A football fan in every way, Kansas University junior-to-be Toben Opurum paid close attention to last weekend’s NFL Draft.
On Thursday, Opurum saw Texas A&M’s Von Miller get drafted with the second overall pick by the Denver Broncos.
Two days later, the defensive end hit the field at Memorial Stadium determined to take the first step in following in Miller’s footsteps. Both are undersized, pass-rushing athletes, and Opurum said after Saturday’s spring game he was well aware of the similarities between him and Miller.
“(Defensive line) Coach (Buddy) Wyatt brings him up here and there because we’re similar in size and how we play,” said Opurum, who stands 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, compared to Miller’s frame of 6-3, 243. “Obviously, someone who goes No. 2 in the draft is someone I can try to mold myself after and watch and see how he plays and do that myself.”
Last weekend, Opurum proved that to be possible. Finally settled into a position he can call home, Opurum, now a full-fledged defensive end, finished with two tackles and a sack in the scrimmage. Those numbers don’t provide a proper read on Opurum’s day. He delivered constant pressure on the edge and demonstrated to the 6,000 fans in attendance that he had figured out how to play on the defensive line.
Last year at this time, Opurum still was a running back. The former ball carrier who was recruited to Notre Dame as a fullback and led the Jayhawks in rushing as a true freshman finished last year’s spring game with 16 yards on seven carries.
At that time, it was believed that a healthy Opurum was poised for a big season. It never came. Midway through preseason camp he was moved to linebacker. A few months later, he was moved again to defensive end.
Originally frustrated by the shifts, Opurum reached the point where he used that frustration on the field. Today, the anger’s gone and in its place is the kind of determination that has other Jayhawks talking big about the junior from Plano, Texas.
“I think Toben’s definitely a guy that’s going to be reckoned with in the Big 12,” KU coach Turner Gill said. “I think he’s a guy that people are going to be talking about as time goes along, throughout the season and the rest of his career.”
Added KU quarterback Jordan Webb: “He’s definitely come a long way, and he’s gonna be one of our best players. He’s one of those guys with unlimited potential. He’s got a good motor, and he’s got all the tools.”
Asked how it felt to hear coaches and teammates heave such high praise his way, Opurum was honest.
“I don’t even get to hear stuff like that,” he said with a laugh. “My confidence is always going to be high, but the fact that other people are taking notice and my teammates realize it as well, it definitely feels good to know that.”
There are more than a couple of reasons why Opurum has transformed from project to producer, gamble to gamer in less than a year. Drive and determination are at the top of the list. But not far behind are attention to detail and sound technique.
“I think being able to turn the corner and using his hands,” Gill said when asked to name two of Opurum’s biggest strengths. “There’s a little knack of being able to come off the edge, being able to lean and still have a burst and a quickness to come around the edge on an offensive tackle. And that’s one area he really has improved. He’s going to continue to get better and better.”
He’s also going to continue to become more comfortable. Whether he’s standing up, ready to rip off a speed rush or down in a three-point stance eager to pop with power, Opurum again feels like he’s playing where he belongs.
“My coaches have made it easy for me,” he said. “They’ve simplified the game and let me basically just use all my effort to make plays. This is my spot. I’m settled in. But we’ve got competition going every day so I can’t get complacent. Every day I’m out here working hard with my teammates.”