BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Kansas redshirt freshman defensive DJ Withers (6-4, 292) may not be home for Christmas, but he is a lot closer than normal.
Withers, who starred as 220-pound defensive end at Joe T. Robinson in Little Rock, is in Memphis where his Jayhawks (6-6) are set to face Arkansas (6-6) Wednesday in the 64th AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
“That was probably the most exciting part about it (the bowl announcement), being in Memphis, being just two hours away from home and my family and them being able to see me come and play against my favorite team growing up,” Withers said.
Withers took a leap of faith on Kansas, who had won just 9 out of its last 60 games before Withers and head coach Lance Leopold both arrived in Lawrence.
He chose Kansas over other scholarship offers from the University of Central Florida, Tulane, Vanderbilt, North Texas, Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe.
“What really drove me to Kansas was the Big 12 and their style of play because in high school I was a defensive end and that’s a league that passes the ball a lot,” Withers said. “I feel great about how I am part of a team that has turned it around. I hope we can keep to going for years.”
Leopold, who came from Buffalo, got Kansas off to a 5-0 start before losing of their last 7 outings.
The biggest thing that he did was come in and changed the culture,” Withers said. “He established a culture of things thrive when you believe them. And that just helped us with our we will challenges in the fourth quarter. The culture really helped us turn around and start winning.”
Withers had 12 tackles this season, three for lost yardage against Texas.
“This year for me is about me being able to get on the field and I just pretty much accomplished my goals,” Withers said.
He believes he was blessed to have been coached by Robinson head coach Todd Eskola and assistant Brian Maupin, now the head coach at Maumelle, and be on the 2019 state championship squad.
“They really developed me, taught me just some little tricks of the game, how thing would go in college and how to handle myself – not only in football, but in life, too.”
He has a former teammate on the Arkansas roster in true freshman offensive lineman E’Marion Harris and he also knows former Robinson star and current Razorback senior defensive end Zach Williams.
“I haven’t talked to Zach yet, but I have talked to E’Marion,” Withers said.
He expects to face a tough challenge from Arkansas.
“They have a great offense, a really good quarterback and their O-line is pretty good,” Withers said. “It should be a lot of fun and an exciting game.”