With the official word coming down on Huldon Tharp, the Jayhawks appear to have an opening at linebacker. Tharp was widely expected to be one of the starters after a true freshman season that saw the Jayhawk linebacker finish in the top 5 of the team in tackles.
The good news in the Tharp situation is he is young, he'll get to use a redshirt and return in 2011 with three years of eligibility. Provided he can stay healthy going forward he would certainly be a candidate to contribute on future Turner GIll teams.
The bad news? It's time to find someone for this year. Who are the candidates? Any favorites? And any sleepers prepared to seize the opportunity and put their name in the hat at linebacker?
First off let's go ahead and assume Justin Springer and Drew Dudley rotate minutes at the middle linebacker spot. Early signs point to a completely healthy Springer, but there is the possibility of a move to the outside for him if Dudley wins the spot or the Jayhawks decide to go big at linebacker. The same could be true for Dudley if Springer wins out. This is most likely a possibility in a game like Georgia Tech or Kansas State where the running game will likely be the focal point.
Outside of those two who are the more obvious outside linebacker types?
Josh Richardson is the first on the list. Richardson was listed second on the two deep after spring and while their is no depth chart currently, he's a good guess at a potential starting point. Richardson was a below the radar recruit following the '07 Orange Bowl season that was landed late by then offensive coordinator Ed Warriner. At 6'4" 195 with a 4.5 forty time Richardson was viewed as a bit of a project, but sometimes those are risks worth taking.
His situation was certainly aided by the fact that his brother, Jay Richardson of the Raiders, also hit a bit of a late growth spurt while at Ohio State and currently plays in the NFL at 6'6" 270.
For his part Richardson is now listed at 6'3" 225 so somewhere the Turner Gill regime lost an inch. The good news however is that Richardson has added 30 pounds to his frame since his arrival on campus and has clearly made an early impression on the new staff.
Steven Johnson is another candidate but at this point he should be viewed as the front runner for the strong side outside linebacker. Johnson is a bit of a unique story as he technically would have been a part of the 2006 recruiting class but suffered a setback due to injury and spent two years away from the game before joining the Jayhawks as a 20 year old with freshman from status from an eligibility standpoint in 2008. That puts Johnson at an age where maturity wise he's like having another senior on the field.
For two years in a row during spring practices Johnson has drawn very strong reviews. This might be the year we finally get to see what he can do with more time on the field.
Jacoby Thomas was listed behind Johnson and in the case of this redshirt freshman there are plenty of questions with not many answers so far. Thomas played end in high school and his recruitment was believed to be targeted toward the famous Mangino bandit package that produced some out of nowhere heroes in the past.
Standing 6'1" 243, Thomas' role could change. Early on the staff likes his ability to put a hand down and come off the edge in a pass situation. They also like his ability at linebacker against the run. The versatility is a nice thing, but can he be an every down player at either position is the real question? Just a redshirt freshman, Thomas has plenty of time to find a role and the good news is that the staff seems to like what he might be able to provide.
After Thomas things get a little thin. There are a few options left on the table including a walk on junior, a senior that would need to change positions and a potential true freshman starter for the second year in a row.
Jake Farley is the player that will probably see the most attention outside of the aforementioned group as he fits the profile of the type of player that could make an impact immediately. Farley is a 6'3" 215 pound son of a coach that was named first team all state in Iowa a year ago as a safety. Farley's father was even an assistant under Terry Allen from '97-'00 at Kansas.
Farley's biggest strength is his football aptitude and the fact that he's an athlete. He will draw comparisons early to a slightly taller Huldon Tharp simply because they are heady players that have the instincts to play. Now whether he's actually prepared to play at the division one level at one of the most physical positions on the field as a true freshman is a much much more difficult question.
Chea Peterman is a junior walk on for the Jayhawks who is similar in stature to Tharp at 6' 213. Peterman was the Arkansas defensive player of the year as a senior and has put in plenty of work on the Jayhawk scout team. A fresh start with a new staff and a difficult injury might just provide a few spare minutes to float his way on gameday and who knows, maybe he'll surprise a few.
Olaitan Oguntodo. A name that isn't even listed in the outside linebacker discussion as he's still listed at safety. But why not? Fans have been mentioning the senior safety for the past two seasons as a great "tweener" type to combat the spread. He played in nine games as a true freshman in 2006 and even saw action at linebacker before moving to safety full time in '08. Oguntodo is a two time first team Academic All Big 12 selection and was a top 70 recruit out of the state of Texas. If their is a logjam at safety and he's not going to see the field, maybe this is an opportunity for him to help the team?
As you can see the loss of Tharp hurts, and the position is obviously an urgent need in future recruiting classes. Next year Ed Fink and Darius Willis will join the ranks. Fink could still work back into action this year, but that will depend on how quickly he recovers from a current injury.
This year some combination of Dudley, Springer, Johnson, Richardson and Thomas would seem like the most logical rotation, but look for Farley to push for time and possibly force Turner Gill into burning his redshirt early.