Editor's note: This article was originally published in the October edition of Jayhawk Illustrated.
Making big plays on the football field has not been a problem for sophomore Jonathan Lamb. Finding a permanent position has proven a more difficult task.
Last season, Jonathan Lamb opened eyes from the fans to the coaching staff with a breakout freshman campaign. He earned a starting spot at the safety position as a walk-on during tryouts. The Lenexa, Kan., product showed that he belonged on the field with back-to-back impressive performances against Big 12 foes, Texas A&M and Nebraska.
Late in the first quarter against Texas A&M, Lamb picked off a Dustin Long pass to stop a potential scoring drive for the Aggies. Proving that he was more than just a quality free safety in pass coverage, Lamb was also involved in nine tackles during the game. The following week, Lamb showed the same type of defensive prowess with another interception and seven tackles against Nebraska. Jayhawk fans had a glimpse of an emerging star on defense.
Lamb ended his freshman season by tying the team lead in interceptions and compiled 89 total tackles. He was named a second-team All-American at safety by The Sporting News and ranked in the top 10 in tackles as a freshman.
One would think Lamb would return to the defensive side of the ball for his second season to help a Jayhawk team that desires a strong defensive identity. However, head coach Mark Mangino announced over the summer that Lamb would make the transition to wide receiver. Mangino commented that the decision was made because of an undisclosed chronic injury.
“It was made because he has a health issue that our doctors studied very carefully. They felt that he could help us at another position and not be at risk for a chronic health problem that he has,” Mangino said.
The position change is nothing new for Lamb. As a junior at Olathe North High School, Lamb played wide receiver and then became a quarterback for his senior season. He did experience most of his success while playing the defensive back and free safety positions. During his junior season, Lamb was a part of a talented Olathe North Eagles squad that won the Sunflower League and Class 6A state championship. His football accomplishments were not enough for Lamb to garner a scholarship to major colleges despite his size and his all-around athletic talents which earned him letters in basketball and track during high school. He did receive offers from Division II and NAIA schools, but decided to walk-on at Kansas.
Lamb took a red-shirt freshman season in order to gain weight and speed for the following season. The sophomore feels the experience playing multiple sports in high school helped him make an easier position change to wide receiver. He was still taken aback by the decision from Mangino.
“It was a real surprise, but I’m coming into the position and feeling good,” Lamb reacted.
Mangino made another personnel change by moving last year’s leading wide receiver, Charles Gordon, to cornerback. As a freshman, Gordon caught 53 passes for 696 yards, which created quite a buzz around Lawrence and the nation. Mangino felt that Gordon would be better suited as the starting cornerback, although he’ll still take some snaps at wide receiver. The Jayhawks also lost sophomore Moderick Johnson due to academic ineligibility. Johnson was minimally involved in the passing attack, but did manage to catch 11 passes for 117 yards last season.
Kansas returned some of the most productive wide receivers in the Big 12 Conference with junior Mark Simmons, senior Brandon Rideau, and junior Greg Heaggans. Last season, the team enjoyed success throwing the ball down the field and making big plays with its top receivers. Simmons, Rideau, and Gordon were able to put their names in the record book with a huge 2003 season. Compared to the 2002 season, Simmons found the end zone seven times, which ranks third best by a Jayhawk receiver. Rideau also caught six touchdown passes making for a one-two scoring punch for Kansas. As a unit, the receivers accumulated more than 3,000 yards and hauled in 25 touchdowns.
As seen last season, the Jayhawks like to use a healthy dose of the ground game and air attack. Lamb is becoming a pivotal player in helping to replace Gordon’s productivity. Early in the season, he is not yet sure how he will fit into the offense or what type of receiver he will be, but is certainly ready for the challenge.
“I really like all of the receiver spots,” Lamb said. “I just really like being on the field.”
Coming from the defensive side of the ball, Lamb was an astute observer of offensive sets and offensive tendencies. He feels the year of playing against the offense will in return help him make the adjustment to playing wide receiver.
“Being able to recognize defenses and knowing what they are trying to do when they set up a defense is definitely an advantage,” Lamb said.
Lamb has gone through some of the growing pains of making the position change.
“Rotating different positions has been tough because I’m not set at one wide receiver position,” Lamb said. “I have struggled on the route running, technique-wise. All the other receivers have a few years on me so I have learned how to come out of breaks.”
In order to prepare for the 2004 season at the wide receiver position, Lamb worked diligently with the Kansas coaches.
“I met with Coach Quartaro during the summer to get the basics of the offense, so that when I came into camp I was ready to go,” Lamb said.
Associate Head Coach Nick Quartaro and outside receivers coach Tyrone Dixon have helped Lamb get acclimated to the offensive system in a fairly short time. Dixon helped transform Simmons, Rideau, and Gordon into offensive weapons for the Jayhawks last season. Dixon has the experience of playing the safety position in college and also coaching professionals as the wide receivers coach for the San Diego Chargers.
The summer was a good learning experience for Lamb, who was able to grasp the offensive playbook. The Jayhawks increased workouts during late August and Lamb took the time to gain better speed.
“During our individual period, I use 25 minutes to work on footwork drills and getting off the blocks, which will give me a better advantage throughout the season,” Lamb said.
From the start of the off-season, the Kansas coaches and players expressed the highest confidence in Lamb.
“It’s a tough transition because you have the defensive mentality and then to move to offense is tough, but he has done great,” Simmons said. “He has nice hands and I can see that he played wide out in high school.”
Sophomore quarterback Adam Barmann was surprised at how quickly Lamb acclimated to the system.
“He picked up the whole offense in a couple of weeks. It’s unbelievable,” Barmann said.
Last season Barmann was thrust into the spotlight when he was stripped of red-shirt status to start three games for the injured Bill Whittemore. Barmann understands the unique position Lamb will experience this season for the Jayhawks.
“It’s kind of a Cinderella story, a guy basically going from nothing to famous,” Barmann said. “I think he’s got great things ahead of him. I’m looking forward to watching him and playing with him.”
Lamb is growing accustomed to challenges; he plans on pursuing a career in the medical field after college. One would also expect the chemistry major with a 3.7 grade-point-average to make the adjustment and learn the offense in a relatively short time.
“He is a smart guy; he’s picked up the system up in two weeks,” Mangino said. “I look for him to do big things. He is not just a fill-in guy now; this guy can play. He is going to be a very good receiver for us.”
Mangino has also stated that he is impressed with Lamb’s abilities and will use him in various offensive positions throughout the season.
“He is a good athlete. He can run pretty well, he can leap, and can change direction. He has great hands. He is the holder for PAT’s, so that tells you something about the confidence we have in his hands,” Mangino said.
The headman for Kansas was a little surprised at the progress Lamb made over the summer, but expects results from the sophomore.
“Jon Lamb is going to be a much better wide receiver than I even anticipated,” Mangino said. “Like I said before, he is a highly intelligent young man so he is absorbing this new position pretty well. He has decent speed and runs well enough to be an effective receiver in this conference.”
With Lamb adding to the talented group of wide receivers, they will try to repeat and improve on last season’s success. However, the squad will face some of the best defensive backs in the nation when they take on Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Lamb will got a taste of the talented defensive backs in the Big 12 against Nebraska last week. Three weeks later, the Jayhawks will face the daunting Oklahoma Sooners, which always possesses one of the best defenses in America. The second to last week of the season will pit Kansas against Texas at Memorial Stadium. After losing All-Big 12 corner Nathan Vasher, the Longhorns will rely on a zone defense to stop the receivers for Kansas.
The Jayhawks and Lamb face a tough season in trying to repeat its bowl appearance from last season. One thing is for sure. Wherever Mangino asks Jonathan Lamb to line up, he will find a way to succeed with a blend of hard work, high intelligence, and natural talent.