I've heard all about how losing our starting trio of linebackers will be our downfall in the Big 12 North title chase, and I'll have none of it. In fact, I feel that of all the things that could go wrong for the Jayhawks, the linebackers may not be one of them.
Sure we lost three current NFL linebackers, and that's nearly impossible to replace over a summer. However, I think there are several factors that benefit the outlook of this year's group.
First, I'd like to point out that Joe Mortenson and Mike Rivera played at far less than 100% for most of last season. They still played well, but being healthy is always preferred. On the plus side, at least Arist Wright gained invaluable experience.
Secondly, I feel that Rivera and Mortenson were the unfortunate victims of a dramatic offensive turnover in the Big 12. Isn't asking 250 lb. linebackers to play pass coverage in a no-huddle, spread out, very speedy Big 12 a little crazy?
I feel that James Holt was the most successful of the three last year, not only as a pass rusher, but also as a coverage guy because of his versatility.
While on the subject of the offensive revolution, it's probably important to note a growing change in our defensive scheme this year.
Maybe I'm being premature, but I have a feeling that the nickel is about to become KU's best friend. Also, Arist Wright, while he may not be a superstar, basically started several games last year. Maybe its just me, but I feel more and more every day like we lost three linebackers but really only need to fill one big hole.
Finally, I'd like to point out that in Mark Mangino's term at KU, never have his linebackers been the weak point of his defense. It's something I don't want to take for granted, but I can't help feeling fairly secure.
This year, thanks to the added guidance of Bill Miller, I'm almost certain that Mangino will make something special out of the young men at his disposal.
I know that any KU fan die-hard enough to read this doesn't need to hear me say it, but Nick Reid, Banks Floodman, Gabe Toomey, David MacMillan, and James Holt weren't exactly big names coming into KU either.
I promise that by writing this article, I am not trying to downplay the contributions of three of the better linebackers in KU's history, or the gaps their absences have left. I just want to point out that things aren't as bad as they seem, and that having an under-the-radar defense might not hurt us.
To wrap up, I'd like to toss out a few final thoughts on KU's newest group of linebackers...
First of all, I'd love to see Huldon Tharp get some quality playing time. I know that Arist Wright is a smaller guy as well, and having them on the field at the same time isn't very likely. However, word is getting out that Tharp has impressed Mangino, and he will always find a way to get his talent on the field.
Secondly, did anyone else know that Drew Dudley switched back to linebacker? I hear that he hasn't lost a step, and while the oft-injured Justin Springer may have more potential, it's Dudley who is making the most of his opportunities.
Third, remember the name Vernon Brooks. He is just as athletic, if not moreso, than Angus Quigley, and he has JuCo experience on his side. A part of me wonders about his potential as an undersized strong side backer. If nothing else, he and the ever-improving Quigley should have a healthy competition for some valuable playing time.
Finally, I'd like to comment on the depth and athleticism of this corps.
The Big 12, as well as college football everywhere, is rapidly evolving, and Mark Mangino has done a good job of keeping his linebackers up to the curve.