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).


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.


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


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


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


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


actorman 12 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.


swinglow 12 months ago

It appears Weis has something to work with this year and that Ku might have a pretty good quarterback that will carry this team to a season that KU fans can stand to watch. Over the past few years, KU hasn't had anything to hang their hats on that looks to be a football team. Ku fans have had to look to basketball for some excitment to make them feel like they had a sports team, and that was not the case with the season filled with its embarrassments of up and downs. We all can look to this year of football to give us the feeling we are a sports college. Wichita State basketball really has put the state of Kansas on the map and Kansas ST. shows that the state has a powerhouse football college. Now, if Ku can put a football team on the field that can hold its own, then we can say that this state is a football state. Until then we rely on Weis to get us there. This might show that KU can hire a good coach and build a program, which couldn't be done after Mark Mangino.


jayhawkintx1973 12 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.


KGphoto 12 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.


Eliott Reeder 12 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?


Brad Farha 12 months ago

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


vd 12 months ago

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


NebraskaJayhawk 12 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.


jhox 12 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.


Michael Maris 12 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.


David Leathers 12 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.


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