LAWRENCE — He tried his best to avoid the numbers, the rankings, the little moments of criticism and belittlement. But over the months, the anger still built up.
Toben Opurum is a confident person by nature, a proud football player who tends to look people in the eye and lead by example, not words. He is 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, athletic enough to lead the Jayhawks in rushing as a freshman — but unselfish enough move to defense to help out the program.
He was also a captain last season as a junior, his second season on defense. And this meant he was a leader on the worst defense in the country. Yes, there are those words again: Worst Defense In The Country. For Opurum, a senior rush end, and the rest of the KU defense, the words might as well be displayed outside Memorial Stadium on a giant neon sign.
“We hear stuff like that all year,” Opurum says. “It’s something that could easily knock you down if you’re not mentally tough.”
On Saturday night in Memorial Stadium, when South Dakota State arrives for the season opener, Opurum and the defense will finally have an opportunity to redefine themselves, to begin the process of breaking down those words.
“I think guys right now got a lot of anger built up in them,” he says.
Opurum feels a measure of ownership to make sure his unit finds it footing. And he sees some signs that it’s already happening.
In 2010, Turner Gill’s first season in Lawrence, Opurum was coming off a freshman season in which he’d led the Jayhawks in rushing. He was productive enough in high school at Richardson, Texas, to draw interest from then-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. But the Jayhawks were also woefully short-handed on defense that year. And Gill saw a solution in Opurum. Then again, maybe it was a bad sign when he shot up the depth chart with little defensive experience.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Opurum says now, “and I ended up starting. It just goes to show how far we’ve come.”
By now, Opurum and the other defensive players have heard most of the disastrous numbers. The Jayhawks allowed more than 516 yards per game last year. Gave up more first downs per game than all but two major-college teams. Finished with 10 sacks in 12 games, tied for the second-worst mark in the country. Of course, these are symptoms and side effects of the disease. So what exactly was the cause of it?
It wasn’t that KU was outmatched, Opurum says. The Jayhawks were undisciplined and made small mistakes. And those little slipups snowballed into blowout losses.
“We were mentally weak,” Opurum says.
The hope is that a new regime and a new offseason strength program have changed that. On Saturday, KU will start two newcomers — senior transfer defensive end Josh Williams and juco transfer nose tackle Jordan Tavai — on the defensive line. Junior Keba Agostinho will move inside to tackle after gaining 30 pounds in the offseason. But the defense will also count on Opurum, who will provide versatility while moving between a linebacker and defensive end spot.
Weis has been sure to hammer home that the Jayhawks are not running a 3-4 defense or a 4-3 defense, as the schemes are typically known. Those are personnel groups, Weis says, and because of Opurum, the Jayhawks will have the ability to employ both.
By now, it’s no secret. For the defense to succeed, this will have to be a total team transformation. But the general view is that the process starts up front. And players say the influx of help on the defensive line has lifted the confidence of the entire unit.
“My heart just warmed every time I seen one (of the new defensive linemen),” senior safety Bradley McDougald says. “Just to know that we’re getting that kind of pressure.”
KU defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt says Opurum, after two seasons of volatility, is just getting comfortable in his hybrid role. He still has room to grow. And Opurum is not the type of player to disagree.
He’d prefer to let his performance do the talking. And after a season of beatdowns, the opportunity to get back on the field can’t come soon enough.
“The confidence level on this team is kind of unreal, to be honest with you,” Opurum says. “You would think that we’re coming off a championship-level season.”