “Because after a play you might want to celebrate or go high-five a teammate, but we just got to get right back to the next call and spring to find the ball and then just get lined up and play. It’s not rocket science, but there are little things that we have to do after plays to not get caught and get set up late.”

Said Wheeler: “It’s just urgency. With everything, just be urgent. Next play, hurry up and get lined up, get lined up. Let’s get the call and play ball.”

Being lined up quickly is the most important aspect because you can at least see the play and attack from there. But the two Jayhawks said getting the defensive call is nearly as crucial.

“We communicate all across the field,” Wheeler said. “Some dudes will definitely see (what OU’s doing) before others, but we echo that out and we want to get it across the whole field, from the right side to the left side, the other hash. Once we see it, we like to communicate and be loud. Very loud.”

Both Wheeler and Borland said getting a call made is mandatory, even if it’s the wrong one.

“If we’re wrong, at least we’re all on the same page,” Wheeler said. “If someone says the wrong call, we’re gonna play it out and then we’ll go from there. We’ll talk about it and get it right the next series.”

The KU defense celebrates a big stop during the Jayhawks' win over Missouri State in the season opener earlier this season. [Chance Parker photo]

Against teams like Oklahoma, Borland said making any call at the right time is always better than making the perfect call five minutes too late.

That makes facing the Sooners a little like playing two games simultaneously.

The first is the one that takes place on the scoreboard, with points and quarters and the clock and a final score. The second is the mental game that takes place each snap, with OU trying to force its opponents to be uncomfortable by playing fast, trapping personnel on the field and wearing teams down both physically and mentally.

Booker said it’s usually by the third series that you start to feel the impact of OU’s tempo. And Wheeler said the Jayhawks approach the challenge like having a chip on their shoulder, challenged every snap to do the right thing and stay sharp mentally.

That mental contest is the game within the game.

“Facts. Literally,” Wheeler said. “That’s what football is. The biggest thing for us is just communicating.”

Borland listed winning at the line of scrimmage and tackling well in space as the two biggest keys for the KU defense this week. But neither can happen if Kansas isn’t lined up quickly and able to handle the Sooners’ speed.

Kickoff is slated for 11 a.m. on FOX.

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