In 2010 linebacker was a position that proved to be a bit of a weakness for Kansas. Depth was the biggest concern as the trio of Justin Springer, Drew Dudley and Steven Johnson shouldered 95% of the load due to injury and lack of experience of the bench.
The other struggle that the Jayhawks ran up against was the style of play that has evolved in the Big 12. Speed is at a premium and players that were recruited five years ago to play linebacker and stuff the run just aren't what is needed anymore. Kansas combated that with a nickel look bringing in a fifth defensive back to provide more speed and leaving two linebackers to cover the middle. It's probably no coincidence that the Jayhawks best win of the year came against a team that almost exclusively relied on the run. Who was huge in that game? Justin Springer.
The same can't be said when you switch styles to one like what Kansas saw against Southern Miss, Baylor, Missouri etc. The sideline to sideline speed becomes a must, depth becomes a must and versatility at the position becomes a must. 2011 brings a host of new faces, some returning to full strength and the expectation early is that all these are changes that could improve the Jayhawks overall success at the position.
Steven Johnson - 6'1" 237 - Senior(52)
Steven Johnson is the lone returning starter from a year ago. Looking back it makes you wonder if Johnson would have seen as much of an opportunity to see the field had Tharp not sustained his injury. Obviously he proved to be a valuable contributor and I don't doubt that he would have found his way on the field regularly but now Kansas has a player that is that much more experienced to go along with what we all hope is a healthy Tharp.
For my money this is a player that will need to be one of the leaders on the defensive side of the ball. His story is a great one, his work ethic is phenomenal and he has great football instincts. Johnson can raise the bar for others around them now that he's the senior on the field and here's hoping that reflects in the effort across the board.
Huldon Tharp - 6' 217 - Sophomore(34)
Tharp showed tremendous promise as a true freshman which is a rarity at the position on this level. After a season spent recovering from a difficult injury the biggest question will be whether or not he can remain healthy. The injury sustained is one of those that can become a reoccurring problem for some so let's hope that's not the case with Tharp.
If he is at 100% and has had another year to develop both physically and mentally, Tharp will represent an upgrade at the position and another piece to improving the defense from a year ago.
Darius Willis - 6'3" 243 - Sophomore(39)
Not much is known about Willis on the field other than the fact that he was fairly heavily recruited out of Texas in high school and for a variety of reasons ended up at Buffalo where he was able to see the field immediately at the position.
After electing to transfer and "follow" Turner Gill, Willis was one of the more impressive players on the scout team a year ago and has had his name mentioned about as often as Jimmay Mundine in terms of impact players that will see the field. On the initial depth chart Willis was not mentioned, but I suspect that was a motivational tool and the middle linebacker spot is where you'll see Willis compete for a starting job.
Chea Peterman - 6' 212 - Senior(57)
Peterman enters his senior year after seeing time on occasion a season ago. Like many he fought off a nagging injury and put himself in a position to compete after joining the program as a preferred walk on during the Mangino/Bill Young era. Peterman is a senior that has put in the work and he'll wrap up a solid four year career contributing to the program in a variety of ways and that should continue during his senior year in some capacity.
Prinz Kande - 6' 194 - Sophomore(4)
Kande is making the move from safety to linebacker after two season in the program. The move is an obvious attempt to get more speed and athleticism at the position based on the pace and style of play in the Big 12 conference. While it's been a few seasons some will remember that Kande joined the Jayhawks as a four star recruit who was a four year starter for one of the premier Texas and National high school programs in Euless Trinity. Those expectations haven't quite been fulfilled but with three seasons of eligibility remaining and a fresh start, perhaps outside linebacker is a spot where Kande can find a home.
Malcolm Walker - 6'1" 220 - Junior(44)
A lot of the early talk out of spring camp is very positive regarding Walker. He's played at the junior college level for two seasons in Texas and had an offer in the SEC before deciding to take the preferred walk on route at Kansas. Multiple players have commented to his ability early and it appears he's adjusting quickly to the scheme and jump to the next level. Carl Torbush has even been quoted as saying that Walker could very well find himself in a starting spot by the time the team takes the field this fall.
Steve Mestan - 6'2" 231 - Sophomore(46)
Mestan entered spring listed in the top spot at middle linebacker and after redshirting his first year and playing in a backup/special teams role a year ago, he might just be the best and most experienced player at the position. Mestan has good size and he comes from Big 10 country(Wisconsin) and that's certainly an area of the country that can put out some good linebackers. He'll have competition, but Mestan certainly looks to be in the mix.
Tyler Hunt - 6'2" 240 - Junior(40)
Tyler Hunt is a local Lawrence player and was slated as a fullback last year. On the updated Spring roster he's tagged under the linebacker section, but a bit of a contradiction in that he's still listed as a fullback on CoachTurnerGill.com. What that says to me is that Hunt could still end up at either but my hunch is that he'll be competing at linebacker and primarily on special teams.
Brian Blackwell - 5'11" 191 - Senior(37)
Blackwell is a senior that has played safety and linebacker during his time at Kansas. His primary role will be on special teams.
Brandon Esposito - 5'11" 220 - Sophomore(56)
Esposito is an all state linebacker out of the Wichita area that is a walk on but has yet to see action for the Jayhawks.
Ed Fink - 6'3" 221 - Freshman(58)
Ed Fink is a middle linebacker build and was injured early during fall camp a year ago. That injury led to a redshirt season and of course very little information regarding any development or expectations. All we know is that he love mud.
Jake Farley - 6'3" 215 - Freshman(50)
Farley was named compete team special teams player of the week last season during preparation for Nebraska and Farley is the son of a coach which never hurts when it comes to football IQ. He has decent size and will compete at outside linebacker at this point most likely as his high school background is at safety.
Tyler Fee - 6' 200 - Freshman(47)
Another fullback turned linebacker. Fee is a walk on from Hutchinson Kansas.
Blake Abbott - 6' 218 - Freshman(55)
All conference linebacker at Liberal and a walk on at the position for Kansas.
Questions Heading Into Spring Practice
- Is there real depth at the position? Right now the Jayhawks look to have options. Willis, Tharp, Johnson, and Walker are four that can play. Peterman and Mestan are experienced and could provide minutes and Prinz Kande has moved to the position as well. There's talk that Lubbock Smith will get a look and Tunde Bakare also arrives on campus this fall. Nothing is proven but Kansas looks to have upgraded the depth, speed and athleticism at the position.
- Is Darius Willis the answer in the middle? Everyone is very high on the transfer from Buffalo. Can he man the middle of a Big 12 defense and provide a run stopping presence while also covering sideline to sideline against the spread?
- Is the 3-4 in the Jayhawks future? It's been talked about and beefing up linebacker depth is a big part of that. If Kansas goes a 3-4 you can expect Toben Opurum to be bundled in with this group as an OLB most likely but Walker, Willis, Tharp, Bakare, Johnson and the others do give Kansas the option to go that route and bring pressure from different areas of the field.
- Does Huldon Tharp pick up where he left off? You never know how a player will respond after an injury. With Tharp we do in a sense because his freshman campaign that had so many excited about his potential was actually coming on the heels of a torn ACL during his senior year of high school. Can he bounce back in the same manner?
The linebacker position has been one where Kansas was left a little shorthanded based on some recent recruiting misses and Carl Torbush has been working to rebuild some depth and change the look at the position. It does appear that strides have already been made to do so and Kansas has some options that are smaller, faster and more athletic than in years past.
Kansas seems interested in being able to run anywhere from two to four linebackers on the field at any given time and they need to be able to provide run support, cover the spread and most importantly they need to be able to cover the field better than Kansas has been able to do in the past. It's headed in the right direction, it's just a question of how far Kansas has come and how much further they need to go.