Kansas returns its three leading tacklers from a year ago — all at linebacker. Quarterback Todd Reesing may be the popular poster boy for Jayhawks football, but linebackers Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera and James Holt provide the true snapshots into KU's hope for continued success on the heels of a 12-1 season that produced an Orange Bowl championship. Kansas led the Big 12 in scoring defense and total defense in 2007, ranking fourth and eighth nationally in those categories. Nine starters return on defense, which is why the Jayhawks — despite offensive losses and a stiffer league schedule — shouldn't be tossed aside when assessing league contenders. "We may have a tougher schedule and all that, but that's what we want,” Rivera said last week. "We want to have those challenges and those big games. We look forward to it. Those are the games we want to play at KU.” Rivera and his pals don't flinch. Seniors all, they started each of KU's 13 games last season. The linebackers, the Big 12's best, combined for 301 tackles, including 38 for 150 yards in losses. Mortensen is the man in the middle, a returning first-team All-Big 12 pick and on the watch lists for the Lombardi and Nagurski awards. He's a tackle machine, leading the Jayhawks with 106 in '07. If Mortensen is completely healed from an offseason knee injury, he'll be a frontrunner for conference Player of the Year. Rivera's been tabbed for the Bednarik watch list and is considered the best pro prospect of the trio. Holt, plucked out of Altus by Mark Mangino and Co., combines speed and consistency. He may not be on any lists — yet — but he and Rivera were honorable mention All-Big 12 a year ago. Missouri's linebacking corps, led by All-Big 12 pick Sean Weatherspoon, is another standout Big 12 group. But overall, the league's backers aren't all that inspiring. Locally, Oklahoma is hoping for a healthy season for Ryan Reynolds and either youngsters or transfers to fill the spots around him. Oklahoma State's Patrick Lavine is proven, but the Cowboys, too, seek emerging talents to surround him.
Kansas linebacker Joe Mortensen, center, is a returning first-team All-Big 12 pick and on the watch lists for the Lombardi and Nagurski awards. The associated press