When Huldon Tharp went down with an injury last spring, the loss decimated the Kansas University football team’s depth at linebacker.
Instead of having a player who was coming off of a season that earned him freshman all-America honors, KU coach Turner Gill was forced to field a team that had just three linebackers with any real experience.
It’s not that Justin Springer, Drew Dudley and Steven Johnson couldn’t get the job done. All three were tough, physical players who put the team’s goals before their own and would have done anything to get a stop. The problem was, as the games dragged on and their legs grew weak, Springer, Dudley and Johnson weren’t able to keep up.
That shouldn’t be a problem for KU in 2011. Although Johnson is the only member of last year’s exhausted trio to return, he’ll be pleased with what he sees around him on the field.
This offseason, the Jayhawks added a ton of depth at linebacker, bringing in a few junior-college transfers in Tunde Bakare, Malcolm Walker and Isaac Wright, as well as five true freshmen, all of whom have the potential to play right away. Add to that list a group of red-shirt freshmen and returning veterans and it’s easy to conclude that Johnson should not be quite as tired throughout 2011.
A couple of players who were with the team but not on the field last season, headline the new blood. Buffalo transfer Darius Willis is currently at the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker and third-year sophomore Huldon Tharp, a former starter, returns from an injury that kept him sidelined throughout 2010.
For Johnson, last year’s leading tackler, the arrival of some much-needed help in the middle has done nothing but raise his faith in his unit’s ability.
“I’m not really worried about our linebackers,” Johnson said. “Because we just always work. That’s our motto. We always work.”
In an effort to sort out which guys will do the most work, here is the Journal-World and KUsports.com’s rankings of the team’s linebackers, the sixth in a summer position series that examines each group.
Matt Tait’s list
- Darius Willis: This guy has the kind of skills and drive that land most on the all-conference team at season’s end.
- Tunde Bakare: Speed and style of play make him ideal for the type of player the coaches want at OLB.
- Steven Johnson: Last year’s leading tackler should shine now that he’ll be able to rest for a series or two.
- Malcolm Walker: Juco transfer could end up being the steal of the Class of 2011. He’ll play right away.
- Huldon Tharp: Last year’s injury won’t change the way this guy plays. Expect him to fly to the ball and keep going no matter what gets in his way.
Tom Keegan’s list
- Darius Willis: Buffalo transfer looks and moves like a legitimate force.
- Tunde Bakare: Juco transfer has the drive to compensate for lack of size.
- Steven Johnson: Not fast, but a sure tackler.
- Huldon Tharp: Too small to stand out at linebacker, too slow for safety?
- Malcolm Walker: Juco transfer made progress during spring.
Jesse Newell’s list
- Steven Johnson: Led team with 95 tackles; should benefit from Kansas having more depth at that position in 2011 season.
- Darius Willis: Lots of expectations for this Buffalo transfer at middle linebacker position.
- Huldon Tharp: Back after a leg injury ended his 2010 season; has physical tools, but needs to improve footwork.
- Malcolm Walker: Led KU with seven tackles in spring game.
- Prinz Kande: Strong safety-turned-linebacker will have lots of competition for backup LB spot.
Journal-World Consensus Top 5 Linebackers
• Five points awarded for first, four points for second, three points for third, two points for fourth and one point for fifth.
- Darius Willis (14)
- Steven Johnson (11)
- Tunde Bakare (8)
- Huldon Tharp (6)
- Malcolm Walker (5)
Others receiving votes: Prinz Kande (1).