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KU football's top 10 surprise players

If you're a Kansas fan, it's time to look at the glass-half-full side of things regarding this year's football team.

For one, the Jayhawks are 4-0, and no matter how well they played each week, their record couldn't be any better than that.

And, for two, the Jayhawks have already had more than their fair share of pleasant surprises from this year's team.

The following are my top 10 biggest surprise players for the KU football team this year through the non-conference part of the schedule. The rankings will take into account performance, statistics and how much was expected of that player before the season began.

Let's get started.

10. Ryan Murphy

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It seems like he's been at KU for six years already, but Murphy in fact is only a redshirt sophomore. He's seeing more time on the field in passing downs and made a huge play against Southern Miss, scooping up an Austin Davis pass for his first interception. I don't think it will be long before Murphy is complimented by KU coach Mark Mangino for sticking with things and being a "program guy." Murphy just edges out Jeff Wheeler for the 10th position.

9. Tanner Hawkinson

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Hawkinson had a lot of pressure thrown on him this offseason, as after making the switch to left tackle, he immediately became the frontrunner to start at that position. So far, Hawkinson has to receive an extremely high grade. Though he has gotten beaten on pass protection on occasion, he's still been part of an offensive line that has, for the most part, kept KU quarterback Todd Reesing upright. Even Reesing admitted Saturday that many of Southern Miss' five sacks came simply because he held on to the ball a tick too long. It's hard to know where this team would be offensively had Hawkinson not improved so quickly at the position.

8. Patrick Dorsey

Patrick Dorsey didn't even letter last season. In fact, he didn't even get on the field as a backup defensive tackle in 2008. So when the redshirt sophomore started in KU's first game against Northern Colorado, a few eyebrows raised for sure. Dorsey has been a staple of a solid rotation of defensive linemen for KU, though, posting seven tackles and one sack through KU's first four games. Not bad for a guy buried on the depth chart in '08.

7. Kale Pick

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When Kerry Meier wasn't switched to a full-time receiver this season, I think many KU fans feared that Pick's development at quarterback wasn't going well. The redshirt freshman has showed in limited action, though, that fans might not need to worry about Year 1 A.T. (After Todd). Pick has displayed great speed and good vision on his runs, and it showed in the Big 12 statistics, as after two weeks, Pick was ranked 10th in the conference in rushing. We'll have to see more of his arm strength and decision-making to know for sure that he's the guy to lead the Jayhawks in 2010 and beyond, but so far this year in mop-up time, Pick has given KU fans reason to be excited (or at least not scared) about the team's future at quarterback.

6. Drew Dudley

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Though he wasn't even listed as a starter on KU's preseason depth chart, Dudley has been the Jayhawks' most consistent linebacker through four games. The junior is second on the team with 28 tackles, tied for first on the team with 5.5 tackles-for-loss and tied for second in the team in sacks with three. Though KU's coaches still probably would like more contributions from their linebackers, they can at least take comfort knowing that Dudley has been solid in the middle linebacker position.

5. Sal Capra

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All offseason, we kept hearing about KU's talented redshirt freshman guards Trevor Marrongelli and John Williams. It was almost assumed that one of them would slip into Capra's starting spot sooner rather than later. Capra, though, has taken hold of the position and has never let it go. Not only that, do you remember hearing about him this season for a penalty? Or a blown assignment? No one has talked about Capra, and that's just the way you want it if you're an offensive lineman. He also has to be given props for KU's improved rushing game this season. Remember, last year at this time, the big story was that the Jayhawks were struggling to run the football. This year, the Jayhawks are second in the conference in rushing, averaging 209.2 yards per game.

4. Bradley McDougald

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Chris Omigie, Erick McGriff and Bradley McDougald were the three most touted true freshmen receivers that arrived at KU in the spring. And though Omigie and McGriff will most likely have bright futures still, McDougald early on proved that he was ready to play Division-I football right away. Mangino seemed to heap praise on the freshman immediately in preseason practices, saying: "I have not really had a true freshman come in and do what he could do since I've been here." McDougald has earned that praise through four games this season.

Though he played mostly running back and defensive back in high school, McDougald has shown great instincts and has looked like a natural at receiver. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has 18 catches for 180 yards and showed flashes against Southern Miss of being a spectacular kickoff returner. If Daymond Patterson continues his somewhat questionable decision-making on punt returns, don't be surprised if McDougald gets a shot there as well.

3. Toben Opurum

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I keep asking myself this question: "Where would KU be if Toben Opurum had not signed with KU last year?" It's a tough question to answer, but I think we know this much for sure: The Jayhawks coaching staff is sure glad that T.O. is on campus now. Much like McDougald, Opurum has shown great maturity for his age. Nothing seems to rattle him, and Mangino has been impressed with his ability to improve week to week. Opurum has gotten the tough yards for KU inside, rushing 69 times for 320 yards and a 4.7-yard average. He also has shown the ability to make tough catches and also block. Opurum's emergence gives KU two solid options in the backfield when Jake Sharp returns from his injury.

2. Chris Harris

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After being named the Big 12's defensive newcomer of the year in 2007, Harris took a huge step back in 2008. Many began to question if his 2007 season was legitimate. Was he good, or was his success a product of getting help from cornerback Aqib Talib in 2007? This season, Harris has set out to prove that 2008 — and not 2007 — was the fluke year.

The junior is leading the Jayhawks in tackles (32), third in tackles-for-loss (3.5) and also has three pass breakups and a forced fumble. When KU fans hoped for an improved secondary coming into the year, I'm sure few of them believed that Harris would be a main reason for it.

1. Maxwell Onyegbule

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Maxwell Onyegbule seemed to follow the same pattern in his years at KU: start with a good offseason, get the coaches' attention in preseason, then struggle to contribute during the season. We heard more good things about Onyegbule this preseason, but I wasn't shocked when many folks believed that this was much of the same for Onyegbule and that he wouldn't contribute once gamedays arrived.

Well, simply put, Onyegbule has been dominant so far for KU. In four games, he has three sacks, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, an interception return for touchdown, two pass breakups and 14 tackles. He also earned co-Big 12 defensive of the week honors after posting two sacks and six total tackles against UTEP. Most importantly, he has given KU another threat at rushing the quarterback besides the dependable Jake Laptad.

Onyegbule might be the single most important player for KU in the second half of the season. When Onyegbule was pressuring the quarterback in KU's first three games, the Jayhawks defense turned into a solid if not spectacular unit. Without Onyegbule's pressure against Southern Miss (he had just two tackles and a half tackle-for-loss), KU's defense looked somewhat ordinary once again in the first three quarters. If the Jayhawks are hoping to at least slow down some of the Big 12 offenses coming up, they'll need Onyegbule to continue playing like the biggest surprise on this year's squad.

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Comments

Tad Shurtz 4 years, 11 months ago

Max O has shown flashes in previous seasons and looks to finally be putting it together, while Harris started for the 2008 Orange Bowl champs -- hardly surprises, especially given the amount of time they've spent w/ the program. #1 is TO, and it isn't close. Obviously, he was a highly-touted player coming out of high school, but I don't think anyone expected him to make this big of an impact this early. Without him, I don't know if we beat So. Miss.

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Michael Leiker 4 years, 11 months ago

Agreed, I think after Saturday, Toben has to be splitting carries with Sharp. As much as I like watching the kid from Salina, having those two split carries gives KU a serious 1-2 punch to contend with. He has definitely changed the dynamic of this team more than anyone else.

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hawk316 4 years, 11 months ago

Jesse, thanks for a fun article. Just a quick comment concerning Chris Harris. I recall an admission some weeks ago by Coach Mangino that they had Chris out of position last year. That probably contributed a great deal to his drop off in performance. In any case, I'm glad to see him playing so well again. He has been a difference maker.

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JJHawq 4 years, 11 months ago

I LOVE Tobun. After the No Co game - I emailed all my friends and relatives that we have our next KU career rushing leader...

He's PERFECT for the spread. When teams try to combat the spread w/ extra DB's - the big guy will make them pay for it. We all know how important BMAC was to the Orange Bowl run...

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kvskubball 4 years, 11 months ago

Nice article,

You are right, the glass is half-full, rather than half-empty. KU has some very good, but young and/or inexperienced skill position players. Building the team around those guys should be a fun challenge for HCMM! They should also make it easier for others to decide to come to KU!

Rock Chalk Jayhawk Football ..."to Infinity and Beyond"! Buzz Lightyear predicts a rosy future, with our glass getting more and more full!

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KUFan90 4 years, 11 months ago

My favorite characteristic of Opurum right now is the way he delivers punishment to the defenders trying to tackle him. He crushed that poor little safety in the first quarter of the SMU game. TO might be delivering tougher hits on defenders as a freshman than Brandon McAnderson was as a senior. Would you want to be trying to tackle him in the 4th quarter? He brings a new level of toughness and attitude to the offense. I can't wait to get Sharp back and have one of the most dangerous "thunder and lightning" backfields in football.

It will be fun watching TO continue to develop.

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DerekR25 4 years, 11 months ago

Good article! I'm surprised that Tharp didn't make this list. Considering this kid came out of nowhere to earn significant playing time as a true freshman, I'd say he's one of the pleasant surprises so far this year.

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Warren 4 years, 11 months ago

Pretty good list, and I am so glad that Onyegbule has finally produced what I always figured he should have been doing all along. No doubt about him being #1.

I think I would would switch Capra and Opurum though. I know offensive linemen aren't noticed much until they screw up, but credit for our improvement in the running game has as much, if not more, to do with Capra's work than Opurum's power. He opens up holes for Sharp also, who was putting up very, very good numbers until his injury.

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Eliott Reeder 4 years, 11 months ago

I agree Opurum should be number one on this list. However, we should stop referring to him as T.O. He deserves an original nickname, like Tob-Op (Toe-Bop; cause he gets low and lays hits on fools). Or something like that. Help me out here...

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Dirk Medema 4 years, 11 months ago

JJHawq says - I LOVE Tobun.

Then at least learn to spell Toben's name.

Jesse - Have you asked Toben how he feels about being called TO? I used the initials back in the spring, and got a response that he didn't like it b/c of the association with another FB player.

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Rivethead 4 years, 11 months ago

KoolKeith:

TO does NOT get low. That's something he needs to work on before the Big 12 starts. Running that high will get him killed quickly.

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Kevin Long 4 years, 11 months ago

Pick although he hasn't thrown much has been a great suprise. He does have some ripped guns too!

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TaCityHawkFan 4 years, 11 months ago

Harris was most impressive to me in the Nickel spot playing almost like an extra Safety. I thought he was phenomenal. While to me it seems like he has dropped off since moving to CB, I think it has provided us with the ability to get the 5 best DBs on the field.

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4jhawks4ku 4 years, 11 months ago

We need to get Riggo back here and teach Toben how to run. Guaranteed 4.5 to 5 yards per.

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hdhntr 4 years, 11 months ago

all those contributions are nice but since this has been the Jr High team part of the schedule and KU barely survived against So MS, don't get too excited. The big running back is probably the best player who has emerged, the tackle has had trouble with smaller speed rushers as you would expect a TE to have. D was getting eaten up by that average qb last saturday and that is a huge concern, underneath routes were rarely contested and secondary was playing with too big a cushion.

ISU has a better qb and skill players, should be a better test, their d is a work in progress, todd should light up the scorebord and Kale get some more needed reps, can he throw effectively? Another easy win, can't help but wonder how this team will do when they hit the very hard part of it's schedule.

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