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KU linebackers bigger, faster than in 2016

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Team KU receiver Kerr Johnson Jr. (14) is taken to the turf by Team Jayhawk linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. (29) during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium.

Team KU receiver Kerr Johnson Jr. (14) is taken to the turf by Team Jayhawk linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. (29) during the first quarter of the 2017 Spring Game on Saturday, April 15 at Memorial Stadium. by Nick Krug

Beyond Joe Dineen and Keith Loneker, Kansas doesn’t have a great deal of experience at linebacker, but linebackers coach Todd Bradford expressed optimism about improving depth at the position.

“We’re more athletic than we’ve been since I’ve been here,” Bradford said. “That’s been an emphasis of ours in recruiting as well as down in the weight room with coach (Zac) Woodfin and all the things we’re doing because of the league we play in.”

The position needed to become more than just faster.

“We’re also packing a little bit more weight than we played with last year,” Bradford said. “We say that we’re in a league that is spread out and going all over the place, but there still are a few teams that are going to try to pound it down your throat. They might do it out of spread-out formation and going fast, but we needed to carry that weight into the season, too, which we’ve been able to do through camp as well because guys have been able to hold their weight they put on over the summer time. So I think we’re getting better and we’ve improved in both speed and size.”

The five linebackers in line for the most snaps, listed in order of their weight, from lightest to heaviest: true freshman Kyron Johnson (210 pounds), redshirt freshman Dru Prox (215), junior Osaze Ogbebor (220), junior Keith Loneker (225) and junior Joe Dineen (230).

Ogbebor and Loneker are in a battle for the starting linebacker spot opposite Dineen in KU's 4-2-5 base defense.

Bradford explained how the extra weight will help Dineen.

“The one thing that he can’t do at linebacker is this league gets you in a tendency to be running sideways and just kind of putting your hands on blocks and that’s the whole thing that they want you to do is just be running sideways,” Bradford said. “We need to be able to come downhill and punch those blocks and stop the line of scrimmage from going sideways so the ball has to change direction, and then we can put guys in gaps to make tackles. Joe has really worked hard at that and is getting better every day.”

Dineen is big, fast and experienced, so Bradord demands a lot out of him on a daily basis.

“I think the one thing Joe has really worked hard on and I’ve put a lot of pressure on is making plays. Don’t just fit the play right, that’s not the point of football,” Bradford said. “The point of football is tackling the guy with the ball. Don’t just fit the play right.”

Dineen is responding to that instruction, according to his position coach.

“The last few scrimmages he’s been involved in a lot more plays,” Bradford said. “The very first play of (Friday’s) scrimmage he made a tackle for a loss. Those are the things we need him to do. He’s big and fast and kids depend on him from a leadership standpoint. And it’s always better if your leader is getting guys on the ground a lot.”

Bradford cited Ogbebor as a linebacker who “has had a really good camp. His strength, his summer work, has been good. I’d still like to see him put on some more weight, but he’s been able to be more physical at the point of attack.”

Bradford said he also has seen stronger play from Prox and Loneker.

“Both of those guys have had good summers where they’re able to knock guys back,” Bradford said. “Prox runs very well. He’ll make a lot of plays for us.”

Among KU's linebackers, Johnson has the most speed.

“He’s a really great athlete, probably one of the fastest guys on our defense. He can really, really run,” Bradford said.

As with any true freshman, getting Johnson to run to the right spot remains a challenge. Johnson graduated high school early to enroll at the semester and participate in spring football.

“He’s good enough to play. He’s physical enough to play. We need to get him ready to play,” Bradford said. “We need to do whatever we have to do to get him ready to play.”

Spring football helps a player new to college football, but it doesn’t make him a sophomore, Bradford said.

“When you have them here for spring of their high school year you stop treating them like freshmen for fall camp, but really he’s a freshman," Bradford said. "He’s never seen anything like this for fall camp, so you have to kind of catch yourself. He’s not a wily veteran. This is what, his 25th practice of college football in his life? He’s made some good strides and I think he’ll be ready to go by the time it’s time for us to put him in.”

Junior Denzel Feaster gained enough playing time during the Big 12 portion of the schedule last season to make eight tackles, force a fumble and recover one, but has missed time because of injuries during fall camp.

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