Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Whether he's playing football or planning his next career step, Kansas senior safety Darrell Stuckey always says he's ready.
His future career plans are limitless. Maybe an NFL career or work as a sports agent. Or how about a career in public service or even politics? Part of him wonders what it would be like to be an athletic director at a university.
"My philosophy is to be prepared for everything," said Stuckey, whose most immediate challenge is to help Kansas claim its first Big 12 North title. "I like to make a change in the world in what I do and make a difference. It that ends up in public service, so be it. I'm ready for whatever happens."
Stuckey is one of the defensive leaders for the Jayhawks, a speedy All-Big 12 player who is the team's leading returning tackler and has been a pillar for the Jayhawks' defense since claiming a starting position as a redshirt freshman in 2006.
From that vantage point, Stuckey has seen the Kansas program transformed during his college career.
Coming to college, Stuckey wasn't heavily recruited. He decided on the Jayhawks over Kansas State, Northwestern, Tulsa and Wyoming -- among others.
"When I first got here, people wondered why I wanted to go to Kansas," Stuckey said. "I didn't really follow college football, but since I've gotten here, I've seen the philosophy of the players in the program evolve during that time. We've gotten better and it's been fun to be a part of it."
The Jayhawks had never been to back-to-back bowl games when Stuckey arrived. The Jayhawks only dreamed on contending in the North Division and hadn't earned a conference championship since sharing the 1968 Big Eight title with Oklahoma.
"I could tell that players in this program were defeated when I got here," Stuckey said. "This wasn't Texas or OU and they didn't believe it was a place that we could win."
That transformation started in 2005, Stuckey's redshirt season, when the Jayhawks claimed a resounding 42-13 victory over Houston in the Fort Worth Bowl to finish with their first winning season in 10 years.
It was a starting point. The Jayhawks went on to claim a share of the Big 12 North title in 2007, earning a trip to the Orange Bowl. They then beat Virginia Tech to help boost public perception in the program.
And even as the program took a step back in last season's 8-5 campaign, how the season finished help forge the Jayhawks' temerity. Stuckey produced two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the Jayhawks' gritty comeback victory over Missouri in the regular-season finale. They built on that with a win over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl, providing them three bowl victories in the last four seasons.
"The Fort Worth Bowl was an eye-opener for what this program could accomplish," Stuckey said. "We started achieving things in the short term. Then we built on it and kept getting better to where we're at the point where we're at today. As we started winning we saw that the sky was the limit. We've seen that as the evidence for what we can do."
That late surge enables the Jayhawks to enter the 2009 season with more preseason buzz than any time in recent memory. Kansas and Nebraska are fashionable preseason favorites to claim the North title.
To fulfill those expectations, Stuckey will be counted to lead a young defense that is considered one of the program's biggest question marks.
Gone are starting linebackers Joe Mortensen, Mike Rivera and James Holt from last season's unit. But their departure has opened up the opportunity for the Jayhawks to play more of a 4-2-5 defense that will be the team's defense of choice against most of the Big 12's pass-heavy offenses.
""Those guys leaving were a great loss, but it gives us another chance to transition," Stuckey said. "We lost our size in our linebacking corps, but we gain in our speed and athleticism. We couldn't play a 4-2-5 last season. It wasn't an option. But we'll be more effective in the long run by us playing it with the new guys."
The Kansas defense struggled at times last season as they allowed at least 33 points in seven games last season. The Jayhawks ranked 89th nationally in scoring defense and ranked 114th in pass defense, allowing 27 touchdown passes.
But those struggles have provided tangible growth points for Stuckey and his defense that he said he sees every day in practice.
The Jayhawks return all four starters in the secondary and three starters along the defensive front along with heralded junior-college transfer Quintin Woods.
"We learned from our mistakes," Stuckey said. "A baby doesn't learn how to walk until they keep falling, get back up and keep going. You don't learn until you fail."
Those struggles forged a mentality that has the Kansas defense primed for significant improvement this season.
"We're underrated as a unit and still not satisfied with how last season turned out," Stuckey said. "They don't know what to expect from us. We have a chip on our shoulder and are working hard to get ready. We know our capabilities and we're going to show everybody else what we can do."