Veteran Linebackers to Lead Kansas Defense

KU head football coach Mark Mangino was talking about his linebackers, but for a second, I thought he had jumped into old Doc Brown's DeLorean and set it for 2005.

“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 and often.

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 things.”

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 very disappointing.”

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