LAWRENCE — Josh Ehambe isn’t letting much stand in his way nowadays.
Not an offensive line. Not a chain-link fence.
Brought into the Kansas football team by then-coach Charlie Weis, Ehambe sat out his first year because of what he called “some school situations” — he came from Prime Prep Academy, which dealt with academic and debt problems before ultimately being shut down in 2015 — and struggled internally with getting back to the form he wanted to be in, where he could help his team win games with his play on the field.
“It was very tough, I’m not going to lie,” Ehambe said. “It broke me down. Broke me to pieces.”
But Ehambe found a place alongside another incoming player in Daniel Wise, working tirelessly on his technique at the practice field to the southeast of Memorial Stadium.
Really, there was just one barrier keeping the duo from putting in the work they wanted to, and it was out of their hands. After the staff would leave for the day, the two didn’t have access to the practice field.
At least until they figured out the alternative route in.
“We’d jump the fence if it was locked,” Ehambe said. “We like to come in and do some extra work.”
So they did.
The two Texans worked on their “get offs.” They did hand drills, practiced movements and worked their ways through the bags. They practiced game-type situations, working on any possible thing that could come up until finally it was Ehambe’s turn to show his skills off in the real thing — or the closest thing to it.
Ehambe quickly grabbed the attention of the coaches in Saturday’s spring game — his team (Team Jayhawks) won 14-7 over Team KU — though his first blip on the radar wasn’t quite what he was hoping for.
In the first quarter, trying to find a way to stop a drive by Team KU, Ehambe was called for offsides while trying to time his jump off the line. Standing nearby, defensive coordinator Clint Bowen let Ehambe hear about it, yelling at the defensive end and even walking on the field to make sure his message was heard loud and clear.
“You can’t do that. You can’t do that,” Bowen shouted.
Ehambe, who coach David Beaty noted after the game has had some problems with emotionality, heard his coach, channeling his response properly and productively.
He finished off the quarter with a sack, his second of the game. He added another in the second quarter and one more in the second half to finish with four.
“He’s done a lot better job of being a much smarter player, and I think it led to production today,” Beaty said. “And the thing I loved is I saw him keep his mouth shut and just keep playing.”
The evolution of Ehambe’s game hasn’t come overnight. He started his college career as a linebacker before moving back to the defensive line in his second season.
And while changing positions, the Arlington, Texas, native also made a change to his body. Ehambe joined the Jayhawks at 212 pounds, bulking up to the current 250-pound mark he sits at today thanks mostly to Aaron Carbuhn, director of sports nutrition, who Ehambe credits with helping him figure out his diet.
Perhaps the biggest change there for Ehambe was remembering to consistently eat three or four full meals per day, but he had some help in that area even when he was away from the steak dinners he’d enjoy in Lawrence. Upon returning home, he found his mother was more than happy to cook up some rice and beans, his favorite plate.
“Coming from an African home, she’s always cooking,” Ehambe said.
After bulking up, Ehambe looked the part. He didn’t quite play it just yet.
Even after the coaching change, Ehambe didn’t feel any uncertainty. He said Beaty had previously recruited him to Texas A&M, and he enjoyed his personality. Still, things weren’t clicking on the field, which led to some tough words from the coaching staff.
“You might set the world record for the guy that’s in the right place the most, making the least amount of plays,” Beaty would say.
For that, Beaty said he was prouder of Ehambe for his spring than anyone else. And it wasn’t just because of his strides in finishing plays and his game-high four sacks, but how he managed his emotions throughout the contest.
The only times Ehambe really emoted came when he jumped up and down or swung his arm in celebration of a big defensive play, or at the end of the game, after Daylon Charlot scored on a slant to give his team the win. He refrained from the trash talk and negative side of his personality, one he isn’t afraid to acknowledge.
“I’m a real emotional guy,” Ehambe said, tailing off with a laugh.
Instead, the real fireworks came between the lines. And in each of those plays, the late-night workouts seemed to pay off.
On a couple occasions, he snapped off the line and quickly found himself in the backfield — an area he says he’s improved in the most. In terms of “going through the bags,” his final sack came on a play when he completely swallowed up the guard in front of him. As for the “game-type situations,” he made plays on two different occasions with Team KU threatening to score, all while the two most talented defensive linemen — Wise and Dorance Armstrong — were drafted to the other team.
“He has definitely impressed me,” said Carter Stanley, often the victim of Ehambe’s breakout game. “He definitely got after us pretty good today.”
If Ehambe has his way, this will become the norm. And as it stands, the opportunity could be ripe for the picking for the upcoming junior.
Ehambe listed Isaiah Bean and Maciah Long as some of the other talented edge rushers presumably fighting for the starting defensive end spot opposite Armstrong. And with the unanimous All-Big 12 selection on the other side and another All-Big 12 choice in the middle, Ehambe knows what type of production could come from that spot — the prize of a battle that should continue into the fall.
“Of course they’re going to double team Dorance,” he said. “And then you’ve got Daniel Wise in the middle.”
He cracked a smile, almost as if he were envisioning what it would look like to line up in that spot come Sept. 2.
“That’s going to leave that end over there wide open.”