KU's Onyegbule emerges as surprise contributor

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Coming into the season, senior defensive end Maxwell Onyegbule wasn't expected to crack Kansas' starting lineup.

But once he earned his position, Onyegbule has blossomed into a bigger surprise as the Jayhawks' top defensive lineman.

Onyegbule, a converted high school linebacker, has emerged as the Jayhawks’ top pass-rusher. He is among the team leaders in sacks (three), tackles for loss (4.5) and tackles (12).

“It’s not really been a surprise for me,” said Onyegbule, a finance major who dreams of being accountant after his graduation from college. “I always knew I had it in me and was capable of doing something like this. When I got the opportunity, I just wanted to make the most of it.”

The first-year starter has been the key player in the Jayhawks’ defensive transformation that has led to a 3-0 start heading into Saturday’s game against Southern Mississippi.

The biggest question coming into the season for the Jayhawks was their defense. Their defensive linemen were considered to be strong athletes but largely unproven.

Onyegbule had shown flashes earlier in his career, but had never started a game before this season.

But a strong performance in training camp earned him the starting position at left defensive end. He’s wasted little time in making the most of his opportunity and hasn’t looked back.

His breakout game came against UTEP when he notched two sacks among three tackles for loss and a team-high six tackles. That outing earned him a share of the Big 12’s defensive player of the week honors.

He built on that last week with a strong performance capped by a 48-yard interception return for a touchdown that helped spark the Jayhawks’ victory over Duke.

“As a defensive end, I was supposed to drop,” said Onyegbule, who also added three tackles, one tackle for loss and a sack for an 8-yard loss in the victory over the Blue Devils. “The quarterback didn’t see me and threw it right to me. I just ran for my life to the end zone. There was nobody in front of me so I went as fast as I could.”

Onyegbule’s athleticism has always been his biggest attribute. It led Kansas coach Mark Mangino to move him from linebacker to the defensive line after coming into the Kansas program as a linebacker/tight end from Arlington, Texas.

“Max made a nice play, got underneath the ball in the zone and had a good stride taking it in,” Mangino said. “He just keeps getting better as we go.”

Coming into the season, junior college transfer Quintin Woods was expected to be the player to emerge at defensive end. Instead, the 6-foot-5, 258-pound Onyegbule has beaten him to it.

Earlier in his career, Onyegbule would frustrate his coaches because his transition to defensive end wasn’t always smooth. But he made enough big plays that they felt he could produce if he could be consistent.

Mangino saw a rangy player with size and speed that could develop into a pass-rushing threat with patience. Of his 30 tackles in his career before this season eight were behind the line and six were sacks.

Along with the transformation into accepting direct contact from an opposing offensive lineman, Onyegbule worked hard to learn to use his hands better and become more accustomed to springing out of a three-point stance along the defensive front.

In the process, he’s helping confound some doubters who thought Kansas’ defense would be a liability in the Jayhawks' quest for their first Big 12 championship game appearance.

“I was just waiting for the right time to emerge,” Onyebule said. “Them saying we would be a question mark gave me a goal of proving to people they were wrong about us. And we’ve been able to do that so far this season.”