Football helmets mask faces, which can make it tougher to personalize the players, but if you don’t feel for Kansas University sophomore Toben Opurum right this moment, your cold heart needs to bake in the sun for a while. It might even be time for a transplant.
Put yourself in Opurum’s cleats. A four-star running back from the high school football hot bed of Plano, Texas, Opurum was courted by Notre Dame, which wanted him as a fullback. He instead chose Kansas because then-coach Mark Mangino assured him he would be used as a one back in KU’s spread offense. That’s how Mangino used Opurum, who led the team in rushing, getting so many of the yards on his own by carrying piles.
Then November came. KU athletic director Lew Perkins set in motion a witch hunt that cost Mangino his job and cost the athletic department the $3 million parachute Mangino floated to his new home in Naples, Fla. That would have been well before employees of the Williams Fund and ticket office shafted customers by selling prime seats and shoving the money in their pockets. That scandal broke before the Perkins exercise-equipment mess, which was revealed long before a published report detailed Perkins’ costly travel habits.
Despite all that, searching for humble pie on the menu at Kansas University Athletics, Inc., is as fruitless an endeavor as trying to find Opurum’s name on a Gill depth chart.
(Aside: I stand by my prediction that Perkins will not be in his post when Turner Gill coaches his first game, 15 days from today.)
Anyway, shortly after Mangino started walking the plank, Opurum injured his ankle early in the Texas game and with him out, the Kansas running game never looked the same.
New coach. New position. Opurum practiced as a linebacker Thursday for the first time. Angus Quigley is listed atop the depth chart at running back.
Elsewhere, at Notre Dame, Charlie Weis was fired and replaced by Brian Kelly, who favors a one-back, spread offense. Opurum might be competing to win the job as Notre Dame’s featured running back had he signed with the Fighting Irish.
Opurum’s a winner. He’ll try to block out thoughts of what might have been and make learning a new position his top priority.
Opurum wasn’t available for interview Thursday, but I chatted with him Tuesday and asked him if he had any interest in beefing up the thin linebacking unit.
“They haven’t asked me to,” Opurum said Tuesday. “If they ask me to and think it will help the team, then so be it.”
The ankle didn’t fully heal, Opurum said, until right before summer conditioning started. For the spring, he was mostly a frustrated spectator. The toughest aspect of the spring?
“Probably just seeing everyone get a chance to work every day and realize that being in rehab, you’re not doing anything but getting behind and it’s going to be that much harder to get back to the top, starting that low,” Opurum said. “It’s something I worked through. It wasn’t easy, but I definitely worked my way back up.”
Or so he thought. He learned otherwise Thursday, when he started at the bottom again, this time as a linebacker.
Quigley, one of the team’s five captains, has been there, done that. He’s happy to return to carrying the football.
“I think it may actually be easier for Toben than it was for me,” Quigley said. “I didn’t really pick it up as fast as I wanted to, but I’ve seen Toben, he’s a fast learner. He didn’t look bad today. Toben’s already the right size. I had to work to get to linebacker size.”
The toughest part of the transition?
“The mentality,” Quigley said. “You have to learn to tackle. I’m sure it’s been a long time since he’s made a tackle. I’m sure that’s going to be the hardest part and covering routes instead of running routes. I feel like it’s always easier running a route when you know where you want to go than to cover a route when you have no idea what the guy across from you is going to do.”
Quigley said he talked to Opurum before Thursday’s practice about the switch and said the sophomore “seemed pretty upbeat. He said he’s not going to go over there half-hearted. He said he said he’s going to go over there whole-heartedly and give it a shot.”
Quigley put some vicious hits on ball carriers on special teams, but the transition to defense didn’t go so smoothly.
“That linebacker experience was quite an experience,” he said. “It’s really crazy. It can get frustrating. Really, what I’m going to talk to him about is not getting frustrated. He’s been playing running back and it feels natural to him. I know there were days I was frustrated playing linebacker. You get beat on a route because you tried to guess and it’s not coming natural to you because it’s not what you’re used to doing.”
Quigley, a sixth-year senior, gets the first shot at becoming the featured back, though Gill said a rotation will be in place. Redshirt freshman Deshaun Sands and junior Rell Lewis are listed behind him as co-second-teamers. True freshmen James Sims and Brandon Bourbon, once they learn how to block and pick up the complexities of a college offense, could work their way into the mix.
It’s an interesting gamble, moving Opurum to linebacker, a move more likely to help the team in the future than in 2010.