LAWRENCE — Watch closely when the Kansas football team plays Iowa State next Saturday, and you'll notice that freshmen Toben Opurum, Bradley McDougald and Huldon Tharp will usually head in the same direction when they leave the field: toward each other.
" (Opurum) is usually the first person to give me a high-five," McDougald said. "Even Huldon Tharp comes over and gives me a high-five, saying, 'Let's get it going, stay motivated out there.' We have to hold it down for the '09 class."
For the three standouts of KU's 2009 recruiting class, there's been plenty to high-five about during the first month of their college careers. Opurum, a running back from Plano, Texas, has filled in for the injured Jake Sharp and already has 320 yards rushing and six touchdowns. McDougald, a wide receiver from Dublin, Ohio, has caught 18 passes for 180 yards and returned a kickoff 47 yards against Southern Mississippi. Tharp, a linebacker from Mulvane, had a 10-tackle game against Duke.
"I don't know if they expected to be starting, but the way they play, I think they probably did," KU quarterback Todd Reesing said of new offensive teammates Opurum and McDougald. "They've shown up these first four weeks and made some big plays for us in big situations. I'm extremely impressed with those two guys. They've got a bright future ahead of them."
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At Kansas, the future appears to be now. KU offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said that one of the main reasons Opurum and McDougald, both four-star recruits according to Rivals.com, ended up in Lawrence was the opportunity to play right away in the Jayhawks' wide-open offense.
For McDougald, it was either redshirt and play safety at Ohio State, or play and learn the position at KU that allowed Kerry Meier to catch 97 passes last season. For Opurum, it was play fullback at Notre Dame or Florida, or complement Sharp at KU and make the first claim for the starting job next season.
"I think (KU coach Mark Mangino) has demonstrated over the years that he'll play freshmen," Warinner said. "We've always done that here. In their case, both of them knew there was an opportunity to play."
And, according to Mangino, Opurum and McDougald may have been more ready to take advantage of that opportunity than any freshmen he has brought to Kansas.
"They pretty much stand out in that regard," Mangino said.
Opurum got his first start last Saturday against Southern Miss and looked the part. He carried 28 times for 109 yards and a touchdown and also caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Reesing. Opurum did make a critical error late in the fourth quarter when he fumbled away a chance for KU to seal the game. Still, Mangino praised the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Opurum.
"There was a lot of pressure on Toben," Mangino said. "We downplayed it with him all week, but he had to go in there and start as a true freshman. It's difficult duty. He did a marvelous job."
Warinner said that Opurum and McDougald share a key quality.
"They just have that ability to get in the moment," Warinner said. "They don't worry about the big stage, and they just make plays. Both of them had that kind of maturity that they were focused when they got here, that they wanted to learn the system in the summer, and when training camp started, they weren't here just trying to fit in. They were here coming to play."
Once the coaches showed their faith in the freshmen by putting them in that first game against Northern Colorado, Opurum, McDougald and Tharp had to prove them right.
"Your coaches obviously wouldn't throw you in the fire if you weren't ready," McDougald said. "You have to trust they made the right decision to put you out there."