When a pass defense performs as poorly as has that of Kansas University in the nation's best quarterback conference, a variation of the chicken-and-egg question can be difficult to answer.
Are the linebackers and secondary at fault for not covering better, or is a defensive line that allows the quarterback to get his feet set and scan the field with his eyes more to blame for a pass defense that ranks 116th out of 119 Division I-A programs with an average of 276.3 passing yards allowed per game?
This much can't be denied: Subtracting second-team All-American James McClinton from the 12-1 Orange Bowl champions negatively impacted the defensive line, linebackers and secondary.
McClinton, a ball of fury with boundless energy, never stopped moving his remarkably quick feet and even his mouth, which on Sundays is reserved for preaching. Multiple blockers were needed to tie him up, which made it easier for middle linebacker Joe Mortensen to make plays.
Even with the extra attention paid to him, McClinton was able to get some surge up the middle, flushing the quarterback toward one of the ends. A quarterback on the run is less likely to burn a secondary than a comfortable, unhurried passer. Pre-Orange Bowl, KU's pass rush wasn't great last year, but it was better than this team's.
Before getting to the secondary, it's worth looking at the performance of the linebackers in pass coverage. Mortensen, coming off of ACL surgery, understandably looked a step slower, particularly early in the season. Mike Rivera, playing through undisclosed injuries, also has looked slower than a year ago.
Enough with procrastinating the single most perplexing aspect of the decline of the pass defense. What happened to Chris Harris, Big 12 Newcomer of the Year as a freshman? He began the year as a cornerback, was shifted to safety before the Texas Tech game, but lost that job as well. Now coach Mark Mangino said he is best suited to the nickel back role. What happened?
"Oh yeah, it's been a disappointing season on my behalf, so far," Harris said. "In the games I've gotten in, I didn't play as smart as I could. ... I was playing smarter last year. I don't know how that could happen. I would think you'd be smarter in your second year. The ability is there, I just didn't play smart."
Harris became enough of a liability that in order to keep from playing him at cornerback, Kansas turned to using safety Justin Thornton and true freshman receiver Daymond Patterson.
Having Aqib Talib in the secondary made everyone's job easier, according to Thornton.
"It's big when you've got a guy, you can come into a game and you can say about their No. 1 wide receiver, 'We're going to shut him down. We're going to put Aqib Talib on his side.' He can play man-to-man against the best of them and that takes away a lot of threats, a lot of options for quarterbacks," Thornton said. "That's one thing that helped us last year. That's one of the reasons we were such a good secondary."
Said Harris of how Talib is missed most: "Probably his play-making ability."
That and his speed. He could fly. Overall, the defense looks to be on the slow side.