At the start of the fourth quarter is when it hit junior linebacker Dru Prox.
Prox played every snap up to that point, and he proceeded to play all 71 snaps on defense during KU’s 24-17 win over Indiana State in the season opener. In fact, both Prox and junior Kyron Johnson played every snap last weekend in their first start at the two inside linebacker positions.
“We did it,” Prox said during Monday’s availability with the media. “It was really fun. I think that’s the main reason we pushed through — because we were doing something that we loved to do.”
Prox, who is 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, led the team with nine tackles during his first real action as a member of the Jayhawks’ defense. After moving from outside linebacker in the offseason, Johnson tallied three stops in the middle of KU’s defense.
But both players would be quick to note that they can improve. And that starts with extra conditioning, which could help if they are asked to never leave the field in another game this season.
“We definitely need to do some extra running to get our conditioning better for this week,” Prox said. “I plan on doing some extra running after practice Monday through Wednesday and then give my legs a couple days to recover before the game.”
Johnson echoed that sentiment, but more to help him from a mental aspect on Saturday.
“Fatigue makes us all look dumb out there,” said Johnson, who is 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds. “If you are tired, you really can’t think straight and you are more likely to mess up a lot.”
Johnson expected to play for the duration of the season opener, which might come as a surprise to some fans considering how much Kansas head coach Les Miles talked up freshman Gavin Potter during the offseason.
Leading up to Week 1, though, Johnson had a feeling that defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot was expecting a lot out of him and Prox.
“I knew it because the way Coach Eliot has it set up, he wants his best 11 dudes on the field,” Johnson said. “I knew that for a fact that me and Dru, we just weren’t going to be out.”
It was eerily similar to the strategy Kansas implemented with then-seniors Joe Dineen Jr. and Keith Loneker Jr. in the middle of last year’s defense.
But KU’s newest linebacker tandem knows it has room to grow, which mostly comes down to being mentally tough in late-game situations.
For example, Indiana State converted on a risky third-down pass during a drive in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Ryan Boyle rolled right and threw across his body to the middle of the field. Prox lost his man in coverage, allowing the Sycamores to pick up 28 yards on 3rd and 9.
“I was staying on my running back and I was going with him,” Prox said. “I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought it was thrown to a different guy. When I looked back, the dude I was on had caught the ball. That’s something I’m going to get better at this week.”
Later in the drive, though, Prox atoned for that mistake by recording his lone sack of the game on 3rd and 3 from KU’s 31-yard line. After the receiver went in motion, Kansas called for Prox to blitz off the edge and the running back wasn’t able to step up quick enough.
Prox hit Boyle 12 yards behind the line, knocking Indiana State out of field goal range.
“He did step up. I wasn’t expecting that big of a game from him,” senior linebacker Azur Kamara said. “Hopefully, he improves on that every game.”
It remains to be seen if Prox, as well as his fellow inside linebacker, will continue to play every snap in each of the remaining 11 games. The duo certainly won’t complain if that is the case, even if it means that they have to get in better shape.
“I love playing football; I really don’t care how many plays I’m out there,” Prox said.
“I’m totally cool with playing that much,” Johnson said. “I will play another game if I have to. It is what it is.”