In the days after consummating the first unofficial trade in Kansas football history, Marcquis Roberts picked up his cell phone and shared a few messages with a college player he had never met. It was last spring, just a few days after Roberts announced that he was leaving the South Carolina football program and was heading to Kansas. Roberts, a linebacker, had heard about a kid taking the opposite path — a few weeks earlier, KU safety Isaiah Johnson had announced he would transfer to South Carolina.
So Roberts did the natural thing: He secured Johnson’s number through a mutual connection — former KU defensive lineman Keon Stowers — and he checked in with Johnson, hoping to score some information about his new school.
“We talked a little bit back and forth,” Roberts said. “And we both said it would be a good fit for both of us.”
Each player had his own motivations for the move. Johnson, a North Carolina native, was looking for a chance to play closer to home — and for a program that had bowl aspirations. Roberts, meanwhile, was just looking for an opportunity after an injury-riddled four years. His first season was derailed by a shoulder injury; his second year was decimated by a serious knee injury. Roberts then started eight games in 2013 before playing through another shoulder injury last year. Now at Kansas, he is a graduate transfer proving immediate help to the Jayhawks’ defense. But he is still classified as a junior after receiving a medical hardship waiver early in his career.
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Roberts — who pronounces his first name “Mar-queese” — says the rash of injuries tested his patience and focus. But he’s happy to be healthy — and in line for major playing time — at his new home. In Kansas’ season opening loss to South Dakota State, Roberts finished with seven tackles while starting at linebacker in the Jayhawks’ 4-2-5 scheme.
“At the end of the day, I still got a chance to play and I was very grateful for that,” Roberts said. “Even though I was going through my injuries, I was still happy to play.”
In some ways, Roberts was the ideal addition for new Kansas coach David Beaty. Roberts has playing experience in the Southeastern Conference and two years of eligibility, a must for a program with a serious numbers crunch — especially at linebacker. Roberts, meanwhile, says the transition to Kansas has been mostly seamless. Last spring, when he was looking for a new place to play, he contacted linebackers coach Kevin Kane. They bonded from the beginning.
“The only reason I came here was because of the coaches,” said Roberts, who acknowledges he knew little about Kansas before arriving in the offseason. “I love these coaches. They really care about their players. I just love the energy and all of it.”
Roberts has wasted little time fitting in. He impressed the Kansas coaching staff with a strong performance during preseason camp. He warmed to his teammates in the locker room, building relationships with an infectious, easy-going personality.
“He’s like kind of a young guy with an old soul,” said fellow linebacker Courtney Arnick. “He’ll be playing some old-school R&B, just singing all the time. He’s one of those guys that has genuine enthusiasm. ”
For Beaty, though, the most encouraging moment came during halftime on Saturday. Roberts is a friendly teammate and a veteran presence, Beaty says, but he’s not the most vocal leader. He also wasn’t playing his best game. (“He’s got a lot better games ahead of him,” Beaty said.) But with the Jayhawks trailing 31-14, Roberts stood in front of his teammates and spoke up.
“Leave it all out there on the field,” Roberts said.
“The words that he said,” Beaty said, “because he doesn't speak a lot, I think they spoke volumes.”
The Johnson-for-Roberts trade was a mere coincidence, of course. The KU staff would have loved to have kept Johnson. But it also came with another strange twist. Roberts is wearing Johnson’s old No. 5 jersey, while Johnson was given Roberts’ No. 21 at South Carolina.
“He got my number,” Roberts said. “… And I got his number.”