Lost amid the rubble of blowout losses for the Kansas University football team that finished 3-9 lies an encouraging sign. The defense should improve as soon as next season.
Three players who came into the summer as offensive players eventually were switched to defense, and all three will be counted on as cornerstones in 2011.
Toben Opurum’s switch from running back to linebacker in August didn’t go as smoothly as his mid-season move to defensive end. Opurum was missed at running back, particularly during a season-opening loss to North Dakota State, and he has the ingredients to become an effective tight end. Yet, his ceiling appears highest at defensive end, and it’s where he’s needed most, especially with the emergence of James Sims and the promise of red-shirt Brandon Bourbon.
True freshman Keeston Terry’s switch from receiver to safety coincided with Opurum’s move to linebacker. In three games before a season-ending injury, Terry became the answer to the question: Who is the most likely player to develop into a high-round NFL Draft choice? He has that radar athletes either have or don’t, that quality that moves them efficiently to the right spot at the right instant.
Bradley McDougald played on both sides as a freshman, started his sophomore season at receiver and played the final two games at safety, where he’ll stay put. The Terry-McDougald tandem, with Lubbock Smith in reserve, makes this the strongest position.
Playmaker Tyler Patmon should be ready for every-down duty at cornerback. Isiah Barfield, burned routinely early, improved as the season progressed, and Greg Brown played well late.
The front seven look neither as strong nor as deep as the secondary, but with a productive offseason, hope exists for improvement.
Steven Johnson is the lone returning starter at linebacker, where undersized Huldon Tharp, sidelined by injury in 2010, will contend for a spot.
Look for Darius Willis to emerge as the team’s best at the position. A 6-foot-3, 243-pound middle linebacker out of Houston, Willis started four games (two at MLB, two outside) at Buffalo and missed the rest of his freshman season with a torn pectoral muscle. Recruited by several Big 12 schools out of high school, the Houstonian followed Gill to Kansas.
A year of working on technique will enable Opurum to use his strength and quickness to put more heat on the quarterback. Keba Agostinho played as a true freshman, and with a year in the weight room could lock down the starting job at the other end.
Experienced defensive tackles John Williams, Richard Johnson Jr., Patrick Dorsey and Kevin Young will be pushed by players eligible for their first taste of Big 12 football. Should he work himself into better condition, Young could become the best of the bunch.
The defense’s most important work takes place in the offseason. If the players run so much and work so hard in the weight room that they’re pushed to their breaking points, and the coaches chart where each player’s breaking point is so that they’ll know which can be counted on to battle the hardest against more talented Big 12 teams, better seasons await.