LAWRENCE — For the most part, it has not been an easy task this spring to figure out which Kansas football players will be major cogs come fall.
No practice has been open past the first 20 minutes, and first-year KU coach Turner Gill and his staff have been mostly tight-lipped about who is emerging in position battles. But through 10 practices, one thing has become as clear as anything ever could be on a football team in mid-April: The Jayhawks will be happy to build their defense around senior middle linebacker Justin Springer.
"He's made a believer out of me," KU defensive coordinator Carl Torbush said. "I'm excited about where he's at. What he's gotta do now is go out in the fall and perform on the field so all of this means something special."
Springer, fellow linebacker Steven Johnson and defensive tackle Jamal Greene are the names Torbush revealed as potential playmakers for his first KU defense. Both Torbush and Gill have seen potential in the secondary, particularly at cornerback, where Torbush says there are six to eight players who are legitimately vying for playing time.
The one absolute at this time appears to be Springer, the 6-foot-3, 237-pound bruiser from Los Fresnos, Texas. Springer was thought to be the natural successor to Joe Mortensen and Mike Rivera after their graduation in 2008, but he tore his ACL during the middle of that season and never recovered his full ability last season. Certainly, an additional injury to his hamstring didn't help.
"It was hard," Springer said. "I knew that I wanted to do things, but I couldn't do them yet. I couldn't get to that full speed."
Entering the spring, Springer was an unknown. Despite having three years at KU, he was still relatively inexperienced. That he has made a quick believer out of Torbush, who has guided successful defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 during the last 25 years, is impressive.
"He's got a great attitude," Torbush said. "He's a great young man off the field — very mannerly. The kind of guy you want to represent your program. On the field, he's got nasty in him. He'll be one of the most physical players we have."
All it takes is a quick look at Springer's hulking upper body to understand his potential for intimidation. Johnson, who appears likely to play alongside Springer, says Springer has the ability to win the play before the ball is even snapped. Others have noticed, too.
"He's 100 percent all the time," senior safety Olaitan Oguntodu said. "When he decides where he's going, he's going to get there full-speed, and he's gonna get there in a bad mood. It's good to see him running around again. He's a guy... you want to be on his side."
Springer has also established himself as a vocal leader of the defense.
"He's the one that's gotta make all the coverage calls, front calls," Torbush said. "He's gotta get us lined up and put in the right place. I really feel good about his ability to do that. We've had very few busts this spring on a call because of him."
It's a responsibility Springer has been coveting.
"I feel like it's my turn," Springer said. "I feel like I'm ready. I'm not nervous about it. I'm not scared about it."