One advantage an enthusiastic fan of college athletics has over a follower of professional sports is that college athletes, at least in theory, improve throughout relatively short stays in college. In the pros, they get better, then level out, then get worse.
Watching college athletes blossom from often insecure, sometimes undersized talents into productive, winning players tends to develop stronger passion in fans than following the careers of pros.
For the Kansas University football team, 2-0 with a combined score of 83-10, it’s worth examining two players from each class who so far have shown they are developing well, ahead of projections many had for them coming into the season.
Freshmen: Bradley McDougald and Toben Opurum. Both players, especially Opurum, seem older in the way they talk and the way they carry themselves on the field. And both are fully aware of how much they need to learn and are eager to push their football educations at a fast pace.
Opurum has rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. McDougald has five catches with an average of 19.4 yards per reception.
“I think he’s good,” Opurum said of McDougald. “He’s got a lot of work to do, but where he’s at right now he’s at a good level with his maturity. He’s physically ready to play, and just like all of us he’s going to only get better. ... I’m definitely proud of our freshman class. There are some positions where there is already depth there. That’s the only reason some people aren’t playing, but we definitely have talent in our class, and if you don’t see it now, people will definitely get to see it later when some of them grow physically and mentally. We definitely have a talented class.”
Sophomores: Daymond Patterson and Jeff Spikes. KU coach Mark Mangino wasn’t pleased that Patterson let two punts hit the ground Saturday, but Patterson looked good returning the punts he fielded, although he needs to watch running backward. As a cornerback, he has come a long, long way.
The offensive line has performed well so far, and Spikes, the right tackle, deserves some of the credit. He looks more sure of himself.
Juniors: Chris Harris and Justin Springer. Harris, aided as a freshman by Aqib Talib not needing much help, slipped as a sophomore and was switched midway through the season from cornerback to safety. He started this season as the nickelback, a hybrid corner/safety position. In Week 2, he was back at cornerback, with Justin Thornton moving to nickel. Harris had a huge game against Northern Colorado and a strong one versus UTEP. His confidence is back.
Springer, coming off knee surgery after suffering a torn ACL, can only do what the recovering strength in his knee allows him. Only time will allow him to return to full strength, but it’s clear the rugged linebacker knows how to play football and gets everything out of his body.
Seniors: Maxwell Onyegbule and Jeff Wheeler. Until this year, Onyegbule had trouble turning his size and speed into football production. The switch appears to have turned on. Wheeler played Saturday with that now-or-never urgency so often seen in seniors.