Last week, about this time, Kansas University running back Brandon Bourbon was still a bit of an unknown.
Sure, we’d heard about the four-star recruiting tag, the awesome blend of power and speed and the great strides the Potosi, Mo., tailback had made since overcoming a broken leg that kept him out of spring practice.
Still, Bourbon had yet to show what he could do. Through three games, the red-shirt freshman had gained just 55 yards on 11 carries, good for an average of three carries and 18 yards per outing.
But then came the Texas Tech game and, in a flash, Bourbon put himself firmly into the mix at tailback.
“I saw toughness. I saw determination and good running skills,” said KU coach Turner Gill, when asked what impressed him about Bourbon’s 101-yard performance against the Red Raiders last Saturday.
With freshman Darrian Miller sidelined early on because of a hamstring injury, Bourbon took advantage of his opportunity. On his first carry against Texas Tech, Bourbon, 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, sprinted 51 yards for a touchdown, fighting off tacklers and speeding into open space along the way. The TD was the first of his career. The run was KU’s longest from scrimmage this year. It also kept alive KU’s three-year stretch in which a freshman tailback had rushed for 100 or more yards in a game.
After the game, which KU lost, 45-34, Bourbon was appreciative of the opportunity.
“Brandon was happy,” said KU center Jeremiah Hatch, who made sure to point out that KU’s running backs always thank the guys up front. “He came around the locker room and gave all the O-Linemen hugs. Even the ones who didn’t play. He was ecstatic about his big game.”
Bourbon wasn’t the only one pleased with his performance. Hatch, a senior from Dallas, also enjoyed the big day from the young running back.
“I’ve seen it,” Hatch said. “So it didn’t surprise me. But I was just happy for the kid to see him finally get it on the big stage.”
Asked if he thought Bourbon had more 100-yard days in his future, Hatch answered quickly.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “It will be there.”
Although the injury to Miller opened the door for Bourbon to log a season-high for snaps last week, Bourbon did not do anything different in the week leading up to the game.
“I was ready to go,” he said. “I’ve been preparing like I was gonna play every game this season so it wasn’t a shock to me that I got to go in there and play. I wasn’t really expecting to play as much as I did, but I still had confidence that if the right circumstances (came) I’d be ready to go out there and play.”
Credit Gill and running backs coach Reggie Mitchell for some of that. Since the spring, Gill has said that KU’s top running backs all would have a chance to play this season. Through four games, he’s found a way to make that happen.
Sophomore starter James Sims leads the Jayhawks with 339 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries, but Bourbon and freshmen Miller and Tony Pierson each have at least 21 carries so far. Even senior Rell Lewis has found a way to get involved, rushing 12 times for 33 yards and catching two passes for 19 more and one touchdown.
“They’re all going to play,” Gill said. “We don’t get a whole lot into the depth chart. Obviously, we have to put a depth chart up and we tell them it’s a position chart. James Sims is our starter, and after that, we rotate them in and make it all work.”
Like all of KU’s backs, Bourbon handled a heavy workload throughout high school. Because of what he’s used to, he said it can be tough, at times, to sit and wait for carries. But he has a theory about why that works. It relates directly to the way he was used last weekend.
“Coach Mitchell likes to play the hot hand,” said Bourbon, who finished with 101 yards on 10 carries a week ago. “That’s their decision, not mine. I just do what I can when I get to play. We’re distributing it out pretty well. We’re all getting some touches. It’s a tough job for coach Mitchell to deal with, but he’s doing a good job so far.”
According to Gill, Bourbon’s time on the field could increase as long as he takes care of one thing.
“As long as he continues to stay healthy, you’re going to see him be an outstanding running back for us,” Gill said. “He has the talent. He has the skills and now is just trying to get it all down. When I say getting it all down, I’m talking about the blocking, pass receiving and obviously the running part of it, too.”