Kansas football position units: No. 5, linebackers
Playing linebacker as a true freshman is every bit the mental challenge as it is physical.
“When you’re in the Big 12,” linebackers coach Todd Bradford said, “it has to be processed really fast. There’s not much time.”
One false step can take a linebacker out of a play.
“Reading your keys and getting your first step started right, it’s really important that you’re headed in the right direction,” Bradford said. “It takes a lot of eye discipline to make sure that you’re looking at the right thing, which changes by formation and call and all those kinds of things. If you’re headed in the right direction, that gives you a chance.”
It’s a lot to expect of a true freshman. Then again, Kyron Johnson out of Lamar High in Arlington, Texas, routinely sets high expectations. Whereas it’s not at all unusual for first-year college students to arrive on campus not quite sure what field of study they want to specialize in, Johnson has said he wants to become a neurosurgeon. So you have to believe there is a good chance he can process information quickly better than most college football novices.
Not only that, the three-star prospect gave himself a head start by graduating a semester early so that he could participate in spring football. Even by his high standards for enthusiasm, head coach David Beaty was lit up talking about Johnson on signing day.
“This dude can run," Beaty said. "He’s a legit 4.3 40. There aren’t many 4.3 guys out there. There aren’t many 4.4 guys and there are very few 4.5s. This guy can flat fly. He can fly and he will knock you out. This guy is the type of guy you want. TCU had a guy a number of years back named James Washington, played at Irving High and he played in the NFL for a long time, and he looks a lot like him, has a lot of the same attributes.”
When coaches talk about 40 times clocked at camps that took place on their campuses, the general rule of thumb is to add two-tenths of a second to the time, but even at that, 4.5 is an excellent time for a linebacker prospect.
Throughout spring practices, Johnson impressed defensive coaches with his speed, lateral movement, feel for the position and desire to make hits hurt.
Getting acclimated to a college weight room also gives Johnson an edge. He has set himself to be in position to play as a true freshman, but thanks to linebacker subtly developing into one of the deeper positions on the roster, it’s not necessary for Johnson to play if he’s not ready.
The development of lightly recruited prospects has gone smoothly, an indication of sound talent judgment and good instruction, creating strong competition for the second line at linebacker on the two-deep.
The projected starters were teammates a few miles away from KU’s campus at Free State High. Joe Dineen, a three-star safety prospect, played running back for most of his first season and switched to linebacker late in the year. As a sophomore, he totaled 107 tackles, had 9.5 tackles for loss three sacks. He suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in last season’s third game and regained the year of eligibility with a medical redshirt. The challenge now for Dineen is to make his tackles closer to the line of scrimmage to help KU greatly improves its vulnerable run defense.
Keith Lineker’s measurables weren’t as impressive as Dineen’s coming out of high school, so he had to prove himself on the field at nearby Baker University, an NAIA school. He had a terrific freshman season, transferred to Kansas, sat out a year, and came on strong at the end of last season. In the first half of KU’s overtime victory against Texas, Loneker was nothing short of the best player on the field. He finished that game with 16 tackles. In the spring game, Loneker looked faster, better in pass coverage. He’s a smart athlete who in high school figured out how to exceed expectations as a basketball player and is doing the same as a Big 12 football player. He plays without fear and without recklessness, not an easy balancing act for some. Junior Denzel Feaster was recruited to Kansas as a safety, made the switch to linebacker after a year and came on strong toward the end of last season. He made his presence felt at West Virginia with three tackles and a forced fumble. Feaster carries a lot of momentum into his hits, each recalling what David Beaty said about him the day his letter of intent arrived: “He’ll knock the fire out of you!” A late bloomer, redshirt freshman Dru Prox impressed the coaching staff with his progress throughout spring football, as did junior Osaze Ogbebor.
Incoming freshman Jay Dineen, Joe’s younger brother, is a different type linebacker from Joe, not as fast, but thicker and meaner. He is the only linebacker who does not have at least a spring’s worth of practices, but since he has been picking his brother’s brain and is a short drive from watching practice, which he often took advantage of in the spring, he’ll know more than most newcomers.
Kansas might not have a first-team all-conference linebacker yet, but they will have a healthy competition daily in practice. Since Big 12 offenses play at such a fast pace and run so many passing plays, it pays to have depth at linebacker and Kansas has it. None of them are seniors, so the position is well-stocked for the next two seasons.