The Blueprint: Inside the mind of Cal defensive coordinator Art Kaufman

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

T
wo years ago, in the heart of Texas’ South Plains, Art Kaufman was asked to transform a 114th-ranked Texas Tech defense into a unit that would be able to hold its own in the Big 12. As the newly hired defensive coordinator, Kaufman took a unique approach to solving the Red Raiders’ defensive woes: He didn’t watch a single second of the film the 2011 defense left behind.

At the end of the season, the Red Raiders’ defensive unit leaped to No. 38 in the country.

Today, Kaufman is a long ways from Lubbock, Texas, but his task is similar: fix a Cal defense that ranked 124th in both yards and points allowed last year. And just like he did two years prior at Texas Tech, Kaufman has yet to watch film of the defense he’s inheriting.

“There was nothing for me to watch of something I didn’t know,” Kaufman says. “Had I watched film here of last year’s team, I wouldn’t have known what they were asked to do. If a guy was injured. Was he confused? Was he tired? How much experience he had. Those things are all factors into how a guy performs and not knowing any of that, I can’t evaluate.”

Instead, Kaufman chose to ignore the issues that plagued last year’s team.

“Whatever happened last year was last year’s problem,” he says. “What we had to do was start from ground zero.”

K
aufman likens his job to building a house. He starts with the foundation, making sure his assistants are on the same page in terms of scheme. Next, he goes to the players, teaching them the principles the defense is going to be built upon. Then he approaches technique — how the players are going to execute the scheme. From there, wrinkles are added.

“Hey, you can’t build a whole house all at one time,” Kaufman says. “You got to put your foundation in, your floor, your electrical …”

The house Kaufman is building is a 4-3 defense, meaning Cal primarily plays with four defensive linemen — all four with their hand on the ground — and three linebackers in the second level. The additional four defenders on the field are defensive backs, two corners and two safeties.

Pitted against five offensive linemen, the four defensive linemen are assigned gaps. It’s their job to hold the line. Behind them, the linebackers are reading and reacting to the play unfolding in front of them, plugging the uncovered holes. Further behind the linebackers, the safeties are also diagnosing the play, filling holes when needed or ensuring they stay on top of receivers in order to prevent them from getting behind the defense.

“Depending on the call, the defensive line will think pass or run first,” Kaufman says. “We’ll tell them, ‘Hey, these five calls right here mean we think run. If I say this or this, that means think pass.’ (The linebackers are) reading the play, diagnosing, dropping into coverage, run fitting, whatever it is … the safeties and the linebackers are kind of like the quarterbacks.”

Kaufman’s defense isn’t going to bewilder opposing offenses, but it’s also not going to confuse his own players, and that’s exactly the point. Everything, including the verbiage used, is simple.

“Why do things break down?” Kaufman says. “Well, if you’re doing so much, then you don’t know why things broke down. We’re simple, fundamental, technique, tackling, getting off blocks, eyes in the correct place.”

When Kaufman started installing the scheme, linebacker Jalen Jefferson was shocked at its simplicity.

“He came in and he was like, ‘We’re going to run this and this and this,’ and we were looking at each other like ‘That’s it?’ ” Jefferson says. “It’s basically hit your gap, run to the ball, make tackles, and that’s about it.”

Still, Kaufman understands his unit needs to be able to adjust on the fly. The middle linebackers and safeties are responsible for any checks — changes — the defense makes immediately prior to the onset of the play.

Kaufman, who coaches from the booth because he prefers the birds-eye view and likes to get away from the emotions of the game, communicates the play call to the coaches on the sideline, who then relay the play to the players on the field. From there, it’s up to the players to make the necessary adjustments, depending on what the offense is showing before the snap.

He’ll also utilize blitzes, but only in specific situations.Art-KaufmanMAIN_KChan

“The first thing you got to know is, can you cover them?” Kaufman says. “When you blitz, you’re forcing one-on-one situations, and if you’re in a one-on-one, can you win it? Then the next thing, probably the last thing, is how does their quarterback handle the blitz? For some quarterbacks, a blitz really opens it up because … there are all kinds of holes out there, it clears the picture up. For some quarterbacks, there aren’t a lot of windows, but they know where they’re going with it … Some quarterbacks get confused.”

Against Northwestern, the blitz won the game for Cal. Facing a seven-point deficit with just more than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats possessed the ball on Cal’s 27-yard line. With Northwestern in a 2nd-and-6 scenario, the Bears’ opted to dial up some pressure.

Blitzing on the play was Jefferson, shooting right up the middle of the offensive line, completely untouched, granting him a free shot at quarterback Trevor Siemian. Siemian tried to spin, but Jefferson wrapped him up by the ankles, dropping him for an 11-yard loss. On the very next play, Jefferson ended the Wildcats’ comeback bid with an interception.

“Do you have someone who can make the play when they have the chance to make the play?” Kaufman says. “That was a call that we made, and we ran it. We did a good job of executing it.”

L
aying the foundation is one thing, teaching technique is another. Kaufman doesn’t know it — namely because he never watched last year’s tape — but tackling was a calamity for Cal in 2013.

“Last year, we just had way too many adjustments to a lot of formations,” Jefferson says. “So we were all over the place. We didn’t know how to line up. We didn’t know how to fit properly.”

For Kaufman, teaching tackling isn’t about the tackle itself. It’s about the approach to the tackle, which is why he instructs it in distinct phases.

“As a d-tackle, as a corner, as a safety and as a backer, you’re all coming from different angles,” Kaufman says. “It’s two different avenues of travel. One guy is on the freeway, one guy is coming off of a stop sign. Now, as soon as you get to the guy, then the tackle is all the way the same way, but it’s getting to the tackle — shedding blocks, keeping leverage, looking for receivers, then all of sudden he’s blocking, all of sudden the ball is on you, you’re pedaling deep middle, then all of a sudden, the ball is thrown over here, and a guy is at full speed.”

This Kaufman compares to piloting an airplane.

“If you were landing a plane as a rookie and you had to land the plane the last three feet, it probably wouldn’t be that hard,” Kaufman says. “But if you’re landing it from 3,000 feet …”

The technique isn’t easy to nail down. A defender’s pad level, his leverage, his positioning, his hand usage, even the exact spot he’s eyeing his opponent — it all matters. Every defender has a certain key they need to watch. It might be the space in between the shoulder and neck of an opponent. It might be an opponent’s hip.

Mastering the technique, Kaufman says, takes time. It comes down to muscle memory. A player might be able to tell Kaufman exactly what he’s supposed to do on the field, but in between the whistles, when a 200-pound runner is steamrolling your way, you don’t have the luxury of time.

K
aufman himself doesn’t have the luxury of time. He of all people understands how fragile job security is for coaches. Despite leading a top-10 Cincinnati defense in 2013, he was fired immediately after the season. The only reason he’s at Cal is because former defensive coordinator Andy Buh couldn’t last more than one year in the same role.

But three games isn’t exactly a large enough sample to fairly judge Kaufman’s defense, and so far, it’s been a mixed bag. In its first game ever, the defense looked nothing like the nightmare of last season, despite featuring an incredibly inexperienced lineup.

Art-Kaufman1_KChan

The Sacramento State game can essentially be thrown out the window. Not only are the Hornets an FCS team, but the Bears didn’t even play their starters for an entire half. That game did allow Kaufman’s second unit to get some much needed experience, though. Kaufman knows that in the era of explosive offense, teams are able to wear down defenses, which means depth takes on a higher level of importance.

“Let’s just say, right now, an offense is running 75-plus plays a game,” he says. “Five to seven years ago, it was 60 plays a game. So 60 plays in a four-quarter game is 15 plays per quarter. Now they’re running 75. So the ballgame’s over and we’re going to give you another quarter, offense … We play five quarters when it comes to snaps.”

Against Arizona, for three quarters, Cal’s defense held the Wildcats to just 13 points. In the fourth quarter, however, Cal collapsed, allowing 36 points in just 15 minutes, including the game-winning Hail Mary. In the game, Arizona ran more than 100 plays. In the final frame alone, it ran 31 offensive plays.

“A tired player can’t function like a fresh player can,” Kaufman says. “Just like a tired person at work, once they get fatigued, they don’t work as efficiently.”

Kaufman admits he too isn’t sure where the defense is quite yet. It’s a process, and in the past, the process of getting a defense to a level he’s happy with has taken five games; sometimes, it’s taken eight games or nine games.

But as the season marches on, as his players grow accustomed to the system, Kaufman will continue to add new wrinkles to the defense — to the foundation of the house he’s building.

“We talk about our tool box,” Kaufman says. “When a repairman goes in to a repair job, he carries his tool box. He knows he’s not going to use all those tools, but he carries it, and he goes in thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to make this repair. I’m going to need this tool, this tool, this tool, this tool to fix this leaky faucet.’ Then he gets in there and says ‘Hmm, there’s something different here. You know what I need? I need this tool.’ And that’s the way I approach it.”

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.