Trio of KU football true freshman DBs made most of early enrollment in spring

photo by: Courtesy of KU Athletics/Andy Eisch

Kansas cornerback Jacobee Bryant goes through a drill during spring practices in April of 2021.

Throughout a spring practice schedule filled with uncertainty for the Kansas football program, a few of the youngest players on the roster discovered ways to shine through the transition.

Before the Jayhawks found their head coach in Lance Leipold, along with some assurances about what lies ahead, the names of three true freshman defensive backs — safeties OJ Burroughs and Jayson Gilliom and cornerback Jacobee Bryant — kept getting brought up by teammates discussing the highlights of the spring.

“Those are young guys who are really hitting it hard on the defensive side,” super-senior nose tackle Sam Burt said of Bryant and Burroughs, before also crediting Gilliom for seemingly always finding his way to the ball.

Added Burt of Gilliom: “He’s also a young guy that just does what he’s told and keeps improving every day.”

Burt thought Gilliom improved throughout the spring and the veteran D-lineman said he’s excited to see what Gilliom can do for the program.

Similar sentiments came across during media sessions throughout the spring when the Jayhawks discussed Class of 2021 early enrollees Burroughs and Gilliom and 2020 signee Bryant, who grayshirted before joining the roster in the spring semester.

Kansas football safety OJ Burroughs

Burroughs, from Savannah, Ga., was rated by Rivals as a three-star prospect in the most recent singing cycle. Gilliom, from Suwanee, Ga., was considered a two-star talent. Bryant, from Evergreen, Ala., was assessed a three-star rating in the Class of 2020.

As everything progressed, all three eventually proved during their first semester in the program to be good enough to get some practice reps on the KU defense’s first team.

“Our young guys that came in, they’re all contributing,” senior defensive lineman Caleb Sampson said. “It just proves that they’ve really been serious about coming to college and contributing early.”

Burroughs, Gilliom and Bryant were three of the eight true freshmen who joined the roster in January as mid-year additions and were able to participate in the team’s spring practice schedule while the rest of KU’s freshmen didn’t arrive until the summer. The list of early enrollees also included cornerback DeVonte Wilson, quarterbacks Ben Easters and Conrad Hawley and offensive linemen De’Kedrick Sterns and Larson Workman.

Junior tight end Mason Fairchild said playing early isn’t easy.

“For those young guys, those freshmen that came in,” Fairchild said, “it’s a different pace form high school to college.”

Kansas football safety Jayson Gilliom

Adjusting to life as a first semester player on the defense, junior linebacker Nick Channel said, had to be pretty difficult for the young defensive backs.

“A lot of them are already getting thrown in,” Channel noted during the spring. “They’re getting reps with the ones and twos, and they’ve got to know everything just as good as we do. It’s got to be a lot of stress for them. But them being able to step in and do that, it kind of shows that they are going to be able to contribute for us in the future.”

When it came time for defensive players to review video footage from practices during spring ball, Channel said Gilliom, Burroughs and Bryant often stood out.

“Jacobee Bryant, he’s always on that tape and always making plays, making interceptions, getting PBUs,” Channel added. “The freshmen are really stepping up and they’ve got a lot of good skill that we could use.”

Sophomore linebacker Taiwan Berryhill said Bryant and Burroughs regularly stuck out to him with their play, consistency and energy. Burroughs in particular — listed on KU’s roster at 5-foot-10 and 167 pounds — grabbed Berryhill’s attention.

“He hits hard for a small person,” Berryhill attested. “And the fact that he understands coverages so well, even though he just came in here. To learn the defense fast is pretty impressive.”

A super-senior at safety, Ricky Thomas said both Burroughs and Gilliom caught on fast over the course of their first 15 practices at the college level, and he can’t wait for people to see them in games this fall. Thomas said Burroughs possesses a knack for getting to the ball “like no other,” adding he expects Burroughs is “going to be special.”

Thomas also said Gilliom provides the defense with energy.

“He’s flying around. He’s going 100 percent every single play,” Thomas said, “and he’s making plays.”

The Jayhawks’ spring concluded with Bryant delivering arguably the premier highlight of the spring game, an interception that he returned for a touchdown.

“It showed us the hard work he put in,” super-senior linebacker Nate Betts said of Bryant’s showing in the scrimmage. “I see his one-on-ones. He catches picks all the time. He’s a good player.”


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