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Monday, January 5, 2009

Who’s backing up this batch of ’backers?

Departing seniors Holt, Rivera, Mortensen say: Don’t worry; new wave of talent ready to take over

Former Kansas University senior linebacker James Holt has been added to the Chargers' active roster. Holt is one of six former Jayhawks active in the NFL.

Former Kansas University senior linebacker James Holt has been added to the Chargers' active roster. Holt is one of six former Jayhawks active in the NFL.

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If there’s one position that has stood out more than any other during Mark Mangino’s time as the head football coach at Kansas University, it’s linebacker.

Mangino’s defenses have featured a group of linebackers known for grit, tenacity and intelligence.

That certainly was the case when Kevin Kane, Banks Floodman and Nick Reid — the Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2005 — patrolled the middle of the field for the Jayhawks. About that same time, names like James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen were waiting in the wings.

Since taking over after the departure of their mentors, Holt, Rivera and Mortensen, all seniors, have taken the position — along with the program — to new heights. Their tenure finished on a high note at Wednesday’s 42-21 Insight Bowl victory against Minnesota, when Holt led the defensive charge with three sacks and four tackles for loss and Rivera and Mortensen each tied career-highs in tackles with 14 and 13, respectively.

So now what? Who takes the reins from KU’s latest linebacking success story?

Not to worry, says the terrorizing trio, replacements are ready. Among those competing for jobs this spring will be Justin Springer, Dakota Lewis and Arist Wright, all of whom played linebacker during the season. Jake Schermer, Steven Johnson and Drew Dudley all are candidates for playing time as well, but Springer, Lewis and Wright seemed to develop a special connection to the three senior linebackers.

“We’re happy to have them around. We’re kind of like big brothers to them, and they come up and ask us questions, and we’re glad to help them out,” Holt said of KU’s next generation of linebackers. “We want to continue the tradition of having great linebackers here at KU, and we’ll do anything we can to help them out.”

Although Springer suffered a season-ending injury in the Kansas State victory, all three reserves received valuable time on the field during 2008. As the season progressed, each of the backups gravitated toward one of the upperclassmen as a main mentor.

Springer’s navigation was the easiest, as he found a home under the tattooed wing of Mortensen. Like Mortensen, Springer already shaves his head and is a devoted follower of the religion that delivers its sermons in the weight room.

Wright wound up connecting with Rivera, partly because of his propensity to fly under the radar and also because of his love of big hits.

That left Lewis and Holt to team up.

“It’s kind of nice having my Oklahoma buddy with me,” Altus, Okla.’s, Holt said of Lewis, who hails from Sulphur, Okla.

Regardless of who sides with whom, or which younger guys have picked up the tendencies of which older guys, one fact remains.

“All three of those guys can play,” Rivera said. “They know what it takes. They’ve seen how hard you have to work, and, hopefully, we’ve taught them a lot.”

Holt agreed and said the trio’s rough edge is what puts them in position to replace this year’s departing linebacker corps.

“They have great mentality,” Holt said. “They love to play the game also, and I’m sure that they can fill our shoes.”

The biggest question mark with this group is likely to be leadership. But with safety Darrell Stuckey expected to return to the defense, Springer, Lewis and Wright simply might be asked to make tackles and solidify the pass defense.

In addition to the three underclassmen who received playing time at linebacker alongside their senior counterparts this season, the Jayhawks have a handful of others on their roster who could fill the role next season. One intriguing possibility is junior running back Angus Quigley, who took reps at linebacker during the developmental practices that led up to the Insight Bowl. His size and the way Quigley hit on special teams make him a good candidate to move to the position full-time in 2009.

Incoming freshmen and potential junior-college transfers also could earn playing time. The opportunity to start right away might be reason enough to sign with the Jayhawks.

Comments

JBurtin 11 years ago

With a more experienced secondary and D line I think we'll be fine with a little less experience at linebacker.Good luck to our seniors. It seems like your careers just started, and you're already leaving us. Hopefully you'll be able to continue those careers at the next level.

Clarence Haynes 11 years ago

Assuming that they have the speed and agility, some of those incoming DEs might get converted to linebacker. That could make for a deep and big linebacker corp that could also be used in pass rush situations a la Holt.

Jeremy LeMaster 11 years ago

I remember the same story about this group of linebackers when Reid, Floodman and Kane graduated. I distinctly remember them saying that the next group had athletic tools that they did not have. Turned out to be a pretty good group. Good luck gentleman!

FlaHawk 11 years ago

KU will only go as far as the defense can carry them in 2009! I don;t think any of the LBs other than Wright got into many plays against Big XII teams. The 2005 crop of LBs was very good, but for tres amigos this years crop was superior. I don;t think Holt was quite as good as Reid.None o them have NFL size, speed or ability, but they made a great collegiate treo!

JBurtin 11 years ago

Holt was rated by the other players as one of the best overall athletes on the team, and Mortensen and Rivera are exactly the big hole filling backers that the NFL is always searching for.They are underrated players and probably won't get drafted, but my guess is that there may very well be a place for them on NFL rosters. They'll just have to fight their way on to a team the hard way.

Kevin Long 11 years ago

I really hate to see them go. Hopefully this next time we won't lose all three at once. I think we will be pretty good next year. Probably about the same as this year, maybe a little better. I do think our o-line needs to be a little better. Reesing makes them look better than they are.

Alan Halvorsen 11 years ago

Holt-3rd roundCantrell-early 6th roundRivera-late 6th roundFields-undrafted free agentMortensen-undrafted free agentHartley? Mays? Brorsen?

mbmerriman 11 years ago

cmon holt is DEFINETLY getting drafted he runs a 4.5 he is 6'3'' and has put on atleast 30 pounds since getting the starting job, he is our best linebacker. Not only the most talented but the most consistent. Mortenson is too small to play at the next level and Rivera is too slow to start he may become a special teams demon but overall i think Holt has a chance to start somewhere at some point.

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