The big question surrounding Kansas University’s offense heading into last week’s season opener against McNeese State was whether the Jayhawks would have enough carries to pass around to keep their deep and talented stable of running backs happy.
In bulldozing McNeese State for 301 yards and three rushing touchdowns, the Jayhawks answered that question with a resounding yes.
In all, KU ran 55 times — in 65 plays — and spread the wealth among sophomore James Sims and freshmen Brandon Bourbon, Darrian Miller and Tony Pierson.
Of course, running the ball 85 percent of the time isn’t likely to work every weekend. And that’s what makes the demeanor of this group of backs ultra-important as it heads into the Week 2 matchup with Northern Illinois.
“We have a lot of team players,” said sophomore QB Jordan Webb. “We have a lot of unselfish guys, especially at running back, where it’s normal to want to be the guy. I’ve just been really happy with the way they’ve handled it.”
The team-first mentality has made it easy for KU coach Turner Gill to worry less about managing egos and more about who the right guy for the right situation might be. If Gill needs a playmaker who can get to the edge, Miller or Pierson is likely to get the call. If he needs tough yards inside, those carries could go to Bourbon, Miller or Sims. The bottom line is this: The Jayhawks have a back for all occasions. While that’s nothing new for running-backs coach Reggie Mitchell, who has coached more than a few big-time talents in the past, having so many at the same time is a new endeavor.
“When I was at the University of Illinois we had Rashard Mendenhall and Pierre Thomas, and then the year after that we had Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford,” said Mitchell of his former players, three of whom now collect checks in the NFL. “So I’m used to doing it, but even at those places we didn’t have as many quality guys.”
It can be dangerous to look at Week 1 and call it a blueprint for the way the Kansas offense will be run. For starters, as Gill pointed out, “We can throw the football, and we’re not scared to do that.”
However, in his ideal vision of KU’s offense, the Jayhawks would run somewhere around 60 percent of the time and throw the other 40. Just because that’s the vision, though, doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked.
“I think if you’ve got a balanced style of offense, no matter what you’re trying to do, it can definitely put more pressure on the defense,” Gill said. “I think each of our running backs has their own specific style. It can be good vision, good speed, good change of direction or toughness. It’s great for our football team to have a variety of guys that can do some good things when they’ve got the ball in their hands.”
Added Mitchell: “I think if a guy’s hot, you go with him. The thing about running backs is, someone may get dinged, so you’re never gonna have all four. It’ll balance out. The guys will be happy. And they all know their role.”
That’s not just coach-speak. It’s true.
“We’ve all come from good high school programs, and we’re all used to running the ball a large amount of the time,” Miller said. “But I knew when I came here the amount of carries I got would go down. The thing about it is making the most out of your carries.”
Miller also said there was a lot more to the multi-back approach than just checking yardage totals and touchdowns at the end of the game. He said rotating backs in and out of the game helps keep guys fresh and also made it so he and his teammates took less of a beating.
Mitchell agreed and said the coaching staff would have to get creative and find other ways to get these guys the ball, especially when one is hot and getting the bulk of the work on the ground.
“For us, right now, by-committee is the best approach,” Mitchell said. “So you just have to find the things that the guys do best and kind of do it that way. (Sims) is the lead guy, but we have some other guys who bring other things to it, so we’re gonna try to make sure we feature them, too.”