About this series: This is the fourth in a series of previews of Kansas University’s football team by position. The series will run Wednesdays and Sundays in the Journal-World. Coming Wednesday: wide receivers.
Drew Dudley is Kansas University’s top returning tackler from a year ago. Justin Springer was one of the Jayhawks’ best performers of the spring.
So what happens when both of them play the same position at middle linebacker?
KU defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Carl Torbush already has his solution: find a spot on the field for both of them.
“I’ve told all those guys, and they understand, I want them to be able to play all three (linebacker) positions,” Torbush said. “Because if you can’t play all three positions, then all of a sudden you’ve got one of your best football players sitting on the bench, and we sure don’t want that.”
Torbush might consider 2010 a success if he simply is able to keep his most talented linebackers on the field.
Though the coach is excited about the potential of his top guys — which includes junior linebacker Steven Johnson and sophomore Huldon Tharp — he’s also wary of what could happen over the course of a long season.
“We’ve got enough guys, if we can keep them from having to play a ton of snaps and keep them healthy ... then we’ll be OK,” Torbush said. “Of course, all that said and done, you’re one or two injuries away from being very, very fragile, and that’s something that we don’t want.”
KU’s linebackers already have missed some spring practice time because of injury.
Dudley was only able to practice in shorts while recovering from a shoulder ailment and did not participate in the spring game.
Torbush still is familiar with Dudley — a College Station, Texas native — as the senior attended some Texas A&M football camps when Torbush was there as an assistant coach from 2003-05.
Tharp, meanwhile, was held out of many drills because of a foot injury.
“He’s a guy that we’ll definitely be counting on this fall,” Torbush said. “He started as a true freshman and did a great job.”
With those two sidelined, Springer and Johnson stood out as the top two linebackers in the spring.
Springer, a 6-foot-3, 237-pound senior from Los Fresnos, Texas, played in all 12 games last season, recording 25 tackles.
Torbush said that Springer has the potential to get a shot at professional football.
“I did not expect him to be as good as he was in the spring,” Torbush said. “He was hurt probably most of last year and hadn’t recovered, but he had an outstanding spring.
“He’s very smart, loves football, has good athleticism. We’re expecting him to be a great leader for us on defense.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 237-pound junior from Media, Pa., is a former walk-on who contributed nine tackles in 2009.
Torbush said Johnson’s previous knee problems might have cost him a chance to get more experience earlier in his career.
“He’s got excellent foot speed, loves to play,” Torbush said. “I really believe if he stays healthy and does what I expect him to do, he’s going to be a really good football player for us, and he needs to be.
“For us to be successful, he’s got to be that type of guy.”
Red-shirt freshman Jacoby Thomas and sophomore Josh Richardson are next in line for snaps in case of injury.
“If that group can stay healthy, I think we have a chance to be a very solid group at the linebacking position,” Torbush said. “I’m excited about them. I’m excited about the want-to, the willingness to get better.
“Like I say, it’s going to be a long season, so the ability to stay healthy, the ability to maintain consistency and the ability to manufacture depth will be a big key for us.”