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Archive for Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Backer battle between buddies

April 17, 2007

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Kansas University's two leading tacklers on the football field last year now are competing for one starting job.

Joe Mortensen and Mike Rivera, close friends and juniors out of the same recruiting class, finished the spring season Sunday in an intense battle for the one middle-linebacker starting spot. Mortensen moves inside after starting all 12 games last year as an outside linebacker.

"The reality of it is, they're both Mike (middle) linebackers," KU coach Mark Mangino said. "Joe was forced out of necessity to play outside last year."

Mortensen managed 82 tackles and a forced fumble in 2006, but was able to move back inside -where he's better suited - thanks in part to the development of James Holt and Arist Wright and the position switch of Olaitan Oguntodu from strong safety. Mortensen actually suited with the first-team defense in the spring game Sunday, while Rivera - a team captain who led the Jayhawks with 90 tackles last year - played on second team.

"We like it," Mangino said of the Mike position. "It's kind of like the quarterback position. We like the competition. It only makes us better."

Here's where it gets interesting, though: Both made strong arguments for being the most valuable defender on their teams Sunday. Mortensen led the Blue squad with 10 tackles (three for a loss), while Rivera led the White team with eight.

What's a coaching staff to do should both players earn playing time?

"It's going to be a situation where we're going to play that position by committee," defensive coordinator Bill Young said. "A lot of the positions we have on the defense will be that way. Joe Mortensen has really come on at the end of spring ball and has done a nice job."

Mortensen seemed comfortable with the battle. Since moving back inside, Mortensen spent the whole spring getting readjusted and soaking in the wisdom of new linebackers coach Steve Tovar. It has made a huge difference.

"Coach Tovar himself was a Mike linebacker," Mortensen said. "He's got so much knowledge coming from the NFL and Ohio State. He's teaching all of us technique and just made us all a lot better football players.

"We'll be a lot more aggressive, a lot more physical. Which I like."

Now it's a matter of figuring who will get plugged in. Sunday's spring game had Mortensen playing first-team middle, with Holt and Wright starting outside. Rivera, Oguntodu and Jake Schermer worked second team.

Considering Rivera's athleticism and potential, though, the starting three might change before the Sept. 1 opener. It's now up to Mortensen, like any other projected starter, to keep a strong grip.

"It's going good," Mortensen said. "Me and Mike are best friends, and that's how we've been.

"We don't know what's going to happen. It's definitely a battle. He's a great football player, and he's also my best friend. It makes it fun."

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