JK Schaffer has always been a solid tackler. You have to be in order to post back-to-back seasons of 100 stops.
But he has provided more than tackles this season. Schaffer has been everywhere for a rejuvenated defense that has helped the Bearcats get off to a 4-1 start heading into their game against Louisville on Saturday.
Schaffer leads the team with 35 tackles. But he is the only player on the defense with stats in each of the following categories: tackles for loss (3.5), sacks (0.5), interceptions (3), pass breakups (three), forced fumbles (one) and fumble recoveries (one).
In fact, he is ranked No. 2 in the Big East in passes defended (six) and tied for No. 2 in interceptions. He is the only linebacker in the top 5 in each of those categories, which generally feature defensive backs.
Of course, Schaffer is such a perfectionist, he mentions that two of those pass breakups should have been interceptions. Still, what he has done so far has opened some eyes.
"In our defense as mike linebacker, I have a lot of freedom," Schaffer said in a recent phone interview. "I get to drop off the back a lot of times, and that gives me the ability to get depth and read the quarterback. The past four years, that’s all I’ve been working on is reading the quarterback’s eyes and reading when he’s about to deliver the ball.
"It’s come with experience. I’ve played a lot of snaps in the last few years. I watch a lot of film, and usually when teams line up, I can narrow it down to two or three plays they can run. When I do that, maybe I can jump some routes and do well."
Schaffer had one interception last season. His career high is three, set as a sophomore. Linebackers coach Jon Jancek, also the co-defensive coordinator, said Schaffer put in extra effort over the summer to improve himself against the pass. One of the big reasons was because the Bearcats struggled in that area last season, and he wanted to help.
"He definitely is better in some of the coverage aspects, which has led him to getting some interceptions," Jancek said. "He, along with a lot of our players, feel more comfortable in the framework of our defense. His comfort at mike linebacker lends to making plays."
What also has helped is the way he and his teammates are playing more physical this year.
"This is the first time they have been able to run the same defense two years in a row," Jancek said. "You can see the growth taking place at all positions. The guys are starting to feel a lot more comfortable, and that has lended itself to playing faster and more physical. Everyone has an idea of what each position and unit should be doing, and so I think it has added to our overall scheme on defense and allowed us to improve at all positions."
As Jancek says, having an experienced middle linebacker is huge to the overall cohesion of a defense. Schaffer has taken on an added leadership role as well, and was voted a team captain for this season.
Coach Butch Jones has seen Schaffer flourish, and his work ethic has been particularly impressive.
"JK's done a great job of solidifying the unit," Jones said. "He brings a great level of consistency each and every day. He’s been a little more vocal this year … it’s like having another coach on the field. He understands the job of each and every person on the defense. You never have to worry about him not coming to practice. He has one speed and that's full speed."
He may have one speed, but he has more than one way of making big plays happen.