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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A running battle: A look at Kansas football’s strongest position

Kansas is loaded at running back, with the likes of, clockwise from upper left, James Sims, Tony Pierson, Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox (36).

Kansas is loaded at running back, with the likes of, clockwise from upper left, James Sims, Tony Pierson, Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox (36).

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It’s no secret that the Kansas University football program’s strongest position heading into the 2013 season is running back.

From three-time leading rusher James Sims, now a senior, to dynamic speed back Tony Pierson and a trio of talented ball carriers behind them in Taylor Cox, Brandon Bourbon and newcomer Colin Spencer, head coach Charlie Weis’ offense is loaded with options in the backfield.

All that talent and experience sparked competition, not complacency.

Reports from KU’s spring practices indicated that in addition to being the most talented and proven position on the roster, KU’s running backs also may have been the hardest-working bunch during the offseason.

Sims returns as KU’s No. 1 guy but may have been pushed this offseason like never before.

Weis said Sims was in the best shape of his life heading into spring drills. There’s a reason.

“Basically, it is because of the guys he is around,” Weis said. “They are some of the hardest-working guys on the team.”

Here’s a quick look at the focus for each of KU’s top four returning backs this offseason:

Sims eyes national success

James Sims led the Jayhawks in rushing during each of the past three seasons and increased his yardage totals each time.

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Kansas running back James Sims runs upfield during the KU spring football game on Saturday, April 13, 2013 during the KU football spring game. The Blue team defeated the White team, 34-7.

For many college athletes, that alone would qualify as a solid career. But Sims wants more. And rather than just sitting around and expecting history to repeat itself one more time, Sims hit the weight room harder than ever this offseason.

“I have,” he said. “I accomplished a good goal last year, and I just want to double that and get even better. So I’m doing extra cardio and working out twice as hard as I was before, just trying to finish up my last year strong and on a positive note as a team.”

Sims always has been a modest man. He’s never worried much about individual accomplishments and is the farthest thing from flashy. But in the interest of getting the Jayhawks’ turnaround off to a good start before he says goodbye, Sims has made things personal.

“I want to be the best back in the Big 12, I want to be top five in the nation, and I know that’s a big goal,” he said. “I know it’s gonna take a lot of hard work, but those two things are my main goals. That, and helping us win, of course.”

Sims is well on his way to achieving the first one. Last season, despite playing in just nine games, his 1,013 rushing yards ranked second in the Big 12. He led the conference with 112.6 yards per game.

With the Jayhawks’ offense expected to be more balanced this season — KU ran the ball 558 times last season and threw it just 313 — Sims’ number of carries might dip. The flip side of that, however, suggests that if the KU passing game is more of a threat, Sims might have more room to rumble when he does touch the ball.

All of Sims’ personal goals were created with the idea of making Kansas a winner once again.

“Any team who finishes the way we finished, you have no choice but to get better,” he said. “Last year it was more of the talk, but now we have to really go out and prove that we’re better, and it’s not the same team.

“Everyone has the dream of going to the next level or doing this or doing that, so of course everybody’s gonna come in and do all they can every day in practice to help the team out and benefit everything in the end.”

— Matt Tait

Pierson bulks up

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Kansas running back Tony Pierson heads up the sideline as Texas Tech defensive back Bruce Jones trails during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas.

You’ll have to excuse Tony Pierson for smiling a little bigger when you bring up his weight. See, adding to his already-slight frame this offseason was one of the tailback’s biggest goals, and when he reported for spring practice in early March and weighed in for the first time, the junior-to-be from East St. Louis, Ill., was elated about what he saw on the scale.

Pierson had added weight.

“A pound or two,” he said with the pride of a straight-A student.

Not known for wild celebrations on the field, that’s about as demonstrative as Pierson gets. He did, however, have no problem discussing how he was able to bulk up.

“Weight room. All the time,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to add weight. I eat in the morning, eat after a workout and eat before I go to bed. The strength coaches are always on me about eating, so I just do whatever the coaches want me to do and keep working at it.”

Pierson said he hopped on the scale just about every day during the offseason to check his progress. Most days he was disappointed. But when the extra weight finally showed up, that all changed.

“That was exciting, man,” he said.

Pierson, who now 5-foot-10 1/2, 172 pounds, said his dream playing weight would be 185-190.

“I’m hoping I can get there,” he said. “I’m gonna keep on lifting and keep on eating until I do.”

— Matt Tait

Bourbon patiently waiting

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Kansas running back Brandon Bourbon turns up field against Texas during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

He stands 6-foot-11⁄2, weighs 225 pounds and has a great deal of speed for a running back his size. So why hasn’t that translated into a heavy load of carries and big yardage for Brandon Bourbon, who will be entering his red-shirt junior season? He thinks watching film with coaches has helped him to identify one big reason.

“In certain situations, I’m trying to make a cut on somebody when I need to just get up the field,” Bourbon said. “I’m trying change my mind-set. The fact that I’m (225) and as fast as I am, I need to make people tackle me. It’s a lot easier for people to make a tackle on my side when I’m trying to miss than it is if I’m going straight ahead and they’re turning and I’m already going full speed.”

That sort of exchange between Bourbon and his coaches sounded so much like a pitching coach letting a young talent know he’s doing the hitter a favor by throwing him offspeed stuff instead of challenging him with a fastball the hitter has trouble getting around on. Bourbon’s big and fast and needs to trust his stuff. He knows that now. Recognizing a flaw is the first step toward solving it.

In 2011, Bourbon rushed 28 times for 190 yards (6.8 per carry). His 51-yard touchdown run was the highlight of his 101-yard day on 10 carries against Texas Tech.

He also caught three passes for 23 yards.

Last season, he rushed 12 times for 41 yards (3.4) and caught eight passes for 56 yards. He knows on a team with a trio of terrific running backs in James Sims, Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox, he’ll need to produce more consistently to get his shot.

— Tom Keegan

Cox content to share

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Kansas running back Taylor Cox practices receiving kickoffs prior to the start against Texas Tech on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012 at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas.

Taylor Cox’s last season in Lawrence arrived quickly.

It has been less than a year since Cox, a junior-college transfer from College of the Siskiyous, first arrived on campus with the idea of making a name for himself at the Div. I level and, in that time, he has seen two running backs already on the roster blossom into two of the best in the Big 12.

Watching James Sims and Tony Pierson take off could have been a blow to Cox’s psyche, but he stayed humble, worked harder and found a place for himself on this team.

“I look at Taylor like a humble, mad man on the field,” Pierson said. “He always waits his turn, no matter what. He always brings confidence and a team-first attitude. He’s well respected on the team for his work on and off the field.”

Cox says he never lets what others have done in front of him change the way he approaches the game. He came to Kansas to play football. He got that chance. And he’s enjoying it.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve always done my best to compete and do the best I can,” Cox said “And going into my senior year, that’s definitely not going to change.”

Cox said he felt that his experience and determination had inspired his teammates.

“I just try to lead by example and go hard all the time,” he said. “I’m not gonna give a rah-rah speech at the beginning. I’m just gonna try to do my job the best of my ability and compete always and do whatever the team asks. So in that respect I believe I’m a leader.”

Pierson said having Cox on the roster takes the burden off of every running back on the team.

“He’s probably in between us,” said Pierson comparing Cox to him and Sims. “He’s faster than James, and he’s stronger than me. He’s a versatile guy.”

— Matt Tait

Comments

David Leathers 1 year, 8 months ago

I especially like that last quote from Pierson. I have liked Cox, admittedly I might add, since the beginning of last football season.

All jokes aside, Taylor is a runner with great vision and agility, and if he wasn't behind Sims he could be shining on a big stage. That's not to say, of course, that he doesn't already "shine" as far as the KU run-game goes. He is a great compliment to the other two prestigious backs on the team and will be remembered always as a Jayhawk.

Brett McCabe 1 year, 8 months ago

I think that Cox can also play at the next level - Pierson described him perfectly. Though I can't really remark on his blocking, Cox has shown the speed and toughness necessary to be an effective back in the NFL.

Michael Maris 1 year, 8 months ago

In reading this article, it is clear to me that Weis and Staff are clearly more proactive in motivating the current players. With the stable of running backs that Kansas has, it is good to see that Weis and his staff have kept this group motivated to achieve maximum potentials. Sadly, I believe if Turner Gill and his staff were still here, a lot of transfers would've taken place by now. Keep up the good work Charlie and Reggie Mitchell. I'm glad that Coach Weis seen that Coach Mitchell was one of the assistant coaches that needed to stay in Lawrence.

jhox 1 year, 8 months ago

Personally, I'd like to see Cox consider taking a redshirt year. I think he may be talented enough to play on Sundays, but to make that happen he needs to be the feature back for a season. As good as Sims is, I'm still not convinced he's better than Cox. KU went years without an NFL quality running back, and now we suddenly have a wealth if them. Bourbon is solid as well. I fully expect Sims to play in the NFL. I just hope someone gives Cox a long hard look as well.

If nothing else, hopefully Cox will get more opportunities with Pierson playing some downs as a receiver. With the talent we have in the backfield I'd love to see us have a wishbone package to throw at teams on occasion, and use it like many teams use the Wildcat.

Jonathan Allison 1 year, 8 months ago

I really like the idea of Cox taking a red shirt year. But I can't imagine how difficult it would be for him to choose to sit out this season. You have to believe that he would be a great feature back next year. And talk about an experienced backfield if that happened. Heaps, Cox, Pierson, Bourbon all seniors. Is it too much to dream about winning the league?

Steven Mathew 1 year, 8 months ago

Not to mention Justin McCay being a senior as well (albeit not in the backfield)

NebraskaJayhawk 1 year, 8 months ago

I can't believe Bourbon is a junior already. I really was hoping this guy would have a monster career at Kansas. Matt, what's the chance he lines up at fullback this season. Wow, two powerful backs with speed in Sims and Bourbon in the same backfield together would definitely put a scare in opposing linebackers.

KGphoto 1 year, 8 months ago

Weis isn’t utilizing a fullback in his offense this year. He has an H and a Z position. The H is Sims, Cox and Bourbon. The Z is Pierson and Spencer. I imagine the TE’s will do a lot of the fullback-type of blocking when needed.

Who knows what Weis will do from game to game though? Last year he went with Schyler Milers on a draw at the goal line and scored, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him adjust on the fly and throw in a package with Sims and Bourbon together.

He’s like a kid in a candy shop with the running back talent on this team. You know? It all looks good. What to do?

NebraskaJayhawk 1 year, 8 months ago

Thanks for the response, KG. I like all our running backs. I know some of the reason Bourbon hasn't produced yet is because he's had a hard time staying healthy, but I think this guy running downhill would be a load if he figures out how to keep his pads low. Although Cox is a tough runner, I just think besides Sims, Bourbon is our best combination of speed, size, and power. If our o-line doesn't produce this season, it won't matter who's in though.

KGphoto 1 year, 8 months ago

I am extremely excited to see a healthy Bourbon figure it out and start maximizing his power and speed. Because of his long speed, I think he is as big of a threat as Pierson once he breaks free. From 40 to 100 yards I’ll take Bourbon all day. The guy laid down a 10.4 100 meters in HS, which is elite. Imagine getting trucked by a 225 pound 100 meter guy.

Please stay healthy BB!!

Randy Bombardier 1 year, 8 months ago

I have thought for the last two years without having a dynamic passing attack we would see more of an option game using Cox and Bourban at fullback. I especially was disappointed that Gill did not try that when Pick was at QB. We would have had great speed at QB, FB, and HB. We could have done much better.

vd 1 year, 8 months ago

Where did Miller go, and what is his status? Anyone know?

Dirk Medema 1 year, 8 months ago

JC somewhere. There was a comment a week or 2 ago.

Brad Farha 1 year, 8 months ago

Thanks for the great article Tom and Matt. I don't comment much, but I enjoy reading everything!

Eliott Reeder 1 year, 8 months ago

"That sort of exchange between Bourbon and his coaches sounded so much like a pitching coach letting a young talent know he’s doing the hitter a favor by throwing him offspeed stuff instead of challenging him with a fastball the hitter has trouble getting around on." Will someone please translate this Keegan-ism for me?

Eliott Reeder 1 year, 8 months ago

If only he had thrown in an obscure reference to some mid-80's celebrity and a self-deprecating fat joke... we would have had a perfect little snippet of his writing style.

KGphoto 1 year, 8 months ago

Throw your fastball, Brandon. They can’t hit it.

John Randall 1 year, 8 months ago

Keegan-speak is only hard to follow if your own frame of reference is very limited. The fast ball (north-south running) is your best pitch (running style), so use it more than the other stuff.

Brad Farha 1 year, 8 months ago

Thanks KU62. I get tired of all the attacks on T-Keeg (his soon to be solo artist stage name). I enjoy his writing and appreciate his perspective.

KGphoto 1 year, 8 months ago

Small detail:

"Sims always has been a modest man. He’s never worried much about individual accomplishments and is the farthest thing from flashy.”

Okay maybe not the farthest. The haircuts are a little flashy. The muscle flexing TD celebration was a little flashy. Just a little.


Is Cox really faster than Sims? Sims is pretty quick these days. I don’t see it. I view Cox as the battering ram. Even though I think Sims can move a pile further with Herculean leg power, Cox has the weight and the pop on first contact. I consider him the power back. Sims I would put right between Cox and Pierson.

Just thought it was interesting how Pierson saw it.

NebraskaJayhawk 1 year, 8 months ago

I think Sims is both more powerful and faster than Cox. Last year Sims looked much faster than the year before. Looking forward to seeing what he's done to develop himself even further.

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

Could have 2 guys going for 1000 yards or more this coming season, especially if the passing game improves quite a bit. With Pierson being out on the edge and if McKay makes the impact he can make, other teams are going to be forced to use a safety up on the line because there is no way a linebacker will be able to cover Pierson and it will lessen the options that the defenses have. But when Kansas goes with four wide receiver sets including Pierson in the slot and Bourbon or a TE used to occupy the linebackers, Sims and Pierson could have very big years.

13 games, if Kansas gets a bowl and Sims could average some where between 125 to 150 yards a game, Sims could approach 2000 yards on the ground and well over that in all purpose yards because he will get a lot of one on one coverage on the flat plays when Pierson is in the game. If the other team doesn't cover Pierson, then they're going to get hurt.

On this issue with Cox red shirting, I'm not sure anyone will be able to talk him into doing that. With Spencer looking as if he's going to make the roster, the depth at running back is going to be the strongest Kansas has ever had.

If Omigie can get his hands problem solved, McKay on the other side, and a couple of the newcomers can muster around 30 receptions, it will look very good for not just this season, but the 2014 campaign as well. One of the ESPN 150, Offensive Linemen has KU listed and has been offered by Kansas as well. He's from Olathe South.

John Randall 1 year, 8 months ago

The damage big Lew did was certainly a factor in the collapse from mid-season MM's last year through the two-year fiasco with no head coach, but the recovery back to respectable status seems well under way. Remember KU competes (sometimes) in one of the tougher conferences (a majority in bowl games annually), and does not have a soft day all season.

The weekly embarrassments have been reduced to a few games a year, and that is likely to improve further – to three, four, maybe five Big12 wins – which meets my respectability criteria. At that level, a major bowl every few years becomes realistic.

KGphoto 1 year, 8 months ago

It’s weird how we view the last few seasons. I think Turner is getting a little more crap than he deserves because he isn’t good with the media.

Gill had a total rebuild project, just like Weis. He inherited Webb and Pick. He inherited the WRs that everybody has been so down on. He inherited a D-line that sucked. He inherited a LB corps that sucked. The Oline was young or oft-injured. Gill had a TOTAL rebuild on his hands. Any potential talent was recruited for MM’s system.

He salvaged Sims from the MM departure, then added Pierson, Miller and Bourbon. He gave Weis Ben Heeney and Darius Willis at LB. His most important player, the QB, flaked out. (With Weis Crist was about as effective)

Truth is, last year was worse than either of Gill’s first two. We got blown out as many times, had tough performances against good teams as many times. We lost one more game than Gill’s last season, and the biggest strength of the team was our running game, which Gill provided most of the talent for.

For now, the only weekly embarrassment that has been reduced is the post game press conference. The on field embarrassment remains equal.

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

Gill didn't have near the rebuilding job than he left to Weis. Gill took the program over the cliff. No, last year wasn't worse than either of Gill's two years unless you fail to mention 21-17 against Texas, double overtime at Texas Tech, 20-14 against Oklahoma State, 7 point loss to a team that was invited to the Orange Bowl, etc. Last year they easily were better more often than under Gill.

Take those games I mentioned plus the Rice game we could have won, had Gill actually recruited a good kicker, we probably would have won against Tech, Texas, Rice, and took Oklahoma State to overtime at the very least. With what Weis had last year, at least he got one of the kickers to hit the FG that gave KU a chance to win in the final two or three minutes against Texas. Last year was not nearly as bad as what Gill did to the team. Gill handed Weis a worse condition than Gill had when he took over. This should not even be debatable.

KGphoto 1 year, 8 months ago

Let’s be clear that I prefer Weis over Gill big time! The press conferences, the academics, the coaching selections, etc. But you seem to have a selective memory of the two seasons. You can’t tell me the seasons aren’t comparable. The similarities of the last two seasons have been posted many times, and they are obviously available for you to look up yourself. But to make it easy...

  • 2011: KU 45 - N.Illinois 42 (home). 2012: N. Illinois 30 - KU 23 (away)

  • 2011: TT 45 - KU 34 (home) • 2012: TT 41 - KU 34 (away)

  • 2011: KSU 59 - KU 21 (home) • 2012: KSU 56 - KU 16 (away)

  • 2011: OU 47 - KU 17 (home) • 2012: OU 52 - KU 7 (away)

  • 2011: ISU 13 - KU 10 (away) • 2012: ISU 51 - KU 23 (home)

  • 2011: Baylor 31 - KU 30 (home) • 2012: Baylor 41 - KU 14 (away)

  • 2011: MU 24 - KU 10 (neutral) • 2012: TCU 20 - KU 6 (home)

  • 2011: TAM 61 - KU 7 (away) • 2012: WVU 59 - KU 10 (away)

  • 2011: UT 43 - KU 0 (away) • 2012: UT 21 - KU 17 (home)

  • 2011: OSU 70 - KU 28 (away) • 2012: OSU 20 - KU 14 (home)

  • 2011: GTech 66 - KU 24 (away) • 2012: Rice 25 - KU 24 (home)

  • 2011: KU 42 - McNeese 24 (home) • 2012: KU 31 - SDSU 17 (home)

I tried to match up the non-repeat games with comparable games. These schedules are almost identical. Except in ’11 we almost beat Baylor with RGIII, then in ’12 we got ripped by Baylor. In ’11 we almost beat ISU on the road, and in ’12 we got embarrassed by ISU at home. Texas blew us out with a superior team in ’11. In ’12 we hung with one of the worst UT teams in recent memory, at home. Similar to OSU in ’11 with Weeden and Blackmon, in Stillwater, and against an inferior OSU team at home in ’12.

The only blowout from ’11 that wasn’t repeated in ’12 was @ GT. Instead we lost to Rice at home.

Offense - 2011: 22pts/game. • 2012 18pts/game

Defense - 2011: 44pts/game • 2012 36pts/game

Also, to say that Weis was dealt a worse hand than Gill doesn’t hold water. Gill had one fullback to start. Opurum. Weis had Sims, Pierson, Bourbon already in place. Gill had a mediocre OL with injuries to the best players. Weis had Hawk, Zlatnik and Gelli anchoring the left side. Gill recruited a highly ranked kicker that bombed when he got to Lawrence. Weis did not recruit a kicker at all. Gill lost his defensive coordinator to cancer treatment right before the season, Weis used his NFL connections to land Dave Campo. Gill brought Reggie Mitchell to coach the RBs. Weis wisely kept him in place.

Weis season #1 vs. Gill season #2 is at the very least, debatable. Just because you hate Turner Gill personally, doesn’t give credibility to your argument that Weis has put a better product on the field so far.

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

2011 was worse than 2012 by a whole lot. Of course Weis was dealt a worse hand by GILL himself. Gill destroyed the confidence of all those kids.

70-28 to 20-14 against Oklahoma State

Remember, Kansas was down 21-14 to Kansas State at the half in Manhattan a year ago. Yes, that was better than losing by 50 the second straight year at home.

Kansas took Texas Tech to OT in Lubbock, they beat us 45-34 in Lawrence the year before.

Are you sure you want to stand on your words?

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

Yeah, because you know, Texas went from a far superior team to being their worst in some time in one season, right? You reaching very far here.

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

Actually, Weis did recruit a kicker that is no the roster this year and had to sit out last year. Another plus one to me. You're -5 so far.

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

I don't hate Turner Gill, by the way. I was behind him until the second season and there was no noticeable improvement. There was far more improvement last year with a tougher schedule than the year before.

If you agree that Lew Perkins did this when he left, then you have to admit that Turner Gill was part of it. Perkins hired Turner Gill.

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

I also think you forget this, I watched the same games you did the last two years. Last year was a better season to watch than 2011.

I do remember that it took a TD pass in the final seconds against NIU at home and I also remember that LAST SEASON NIU went to the Orange Bowl, didn't they?

The only team Kansas played last year that didn't go to a Bowl was South Dakota State.

Turner Gill didn't play Heeney(2nd team all Big 12 last year).
Jake Love wasn't far behind Heeney.

James Sims went for a 1000 yards in 9 games last year, he didn't get to a 1000 in all 12 games in 2011. There are so many things that make last year a better season than 2011. I can keep going if you want, but that's only if you want to try reaching as far as you did this time.

Micky Baker 1 year, 8 months ago

Wichita State put Kansas on the map? Really?

actorman 1 year, 8 months ago

"Pierson, who now 5-foot-10 1/2, 172 pounds, said his dream playing weight would be 185-190.

It's funny, that would be my dream weight too. In fact I still dream of when I was at KU and used to weigh that ... I have taken Pierson's approach, though -- you know the one where he said he's going to keep eating.

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