Through four weeks and three games of the 2011 season, Kansas University’s football team has faced some pretty good opponents.
But starting Saturday, when the Jayhawks (2-1) play host to Texas Tech (3-0) at 11 a.m., the level of talent on the opposite sideline is about to go up.
“I think it’s totally different,” senior linebacker Steven Johnson said of entering into Big 12 play. “I’m pretty sure we’re gonna kick it up this week in practice. It’s Big 12 week.”
For some, such as Johnson, another game in the ultra-competitive Big 12 Conference is just that — another game. But Johnson said he still remembered the first Big 12 game he played in — Oct. 10, 2009 vs. Iowa State — and he expects that several of his current teammates awaiting their first taste of the Big 12 are experiencing emotions like the ones he felt that day.
“I was a little nervous because everybody was like, ‘It’s Big 12 week,’” Johnson said. “Pressure’s up a little bit, but they’re still just college kids just like us, who wake up in the morning and lift weights and go to class and study and practice like we do.”
Quarterback Jordan Webb experienced his first conference game last season when the Jayhawks were trounced by Baylor, 55-7. Webb, who played in four more league games after that one, said he learned one valuable lesson about conference games a season ago.
“The margin of error has to go down,” he said. “You’re playing teams that are better now. They have talent at every position. They have physical guys on the line. And you just have to really come with your A game every week, every down.”
So far this week, Webb said he had not seen any unmanageable nerves from KU’s underclassmen and transfers who have yet to take the field against a Big 12 foe. Asked specifically about freshmen tailbacks Darrian Miller and Tony Pierson, Webb expressed confidence in their ability to make the transition.
“Those two guys, they seem to not get rattled by anything,” Webb said. “They could be playing in the Super Bowl, and it’d just be another game for them.”
That’s the approach sophomore transfer Darius Willis is trying to take in his first season of eligibility with the Jayhawks.
“Honestly, I’m excited,” said Willis, who came to KU from Buffalo prior to the 2010 season but sat out last year because of transfer rules. “Coming out, first Big 12 game, this is when it really, really counts. Every game counts. But this is when it really counts. So just going out there playing to the best of my ability and playing with my teammates, it’s going to be exciting.”
Despite the nerves and extra dose of excitement that’s bound to be there Saturday for some of KU’s more inexperienced players, Johnson said he spent the week trying to remind his teammates of one thing.
“It’s still college football,” he said. “It may be amped up a little bit just because it’s Big 12, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing they haven’t experienced before, whether it was in juco or high school, whenever there was a big game. It’s just about going out there and being able to apply what you did in practice onto the field.”
Added Willis: “Football is football. Games are gonna be games. But playing in a conference game and knowing that this is when everything starts rolling just gives you an extra boost. Now it’s like a new season. It’s gonna be a lot fun.”
Throwback jerseys ready
KU officials announced Thursday that specially designed adidas throwback uniforms would be available for sale starting today.
The uniforms, a replica of the jerseys worn by the 1961 KU team that won the Bluebonnet Bowl, are primarily Columbia blue with white numbers trimmed in red. The ode to KU’s past is another part of a weekend designed to honor the ’61 squad, which became the first in school history to win a bowl game. Nearly 40 members of that team will be back for this weekend’s homecoming contest.
John Hadl, the quarterback on that ’61 team and a member of the KU Hall of Fame, said he was looking forward to seeing a newer version of his old uniform.
“That’ll be great,” Hadl said. “Everybody will get a kick out of seeing those, and even the fans who are our age who have followed the Jayhawks all these years will probably think that’s pretty neat.”
Opurum off to a great start
Junior Toben Opurum has gotten off to a roaring start in his first full season at the “Buck” linebacker/defensive end position. Through three games, Opurum leads the Jayhawks in tackles for loss with 5.5. That total places him second in the Big 12. In addition, Opurum ranks second on the team in total tackles, with 18, and also owns one of four sacks the Jayhawks have recorded.
Asked for his take on Opurum’s play so far, defensive coordinator Vic Shealy led with a little bit of sarcasm.
“Well, I guess what you want is about six sacks so far,” he said with a laugh. “But I think he’s been consistent. I think we can still get better production out of him, as we can me, as we can all of our players. I’m happy with Toben, but Toben can get better and he will. We need him to because he’s one of those guys who has the ability to make a big impact.”
Added head coach Turner Gill: “He’s been very relentless coming off the edge and playing the run game, too. I think he’s played as good as anybody on the defensive side of the ball.”
Still seeking turnovers
Through three games, the KU defense has forced just one turnover, a fumble on a fourth-down play in the season-opening victory against McNeese State.
Gill continually has said that the coaching staff has emphasized creating turnovers in practice but, so far, that has not transferred onto the field on gameday.
“I can sit here and say we are making progress in practice, but we want to get that going now in game action,” Gill said Wednesday. “I think we will see a difference in the way we go about doing things, but there is never a guarantee that you are going to cause turnovers. The coaches have done a good job and so have our players and I think we have stepped it up to where we have a better chance to do that in a game.”
Texas Tech enters Saturday having forced seven turnovers and given up just two.