Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The back pack: Why KU football coach Turner Gill loves the running back

Kansas football coach Turner Gill had made stockpiling running backs a priority. The result? A group that includes, back row from left, Nick Sizemore, James Sims, Brandon Bourbon and Tony Pierson; and front row Deshaun Sands, left, and Rell Lewis.

Kansas football coach Turner Gill had made stockpiling running backs a priority. The result? A group that includes, back row from left, Nick Sizemore, James Sims, Brandon Bourbon and Tony Pierson; and front row Deshaun Sands, left, and Rell Lewis.


Reader poll

Who do you think will be KU's leading rusher in 2011?

  • Brandon Bourbon 14% 54 votes
  • Darrian Miller 22% 82 votes
  • James Sims 59% 219 votes
  • Anthony Pierson 2% 9 votes
  • Other 1% 7 votes

371 total votes.

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Until recently, Kansas University football coach Turner Gill had spent dozens of days recruiting running backs but very little time explaining why.

As it turns out, Gill, a former quarterback, had a good reason for stockpiling arguably the best collection of young backs the program has seen. Sure, the position needed to be upgraded, but there’s more to it than that.

“(There’s a reason) you’ve heard me talk so much about running backs,” Gill said. “Yeah, we gotta have a quarterback, and he’s gotta do his thing, but I think a running back, whenever he makes big plays, he actually raises the level of a football team even more than a quarterback.”

Don’t buy it? Here’s the expanded version.

“When a running back makes a great run, you see the whole bench get excited,” Gill said. “The offense. The defense. Special teams. Everybody gets excited. If a quarterback makes a good throw or a good run, he’ll get excited, but it’s a little bit different level than when a running back makes a big play. (When he does) he usually shows some toughness, he makes somebody miss, and he shows a great burst. The fans, your whole team, your coaching staff, everybody gets up with him. That’s why I think a running back is such an important thing for a football team.”

Gill has four with top-tier ability, and he plans to use them all. From sophomore James Sims, who led the team in rushing yards and TDs as a true freshman, to red-shirt freshman Brandon Bourbon, a former Stanford commitment, and true freshmen Darrian Miller and Tony Pierson — both four-star talents brought to town by super-recruiter Reggie Mitchell — there is no shortage of backs to hand the ball to this season. The tricky part could be finding enough carries for all of them. Then again, each is slightly different from the others, which gives Gill and offensive coordinator Chuck Long a back for all occasions. Gill has made no secret he prefers to run the football, but while many believe that’s to keep the game close, wind the clock or take the burden off of the quarterback, Gill explained otherwise.

“If you think about all the teams that have been successful or won championships, they’ve had a running back,” Gill said. “He may not have been a great one, but he was someone that raised the level of play of that football team to help them be champions.”

After watching former KU coach Mark Mangino team with Todd Reesing to make passing the vogue thing in Lawrence during recent seasons, Gill’s return to the run represents new territory for Jayhawk fans who may not have been around to watch Gale Sayers, John Riggins or even June Henley make the ground game golden in Lawrence.

There’s another layer involved here that goes beyond just finding a featured back — or four — who can light up a stadium and scoreboard. Fielding a running back who can gain more yards than the line has blocked for can provide a team with a boost even when that back is not ripping off long runs or scoring touchdowns.

“The other thing about it is, your offensive line may go that extra second or that extra two seconds for a good running back,” Gill said. “They know that if they just stay on their guy for a little longer, so and so’s gonna make that run. Coaches always tell them that, but you don’t have to say that anymore because of the running back. They know it. They watch the tape. They may not have even blocked the guy, and the running back made him miss and made the offensive lineman look good. So, psychologically, it helps your football team.”

Although his plan all along was to bring big-time backs to KU, Gill admitted recently he didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. With that in mind, the challenge this season will be finding a way to use each back effectively. Sims sits at the top of the depth chart for now, but is being pushed hard by Miller and Bourbon. Miller, the Missouri high school record holder for career rushing yards, had a fantastic spring and consistently has shown the ability to make something out of nothing. Bourbon, also from Missouri, was charging hard this spring before a broken leg cost him most of spring drills. He has made up ground this summer and, according to Long, had his best practices last week leading up to a two-touchdown performance in last Saturday’s scrimmage. Both backs appear capable of carrying the load should they be asked.

Pierson’s another story. The fastest of the bunch, the East St. Louis, Ill., prospect is significantly smaller than the other three, but he’s also more of a true home-run threat because of his blazing speed and ability to turn the corner.

Although Gill almost assuredly has stayed awake at night trying to figure out the best way to use each of his dynamic backs without calling a running play on every down, those thoughts have, no doubt, morphed seamlessly into bedtime lullabies.

“It’s just great to have athletes like that on the field,” Gill said. “They have good vision, they’re tough, they’re fast, they have quickness, they can make plays. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. How that all works out, I’m smiling because that’s a win-win. Whatever the name of that person is, I’m fine.”

After all, as Long says, the surplus is a luxury.

“I just believe that, at that position, you need as many as you can get,” Long said. “And, right now, we’re working with all of them.”


Rock_Chalk16 2 years, 8 months ago

Someone should air brush Sands out of the picture


number1jayhawker 2 years, 8 months ago

Josh Smith. Back-up at Fullback. He goes 5'10" @ 220 lbs The starter at fullback is Nick Sizemore. He goes 6'2" @ 246 lbs


vd 2 years, 8 months ago

We had a walkon fullback from Hutch. What happened to him?


LSHawk 2 years, 8 months ago

You must be able to run the ball to compete anywhere in football, PERIOD. So this can only be good news for us. I for one am looking forward to this season, coach gill and staff have done a really good job bringing in new talent and I think the team is going to be better than anyone thinks.


ahpersecoachingexperience 2 years, 8 months ago

Wow, I'm so excited to watch us go three-n-out on three straight run plays all year long.

Last year against So. Miss there was a series in the second half we we were down that started on our 45 yard line: 1st and 10: false start 1st and 15: run off rt tackle. 2yd loss. 2nd and 17: run up the middle. No gain. 3rd and 17: run off rt tackle. No gain. But offsides on defense 3rd and 12: run off lft tackle. 1 yard game.


Mike Kendall 2 years, 8 months ago

Just a question for anybody-----

With all these running backs at Coach Gill's arsenal, will he rotate a lot of them so he will have fresher legs in the fourth quarter or will he just stick with two or three who will get the most reps?

Thanking you in advance whoever answers.


JHWKDW 2 years, 8 months ago

Lets bring in a New York Giants in the 80s kind of offense run the ball control the clock with these Rbs we got!Of course with the receivers we got make the possession receivers just catch the ball!This be the best kind of offense we need to run right now!I know with all the teams in the conference running these wide open offenses we need to help this defense and if we can run the ball like I think we can we need ball control on offense!


actorman 2 years, 8 months ago

Love the picture, but there's a problem with the caption: only five of the six are named, so it's not clear who is who.


100 2 years, 8 months ago

Keep bringin' in that Speeeeeeeeed, Coach Gill.....

Jayhawk Nation is behind you guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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