LAWRENCE — During the last eight months, with new coach Turner Gill at the helm of their program, Kansas football players got to imagine what could be. They could be stars. They could be starters. They could be contributors. Or they could just be one of the 90 or so players who gets to wear a jersey on game day.
On Thursday, nearly two weeks from kickoff against North Dakota State on Sept. 4, Gill released a depth chart. Some players' wishes came true. Other guys saw hope evaporate in the 90-degree heat of yet another scorching afternoon practice.
This is why players compete — for the moment of truth. That moment provided a smile for sophomore quarterback Kale Pick, who was named the starter. For redshirt freshman Jordan Webb, who has battled Pick during spring ball and fall camp for the right to replace Todd Reesing, the moment was something else altogether.
"He's not happy," Pick said. "I wouldn't be either. I'm trying to give him space right now."
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Among the other Jayhawks who could probably use some time to process the truth spelled out plainly on a white piece of paper is sophomore running back Toben Opurum, who led the team in rushing last season with 533 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman. Gill announced that Opurum would be moving to linebacker, which meant his name was absent from the depth chart.
"There's a need at (linebacker)," Gill said, "and then playing time at the running back position will be very limited if we had to play today. Therefore we just sat down and chatted with him about it, tried to put a scenario together where he could help our football team this year."
Judging premier football talent is a subjective craft, and that has never been more clear than Thursday. This is Gill's program now, and his lens produced some contrary results to that of former coach Mark Mangino's. Who will be right and who will be wrong? That answer won't come for a while.
A year ago, Angus Quigley, a running back for four years, was moved to linebacker. Opurum was a four-star recruit by Rivals.com who had chosen KU over powers like Florida and Notre Dame because the Jayhawks wanted to let him play running back instead of fullback. Opurum, built like a truck at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, immediately filled in for an injured Jake Sharp last season and looked like the future of the position at KU.
A year later, Quigley, who received a sixth season of eligibility due to a medical hardship rule, is listed as the starting running back. He also has size at 6-1 and 231 pounds, and clearly, Gill and his staff consider him the better option. Smaller backs Deshaun Sands, a redshirt freshman, and Rell Lewis, a junior, are also now listed above Opurum as co-backups.
"All we can base it off of," Gill said, "is how does he compare to the other guys on ability."
Different strokes for different folks. Gill said he would evaluate Opurum at linebacker for the next few weeks and decide whether Opurum is ready to contribute 15 to 20 plays a game at that position. If he isn't, Gill said, Opurum would likely take a redshirt year. It's likely that Opurum will get a good look at his new position, where walk-ons Steve Mestan and Brian Blackwell are listed as backups.
This month, KU lost sophomore Huldon Tharp, a key contributor last year, to a season-ending foot injury and redshirt freshman Jacoby Thomas to academic issues.
Quigley, having already made the switch from running back to linebacker, said he thinks Opurum will have an easier time of it than he did.
"Toben's a pretty fast learner," Quigley said. "He's already got the size. I had to work to get to linebacker size. He can focus totally on being a good player at that position."
Gill announced another position switch: Freshman wide receiver Keeston Terry, a coveted prep prospect out of Blue Springs, Mo., to safety. Gill said the move will give Terry a chance to play right away.
As for Pick, a Dodge City native, this day was one he'd been working toward his whole life. When he changed his commitment from Arkansas to Kansas during his senior year of high school, he expected he'd get the chance to lead the Jayhawks one day. Since he expected it, he was not overjoyed. There is much more to do.
"You can't be satisfied right now," Pick said. "I've gotta keep pushing, keep pushing my teammates. That's going to make our team better."