2004 was the last year we really had to even think about the linebacker situation in Lawrence. A lot has changed in the time being. In '04 linebackers were recruited to be big physical guys that could stuff the running lanes and maybe pick up your run of the mill tight end or running back out of the backfield in coverage.
Nick Reid, Kevin Kane, Banks Floodman, Gabe Toomey, Mike Rivera and Jo e Mortensen were your classic workhorses. They weren't the fastest, most athletic but they were bruisers who would stick their nose in a hole, shed a block here or there and blow up running plays wherever they could.
Fast forward to 2009 and we're looking at five receiver sets, tight ends who play like oversized receivers, running backs catching screens, runs out of the shotgun and players being spread this way and that all over the field.
Much has been made of the loss of the three Jayhawk linebackers from last year and while Rivera, Mortensen and Holt did great work in their time at Kansas, it was clear near the end that maybe the type of linebackers they were, was not necessarily the same as the type of linebacker that would excel in today's Big 12.
Now does that mean we'll be better off, maybe not? What it does mean though is that we're starting to see a little bit of a change in the type of guys we're recruiting for this role. In '09 the makeup of the position is such that the Jayhawks will have a few guys in the mix from the old style, while also trying to fit several players of the new mold into the system. They'll be growing pains no doubt, but it was bound to happen and the candidates are plenty for the linebacker position in 2009.
Full Positional Breakdown After the Jump...
Kicking off the preview there is likely one player who has set himself in a position to be a starter and that is the lone player that has any form of substantial experience in Arist Wright. Late in the '08 season Wright began seeing increased action with the move of James Holt to a more pass rushing focus. At 6' 226 pounds Wright is a smaller more compact backer that once earned mention by ESPN.com as a workout warrior in college football. In the course of his three years to date he has amassed 77 total tackles on the year while filling in as primarily a backup player to the three that graduated a season ago. Wright showed a fairly solid ability to play against today's spread offenses last season and as a senior this year he'll likely be looked to as a leader for a unit that is experiencing tremendous change.
Another senior on the linebacking corps this year is a player who is jumping from one side of the ball to another. Angus Quigley has bounced around a whole lot in his time at Kansas but seems to be making one last move to the defensive side of the ball. At 6'2" 229 pounds the former running back has good size and great athleticism for the linebacker spot; it's just a matter of how quickly he can pick it up. Many will remember James Holt performing pass rushing duties last year rather effectively and the thinking is that Quigley might have that same advantage off the edge. While there are no doubt questions swirling around Quigley's potential at the position one thing to keep in mind is that if he does have a light go off, there is still one more year of eligibility that he has been granted and can use should he choose. At times Mangino's compliments of Quigley's switch have been few and far between but sometimes I wonder if that's his way of keeping Angus hungry amidst a position change that has a tremendous amount of urgency.
Next up on the preview is junior Justin Springer. A year ago he was the heir apparent to take the middle for Joe Mortensen in the Kansas linebacking rotation. An injury, a long recovery and a change of philosophy mean that one year later that isn't so certain. Springer is in the mold of old if you will, he's a big guy standing 6'4" 242 pounds and reportedly lives in the weight room. Over the course of his two seasons playing primarily special teams Spring has recorded 38 tackles after coming in and exciting some folks as a true freshman. Personally, I'm still a believer in the guy and again despite Mangino's comments to the contrary I think he'll be in the mix. I've spoken to him on several occasions during his recovery from rehab; he has every expectation to be competing for the starting job and has been putting in every ounce of effort to make that happen. It's impossible to say how this pans out with Springer but I can't imagine this is a guy that fades away into the background without a fight.
A newcomer to the position that also figures to factor in is junior college transfer Vernon Brooks. Brooks is now officially on the roster and from what I've gathered from players in camp, once he gets his legs under him, he'll factor into the conversation without a doubt. Brooks is a shade under 6' and a solidly built backer that was known to blow up a few screens in his JUCO days. After it looked like he wasn't going to qualify and had decided on the division II route he received late word that he was good to go for a division one transfer. Kansas landed him but he was also heavily sought after by Oklahoma and Auburn along with a few other SEC schools. I'm excited for this one as Kansas has had great success with JUCO linebackers in the past, again though recent history has not been so kind.
There are still other upperclassmen involved in the conversation and the good thing about the position is despite a major turnover there are a good number of options that are juniors or seniors. Ultimately that's where you want your program at. People may not know the names on paper but they've been at the grind for a few years now and may be far more prepared to step up than anyone imagined.
Starting things off there is Jake Shermer. Shermer is a 6'2 225 pound senior out of Nixa, Missouri. Is he a world beater? No he isn't, but Shermer did have a solid spring and has earned mention by the coaches as an upperclassman that is making a play at a position that is wide open. Shermer has seen action in 30 games over his career and recorded 38 tackles with a career best 6 against Missouri in 2006.
The next name on the experienced and competing list is junior Drew Dudley. Dudley like Quigley has bounced around a bit primarily from backer to fullback. At 6'2" 232 Dudley who was once ranked the 19th best middle linebacker in the nation as a high school player is back in a familiar role on defense. In his 2 seasons of action he has played in every single game and again this could very well be a situation where a player sat behind some very solid upperclassman but is more than capable of stepping in when his time comes. Dudley has earned specific mention for his fall camp performances and he is a very real option when it comes to the inside linebacker spot.
There are also a couple of wild cards in the mix this year starting with sophomore Steven Johnson. Johnson came out of nowhere joining the Kansas team as a walk on following a year in prep school and some time out of the game. Johnson was an all state linebacker in the state of Pennsylvania which has no shortage of history when it comes to turning out good ones. Johnson stands 6'2" 229 and by the end of last fall was running second team behind Joe Mort. Honestly Johnson should probably be a little further up this list, but despite the concern at the position if there is one thing the staff has its options.
The other wild card is true freshman Huldon Tharp. Tharp joins Kansas after sitting out his senior season at Mulvane high in Mulvane Kansas. After tearing his ACL prior to his senior season Tharp committed to the Jayhawks over Miami and Standford although it's been said had he been healthy we might not have him in the Jayhawk uniform because others would have come calling. Well apparently the freshman took his rehab very seriously and if Mangino's comments are any indication he could very well be starting at linebacker from day one. At 6' 215 he appears a bit small but by the same token he's perfect if you are running the base 4-3 but wanting better coverage out of your OLB's. Tharp has been said to be very quick and athletic and if you envision him and Chris Harris rotating in and out as either a nickel back that can tackle or a linebacker that can cover you've got a pretty good combination there. Obviously that's all a theory at this point but regardless it sounds like Tharp is making some waves and should be another guy that factors in to the conversation early.
That makes seven and we're not even close to finished here so I'll give a very quick rundown of the remaining guys on the roster.
Upperclassman Dakota Lewis enters his third season. Standing 6'1" 213 Lewis played a backup role in 2008 and has recorded a total of 25 tackles on his career.
Chea Peterman is a 6'2" 220 pound sophomore who joined Kansas as a walk on in '06. He's seen limited action to date but was the Arkansas defensive player of the year as a senior.
Josh Richardson is a 6'4" 220 pound redshirt freshman out of the same high school as Bradley McDougald. Josh's brother is an NFL defensive end who reportedly went to college a project and came out a player. Richardson was one the staff was fairly high on when they recruited him and maybe the hope is down the line he'll have a similar story.
Another true freshman on the squad is Jacoby Thomas out of Texarkana Texas where he played defensive end. At 6'2" 212 he moves to outside linebacker and could be a viable option down the line for the Jayhawks.
Walk ons added to the most recent roster at the position include; Ryan Nelson and Jordan Fee.
Julian Jones who signed with the Jayhawks in February and joined the team this summer has left the team.
As you can see while there is some turnover at the position there is no shortage of bodies to attempt to address it. It's easy to say how is Kansas ever going to replace Joe Mortenson, Mike Rivera and James Holt, but at the same time that's what people were saying when they got their first starts.