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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Extreme makeover

Onyegbule vital component of revamped defensive line

Kansas defensive end Maxwell Onyegbule greets the Jayhawk faithful following KU’s 34-7 victory over UTEP on Saturday in El Paso, Texas. Onyegbule is largely responsible for the defensive line’s increased effectiveness this season.

Kansas defensive end Maxwell Onyegbule greets the Jayhawk faithful following KU’s 34-7 victory over UTEP on Saturday in El Paso, Texas. Onyegbule is largely responsible for the defensive line’s increased effectiveness this season.

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KU defense surprising with strong play

KU football's defense is running in sync, allaying preseason concerns about its effectiveness.

At some point during the past offseason, Kansas University football coach Mark Mangino decided his team’s pass rush needed a proverbial kick in the pants.

Then, he set out to make sure it got one.

In addition to hiring a former NFL lineman as his defensive line coach, Mangino took a strong interest in the unit’s development. He stopped by regularly to check on things, harped on it constantly, devoted considerable practice time to it, harped on it some more, and by the end of the day each day, he was pretty sure the team’s defensive linemen were hearing his voice in their dreams.

“We drilled the heck out of pass-rush work in training camp,” the coach said during his weekly news conference Tuesday. “I know the kids were probably sick of it, but they’re probably starting to see the benefits of doing it.”

In just two games this season, the Jayhawks have recorded nine sacks — including six in last Saturday’s 34-7 victory over UTEP, when they held the Miners to just 208 total yards — and are on pace to easily surpass last year’s sack total of 29.

During this early surge, meanwhile, perhaps no player has been more instrumental than senior defensive end Maxwell Onyegbule, an unlikely standout who, so far this year, has become arguably the unit’s most potent pass-rush force.

“We’ve only played two games,” Mangino allowed. “But I think he’s going to be a solid player for us all year.”

Heading into this season, however, some were beginning to wonder whether Onyegbule would ever make the leap to impact player. He was a senior-to-be without a college start on his resume — a daunting physical presence at 6-feet-5 and 258 pounds, but a player who’d struggled with the transition from linebacker to defensive end and hadn’t managed to make a consistent impact in his first three years at the school.

After arriving in Lawrence as a linebacker out of Arlington (Texas) High, Onyegbule spent one uneventful season at the position before Mangino looked at him one day, decided he looked like a defensive end, and then decided to turn him into one.

From the start, the transition didn’t go particularly well.

“It was completely foreign to him,” said Mangino of playing on the defensive line. “He was not sure of himself — he was even having problems with alignments when we first moved him. But you could see, every once in a while, this flash of brilliance.”

So the coach remained patient, and, in the meantime, Onyegbule kept at it. He got bigger and stronger. Learned how to use his hands and get off the ball with purpose. How to work out of a three-point stance, something he’d never before done.

And still, as recently as this past offseason, he was struggling to find a rhythm. He finished with a team-best 3.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2007, but he battled problems with consistency. He came on strong at the end of 2008, with 13 of his 17 season tackles coming in the final four games, but still lacked the confidence Mangino was looking for.

One day this summer, as he was battling to earn a starting spot for the first time in his career, first-year defensive line coach Tom Sims pulled him aside for a talk.

“I had, like, the worst practice I could ever have,” Onyegbule said. “(He) just sat me down and told me ‘You have so much potential, you just have to get your mind right — focus, concentrate.’”

“Just don’t think,” the coach told him. “Just go out and play.”

Since that exchange, those flashes of brilliance have become a bit more regular.

He did enough this summer to earn a starting spot this season — despite the offseason arrival of transfer Quintin Woods, a former Michigan signee expected to help Kansas in its quest to get to get to the quarterback — and in his first collegiate start two weeks ago, finished with three tackles.

Last week, meanwhile, he piled up six tackles, two sacks, another tackle-for-loss and a pass breakup and was named the Big 12’s co-defensive player of the week for his efforts.

“There was never a time where we thought he wouldn’t make it,” said Mangino, asked whether he ever worried that Onyegbule wouldn’t be able to adjust to the defensive line position. “There was something about him, he wanted to do it so badly that we knew, eventually, the light would come on. And it has.”

Of course, even as they praised the player’s development Tuesday, coaches spent a good deal of time making sure to temper it with cautionary footnotes. Happy as Sims appeared to be for his pupil, for instance, he also insisted the player had a long way to go in order to become a player of impact in a talent-laden Big 12 Conference.

“As we looked at the film, it’s not like he graded out even 80-percent,” said Sims, a former defensive tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs, of last weekend’s performance. “There’s a lot of things that he can do better and that he will do better. The key for us is that we have to continue to improve.”

As for Onyegbule, he seems to be up for the challenge.

Happy to finally be in the mix, he understands this season represents his final go-round, and he insists he’s ready to make the most of it.

“I guess my time is now,” he said. “It’s time for me to perform.”

Comments

Dirk Medema 5 years, 2 months ago

Nice article.

“As we looked at the film, it’s not like he graded out even 80-percent,” said Sims, a former defensive tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs, of last weekend’s performance.

That's really encouraging. Nice balance from the coaches between praise and challenge. And yet another wonderful positional switch by the Master Lumberjack.

By the way, is FB grading similar to classroom grading 90-80-70-60? Do they ever release FB grades? By unit even? They know so much more than even the most ardent fan - it would be nice to get just a glimpse now and then inside the team, instead of the facade they allow to be revealed.

Rock Chalk

rawkhawk 5 years, 2 months ago

Onyegbule, you da man! I look forward to more sacks this season!

mikemcfann 5 years, 2 months ago

Usually grades are discussed only by position coaches to his players. Unless a coach wants to make a teaching moment or call out an outstanding game to promote a player to the team.

No way would they post them externally. Would a professor post grades and names outside a class??

rolo2383 5 years, 2 months ago

Onyegbule on one side and Laptad on the other. Nice!

Rivethead 5 years, 2 months ago

Exactly. Who misses Coach Jimmy Joe Bob Clements? I don't.

kunomu 5 years, 2 months ago

I was at the game Saturday night and the thing about Max that amazed me was how much bigger and cut he looks. The guy has an NFL body, there is no doubt.

NebraskaJayhawk 5 years, 2 months ago

I'm not getting too excited until I see them play against a good offensive line. If we can sack Oklahoma, Texas, & Nebraska's quarterbacks, then let's get ready for a BCS game paved by our D-Line. Right now I think we're beating up on sub-par O-Lines.

Michael Leiker 5 years, 2 months ago

NEHawk - Last year we were not getting any pressure against the same type of O-Lines at the beginning of the season and it translated into big XII play. Improvement is improvement, and this is a vast improvement. It will carry over.

kunomu - I am pretty close to the sidelines on gamedays and when I saw Onyegbule warming up in pregame for NoCU, I jumped on the phone right away to my KU football buddies. This guy put on 30-40 lbs of muscle and he almost looks like he grew 2 inches. In my opinion he has the tools to be a potential 1st team Big XII guy, if not more. I'm so excited about this guy I can barely contain myself (or manage to do any work all day).

hawk316 5 years, 2 months ago

Personally, I'm happy to see Onyegbule's hard work begin to pay off. I'm sure he had many discouraging moments trying to make the transition to DE from linebacker. Way to go, Maxwell! Keep up the good work and have a great season.

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