As recently as Monday, Kansas University football coach Mark Mangino seemed confident that injured running back Jake Sharp, the Big 12’s second-leading rusher before the setback, would be ready to go in the 16th-ranked Jayhawks’ matchup with visiting Iowa State on Saturday.
A day later, however, the coach altered his initial prognosis.
“I’ll be real honest with you in the assessment of Jake’s injury,” Mangino said during Tuesday’s meeting with the media. “I think we all thought that he was going to get on the practice field today, and we were going to cut him loose. But it hasn’t developed that way, unfortunately.”
The undisclosed injury, which was suffered during a practice before the team’s Sept. 19 victory over Duke, severely limited Sharp against the Blue Devils (he rushed five times for 13 yards before being shut down in the first half) and kept him out of the following week’s game against Southern Mississippi completely.
On Tuesday, Mangino insisted he’d err on the side of caution when determining the player’s status heading into Saturday’s conference opener.
“By Thursday’s practice, if he’ll go out and execute everything full speed, 100 percent, we’ll play him,” Mangino said. “If there’s any sign that he’s not 100 percent, that he cannot play to the best of his abilities, then we will not use him.”
If Sharp is unable to play, the large majority of the team’s ground game again will fall upon the shoulders of true freshman Toben Opurum, who is coming off a 28-carry, 109-yard performance against Southern Miss. The team’s leading rusher this season with 320 yards and six touchdowns, Opurum has proven to be one of the program’s most pleasant surprises — particularly when considering his production during Sharp’s absence.
And Mangino appears more than willing to ride the true freshman one more week if necessary.
“I want (Jake) to be 100-percent functional, because he is a guy whose speed and quickness are his asset,” he said. “And if he doesn’t bring those to the field — he’s not a 240-pound running back. So we’ve got to have him feeling really good.”
Woods coming along
When Kansas signed defensive end transfer Quintin Woods last spring, it was largely viewed as a move that immediately could bolster a KU pass-rush that struggled during the 2008 season.
Instead, the Flint, Mich., native and former Michigan signee has gone largely unused this year as veteran defensive ends Maxwell Onyegbule, Jake Laptad and Jeff Wheeler have helped the Jayhawks to 15 total sacks — on pace to easily surpass last year’s season total of 29.
“I think he’s realized there’s a certain standard here for effort and work ethic that you must meet to get on the field,” Mangino said. “Not that he’s lazy, (it’s) just making that transition from junior college to here has been a little bit difficult for him.”
Following a productive past few weeks, however, which included a strong showing during the team’s bye week, Mangino said an increased workload isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
“This past week, where he had a chance to work fundamentals and not worry about a game plan and worry about who we’re playing, I thought he made some big strides,” he said. “He has a ways to go. He’s a talented young guy, he’s a likable young guy. ... But I look for him to contribute before it’s all said and done this year.”
Mangino confident in Branstetter’s ability
Although kicker Jacob Branstetter’s opportunities have been minimal this season — the Jayhawks have attempted field goals in just two of their first four games — Mangino said Tuesday that he’s comfortable sending his kicker in to attempt field goals from as far out as 48 yards if the situation calls for it.
So far this season, Branstetter is 3-for-5 on field-goal attempts — his two misses coming after suffering a roughing-the-kicker penalty against UTEP — but hasn’t attempted a kick longer than 38 yards as Mangino has routinely opted to keep the offense on the field in fourth-down situations.
“He can make it. He has the strength to do it,” Mangino said of a long field goal. “... I’m comfortable where he is. He works hard, he’s very dedicated to his craft, and I have great faith in him.”