LAWRENCE — Jake Love came out of the meeting a little down, maybe even sheepish. Love, a redshirt freshman, had sat down with KU linebackers coach DeMontie Cross for a preseason meeting, just as all the Jayhawks’ linebackers had. But in those minutes, Love heard the two words that so many football players fear: Special teams.
“I’m probably not gonna play a lot this year,” Love told his teammates, “and I’ll just be playing special teams.”
Huldon Tharp, a junior linebacker, smiles as he remembers the story. For one reason: Love will be starting at linebacker on Saturday when Kansas travels to Baylor for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. Love, forced into the lineup after an injury to starter Tunde Bakare in early October, has 22 tackles in his last three games.
“Coming out of nowhere,” Tharp said, “and just balling for us.”
In many ways, though, Love’s story is the story of KU’s entire linebacking corps, a group of three Midwestern kids from similar backgrounds, a trio of players who have heard the same doubts. Love, Tharp and sophomore Ben Heeney: Too small, too slow, not athletic enough for the Big 12.
“We’re not a bunch of high-profile recruits,” Tharp said, “or really anything on paper.”
Love, a native of Tonkawa, Okla., had to shed the label of a lightly regarded recruit from a small town. Tharp, a Mulvane native, had a standout freshman season in 2009 before a foot injury — and two coaching changes — threw his career off track. And Heeney, a Hutchinson native, spent last season on special teams while his old high school coach, Hutchinson’s Randy Dreiling, wondered why his former stud was relegated to a part-time role.
“If that really was the worst defense in the country,” Dreiling said, “I was always curious to why he couldn’t get on the field.”
One year later, Heeney has cemented himself as Kansas’ middle linebacker, leading a resurgent Jayhawks’ defense with 69 tackles. Love is the talk of the linebacker meetings. And Tharp is back to playing consistent football. Last week, the KU defense held a high-scoring Texas offense to 21 points, less than half its season average. On the whole, KU is allowing 30.1 points per game this season, a sign of progress after ranking last in the nation (43.8 points per game) in scoring defense last year.
“We’ve shut down some really good offenses so far,” Tharp said, “and I think we’d start to prove ourselves even more.”
Tharp credits much of the improvement to Cross, who is in his first season as KU’s linebackers coach. On most days, Tharp says, Cross is honest about the linebackers’ limitations. They probably aren’t as athletic as some other players in the Big 12. And Tharp, Love and Heeney must make up for it by being assignment sound and a little bit tougher.
“I would say he coaches harder than anybody else we have on this team,” Tharp said. “Some days, it’s not necessarily stuff you want to hear, but it’s stuff that you need to hear. He doesn’t let up on us.”
For KU coach Charlie Weis, the progress at linebacker hasn’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this week, Weis called Love a “little bit of a psycho” and Heeney a “wildman” — terms of endearment inside the KU football office.
Senior safety Bradley McDougald said he realized the linebackers were improving when he stopped feeling so sore during and after games. For once, every running back wasn’t reaching his level.
“You’ll just say: ‘Have I hit anyone today?’ McDougald said. “Have I made a play?”
For now, all three linebackers have room to grow. Heeney and Love are still working on the finer points of the position, reading keys, adjusting to offenses. Tharp still has one more year of eligibility. And that means that KU’s three linebackers, under-appreciated no longer, will get a chance to grow together over the next year.
“Midwestern kids,” Tharp said, “it’s kind of nice.”