“This is a veteran group,” he said. “I have very high expectations for this group. It should be the anchor of our defense. Those guys are tested. They're quality players who've been in the program a long time. They have a lot of games under their belt.”
I knew Mark Mangino was firmly grounded in 2008, though, when he
mentioned senior OLB Mike Rivera by name. Comparisons to the 2005
foundation class of Banks Floodman, Kevin Kane and Nick Reid, however,
are inevitable. This year's senior corps of Rivera, James Holt and Joe Mortensen are acutely aware of that. In fact, they invite it. Floodman,
Kane and Reid's names are invoked by all three of this year's LBs early
Senior MLB Joe Mortensen points to that group as an inspiration early
in his career.
“We had a great group of linebackers before us with Nick Reid
and Kevin Kane and Banks Floodman, so our first year out there was a
little rough, getting that playing experience. But along with playing
came a lot of confidence.”
Holt said, “We knew (two seasons ago) that we were going to
have chemistry. We knew that we were going to be like Nick Reid and
Banks (Floodman) and Kevin (Kane), coming up as the three who've been
together for a long time.”
As good as that group of linebackers was, though, this group is better.
They're bigger, faster, stronger and more physical. Think of them as
Kansas Linebacker version 2.0.
New defensive coordinator Clint Bowen looks forward to watching the
threesome play this year. They do a lot to set the tone for KU's
defense, he said. Their size, strength and athleticism make them
extremely versatile, and in today's college football world of spread
offenses and high-octane passing games, versatility is a must.
“With everything that's going on offensively, (linebackers)
are put in challenging situations. It's not 10 years ago where they
played an A-gap and plugged it up. They've got to stop the run, they've
got to chase wide receivers, they've got to do a lot of things. And
you're talking Joe (Mortensen) and (Mike) Rivera who are 250-pound kids
out there doing it,” Bowen said.
Like Mortensen and Rivera, Holt is a tremendous athlete; he is,
however, the exception to the size rule. He came to Mt. Oread at 6-3,
205. Now, he's bulked up to 226 but he hasn't lost his safety's speed.
Sweeps to his side of the field are pointless because it's a rare
runner who beats him to the corner or gets outside on him.
Mortensen (6-1, 250) and Rivera (6-3, 255) are the heavy hitters, men
who like to separate opposing ball carriers from the ball as well as
their senses. Mortensen is a little more assignment-sound at his MLB
position and, with his shaved head and goatee, scares small children in
his free time. Rivera is huge, fast and would hit his own grandmother
she had a football in her hands.
With diverse talents and extensive experience as a group, it's not
surprising that the three have developed tremendous chemistry over the
past three-and-a-half seasons.
After Eric Washington's career-ending injury in 2006, Holt stepped in
as the starter at OLB. He said he, Mortensen and Rivera knew quickly
that they were going to be a successful unit.
“We've been good friends ever since I came in from safety. We
knew that we were going to have chemistry,” Holt said.
He continued, “Being with these guys for four years, it's
like a brotherhood now. We know our flaws and our strengths. I know if
one of them misses a tackle or if I miss a tackle, we're going to be
there, backing each other up to make up for it.”
Rivera agrees and says that the three differ a great deal in a lot of
ways, but on Saturdays, those differences complement each other.
“The biggest thing is, when we get out on the field, we want
to win that game. We want to go out and knock people's heads off and we
want to compete intensely. Everybody just has a different way to go
about it, but we feed off each other.”
Rivera said that four years – or five in the case of Rivera
and Mortensen – together has formed a bond between the three.
“We've done a lot together. We've given blood, sweat and
tears. We've had the rough times, the ups and downs, and that's a cool
thing. We know each other like brothers”
Their chemistry – not to mention their on-field productivity
– is attracting attention. Multiple national publications say
that when discussions are had about the best linebacking corps in the
nation, Kansas' trio has to be considered.
Accolades like that are nice, and Rivera says that he and his
counterparts are flattered. He's also quick to say that preseason hype
doesn't mean a thing if you go out and tank in the upcoming season.
“That's an honor that people say that, but I really think
that we've got to go out again this year and prove ourselves just like
we did the last two or three years. We've got to go out and challenge
ourselves. I think we're a talented group, we're all seniors, we're
going to lay it all on the line and I think we're going to do big
KU's head coach agrees. In fact, he has very high expectations for
Holt, Mortensen and Rivera and he doesn't care who knows it.
“We would expect nothing but a stellar year out of the
linebacking crew,” Mangino says, casually, as if he's
discussing the weather. “Anything less than that would be
Veteran Linebackers to Lead Kansas Defense
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