Bob Lutz

Tharp ready to make up for lost time

It's not an even year, so Huldon Tharp feels pretty good about making it through the football season.

The Kansas redshirt sophomore linebacker missed his senior season at Mulvane in 2008 because of a knee injury. Then he missed the 2010 season at KU after suffering a mid-foot sprain in the preseason.

In between, though, Tharp was an exciting newcomer to the Jayhawks in 2009, when he started seven Big 12 games, had a season-best 13 tackles against Nebraska and was named to some freshman All-America teams.

It's that season that the 6-foot, 220-pound Tharp holds on to as he attempts to take up where he left off, although there's a group of new coaches in place since the last time Tharp got on the field for the Jayhawks.

"It's been kind of a process,'' Tharp said. "I'm still getting acclimated to playing again. This past week, I've felt like I'm getting back to being myself.''

Injuries have certainly messed with Tharp's momentum.

He was gung-ho for his senior season at Mulvane, intent on leading the Wildcats into the Class 4A playoffs and beyond. He thought that team had the necessary ingredients to win a state championship.

But without Tharp at linebacker and running back, where he rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, Mulvane was 5-5. The Wildcats did make it to the playoffs, but were beaten in the opening round.

That was a miserable season for Tharp, who was forced to stand around while his life-long buddies were trying to make the best of things in his absence. He ripped apart a ligament in a knee while running the football at a team camp at Pittsburg State during the summer.

"Honestly, that was tougher than missing the year in college ball last season,'' Tharp said. "That's time with the guys I had grown up with. I felt like I let them down, although they were always supportive of me.''

Nobody could have expected Tharp to arrive at Kansas and escape a redshirt season, let alone become a starting linebacker.

But in a season that continued to slip away from the Jayhawks, Tharp was called upon by former Kansas coach Mark Mangino to help stabilize a wilting defense. He did his part, although the tumultuous 2009 season ended with seven straight losses to follow five consecutive wins.

Mangino lost his job, just two seasons after leading the Jayhawks to the Orange Bowl. And Tharp, like the rest of the Kansas players, was left to impress the new coach, Turner Gill.

Only Tharp literally had his legs taken out from under him after suffering a foot injury early in camp, long before Gill could get a grasp on what Tharp had to offer.

"One of the biggest things is to leave that good first impression,'' Tharp said. "But being injured, I wasn't able to do that. Coach Gill sat me down and talked to me. He said he had watched film on me and assured me he knew I could play. Hopefully, that's something he recognized.''

There are 17 linebackers on KU's roster, although three of KU's best at that position last season — Justin Springer, Dakota Lewis and Drew Dudley — have graduated. The best of the returning linebackers is senior Steven Johnson, who led Kansas in tackles last season. Buffalo transfer Darius Willis also is expected to make a contribution.

If Tharp can find his 2009 form, he'll definitely be one of the Jayhawks' key defenders. But when you've missed two of the past three seasons, you take nothing for granted.

"Being a starter is always the goal,'' Tharp said. "But honestly, I have no idea at this point. I've got my speed and agility back and I'm starting to feel really good. I'm going to keep practicing as hard as I can and try to improve every day.''

That also applies to the Jayhawks, Tharp said, who have been picked at or near the bottom in every preseason poll after winning three games in 2010.

KU, according to the experts, might be better than Iowa State this season. Then again, maybe not.

"Doubting is something the media does after a team has a 3-9 season,'' Tharp said. "But the media doesn't always have the scoop on exactly what's going on inside everything. It's tough for them to judge. I've seen a lot of good characteristics in this team and I think we'll take quite a few steps from where we were last year.''

Tharp said he's been impressed with the overall team speed, something last season's Jayhawks lacked.

"That's a big thing for us on the defensive side of the ball,'' he said. "Our offseason training has really helped us there. Offensively, the biggest thing I've noticed is our diversity. We have a lot of different playmakers, a lot of athletes on the offensive side of the ball.

"And when we're picked not to do much, it keeps the pressure off. There's a pretty good incentive for this team. We want to fly under the radar as long as we can.''

Related stories from Wichita Eagle