LAWRENCE — The Kansas football defense has terrorized opposing offenses in recent weeks, and at the heart of the havoc are three native Lawrencians.
Well, sort of.
Three hometown players — senior linebackers Joe Dineen and Keith Loneker and junior nickelback Bryce Torneden — start for a KU (2-1) defense that has notched 12 takeaways in the team’s last two contests, both blowout victories. The trio even played prep football together, three of KU’s six Free State High School alumni.
That’s where the debate — although an admittedly playful one — starts.
Two years Torneden’s elder, Loneker first remembers watching his future teammate play youth football for a Baldwin City team several years ago. Loneker and Torneden linked up and became friends at West Middle School and later Free State following Torneden’s move roughly 20 miles north.
“I give him crap about that,” Loneker said, “saying he’s not a Lawrence kid.”
Loneker isn’t the only Jayhawk known to razz the Texas-born Torneden about his roots.
“He’s not a thoroughbred,” Dineen joked, “like Keith and I.”
It’s a tough assessment from the player known as “The Mayor,” but it’s not one Torneden let go uncontested.
“Man, I’m not a thoroughbred, but I was basically raised here, so I’d say I’m a true townie,” Torneden said with a laugh. “We don’t have the same path getting here, but I’d like to say I’m a true townie.”
His path may have been slightly different, but if Torneden’s torrid start to the season continues, he will have one of the biggest says in the Jayhawks’ ultimate destination.
Torneden has been a revelation of sorts through the first three games of his junior campaign. He has three takeaways in the Jayhawks’ last two games — a pair of fumble recoveries and, in last Saturday’s 55-14 romp over Rutgers, a 39-yard interception return for KU’s first touchdown of the contest.
“I was thinkin’ just run, honestly. I got kind of paranoid about it,” Torneden said of his tone-setting pick-six. “I haven’t had the ball in my hands since high school.”
His 18 tackles and nine solo stops both rank third on the team — behind Dineen (40 tackles, 26 solo stops) and Loneker (24 tackles, 13 solo stops), naturally.
“Playing with Bryce, it’s been really cool to watch him grow obviously throughout high school and then see where he’s gotten now. He’s obviously impacting our defense a lot,” Dineen said. “It’s just been cool for me to see him grow into the player he is.”
“Really just a great kid,” Loneker said. “He’s a kid you want in your program for sure, and it’s great to continue to be around him.”
Torneden’s strong start has been an improvement from the former two-star recruit’s first two college seasons, which produced mixed results.
The 5-foot-10, 197-pound defensive back credited an improved diet and weight room approach as well as a sharpened focus on consistency and mastering the little things for his offseason strides.
He couldn’t, however, explain the burst in takeaways following an 18-game start to his career without one.
“Man, I couldn’t really tell you, to be honest. I feel like I’ve been doing the same things I’ve been doing since my freshman and sophomore years,” Torneden said. “I think the game is just truly slowing down and some of the results are starting to show.”
KU coach David Beaty has been particularly fond of Torneden’s high-energy activity level.
“I mean, he’s a Tasmanian devil. The dude is like a — he’s a tornado coming to the line of scrimmage,” Beaty said. “But that can be counterproductive if you don’t know how to get your body under control. That’s one of the things we put an emphasis on with him is learning how to control the speed at the point of attack and knowing how to leverage the ball, and he’s certainly improved it.
“There’s never going to be a problem with his heart. There’s never going to be a problem with his desire, his want-to. He’s got the skill set.”
Along with upperclassman status and increased production comes a duty to be more of a vocal leader, a process Torneden said he’s getting better at as each game passes. He’s quiet by nature, though that trait isn’t necessarily true when it comes to opposing players.
An uptick in production, as it turns out, also lends itself to more credibility talking smack.
“He’s going to talk that trash on the field,” junior safety Mike Lee said. “Off the field, he’s a quiet guy. He likes to stay to himself. But on the field, it’s game time.”
Torneden’s next opportunity to improve will come at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Jayhawks’ road contest against Baylor (2-1) at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas. Asked his goals for that contest and beyond, the self-described townie issued a characteristically selfless response.
“I just want to stay consistent and do whatever I have to do for the team to help us win,” Torneden said. “That’s ultimately our goal. That’s why I came here, to win, and that’s all I want to do.”