Early last week, the bank clocks screamed triple digits. Offensive line coach Tim Grunhard screamed to “go all out on every play. EVERY PLAY!” And No. 77 kept putting one step in front of another, his breath running away from him.
Can Aslam Sterling catch it in time to make a positive impact on this year’s Kansas University football season? Too early to answer, but, man, what an important question.
The sun on the Kansas University football practice field beats hotter on Sterling than anybody. For one thing, he’s the biggest guy on the team. For another, he didn’t undergo strength and conditioning coach Scott Holsopple’s rigorous summer camp because he had to finish academic requirements elsewhere.
It’s in this exhausted state that he must try to absorb all the responsibilities that come with learning a new offense in a program that runs at a faster pace and demands more than any with which he ever has been associated.
Sterling, a 6-foot-5, 360-pound junior out of Springfield Gardens, N.Y., is playing catch up in his bid to land the job at right tackle, on paper the most vulnerable position on the team. The junior-college transfer has telephone poles for calves and from a distance bears a resemblance to the actor who portrayed Michael Ohrer, the Baltimore Ravens tackle whose life story inspired the film “Blind Side.”
The KU quarterback’s blind side is in safe hands this season with quick afoot left tackle Tanner Hawkinson and strong man Duane Zlatnik, the left guard, on the radar for All-Big 12 honors during their final seasons. It’s the other side of the line that needs a huge lift.
Had Sterling been in spring football and summer conditioning, he would be so far ahead of where he now stands, but nothing can be done about that now.
Building strength and improving conditioning can’t be shoved into a microwave. It’s a long, slow process.
“You have to build a relationship with him, and that’s what I’m in the process of doing now,” Holsopple said. “Show him how much you care before you show him how much you know. It’s not just telling him, ‘OK, you’ve got to run and get low.’ You’ve got to go out there and do it with him. And understand that he’s a young kid. He’s got a lot of things going on right now, but you hold him accountable just like you would everybody else and just teach him and show him, be patient and good things will happen.”
Sterling is the most intriguing prospect in camp because he’s so big, has so much potential and is so far behind. It’s difficult learning an entire new offense with a head that’s spinning faster than Linda Blair’s.
More than just Sterling’s weight will be monitored for signs of how well he’s progressing.
“I think it’s in your eyes,” Holsopple said. “Kind of like the old saying on ESPN films, ‘You see (John) Riggins running down the field, you can tell by the look in the man’s eyes he’s going to score.’ Same thing here. When he doesn’t have that confused look in his eyes anymore, you know he’s starting to get it.”
Senior defensive end Toben Opurum can empathize with Sterling to an extent because he was restricted from summer conditioning before his freshman season as a precaution, he said, after results of a heart test raised questions.
“It’s not just a physical thing,” Opurum said. “It’s such a mental-toughness thing that we go through all summer. Things are going slow for him right now, but once we get him up to speed, get him in better shape, I think he’ll be a huge asset to our team, no pun intended.”
Senior left tackle Tanner Hawkinson often can be seen encouraging Sterling to finish every drill and push himself on every play.
“He’s got a really high ceiling,” Hawkinson said. “He needs to get in a little better football shape. He’s a big guy, around 360, 365. He moves really well. He has really good feet. If he can lose maybe 20, 25 pounds, work on getting in a little bit better football shape … I’m sure the style, work ethic is a little bit different here than it was at juco, but as long as he keeps pushing himself, I think he’s got a very high ceiling.”
Captains Opurum and Hawkinson said they think Sterling won’t have to wait until 2013 to make an impact.
“It’s going to be all up to him,” Hawkinson said. “It’s pretty tough for him right now, learning a whole new offense, transitioning to Div. I football. We’re all definitely there for him. We’re pushing him. I know it’s tough for him, but I think he’s got a good shot to contribute this year.”
So far, the two-deep depth chart lists Riley Spencer or Sterling on the first team and Bryan Peters on the second team. Gavin Howard, listed as first-team right guard, also has played some at right tackle.