Though Les Miles is about to make his Kansas football debut without the program’s most talented offensive player, the head coach is neither ready to abandon hope nor drastically alter his game plan for the season opener.
In fact, it doesn’t seem like Miles expects the absence of suspended running back Pooka Williams Jr. to sway the Jayhawks’ offensive capacity against Indiana State much at all.
Miles’ belief in the rushing abilities of senior Khalil Herbert and junior Dom Williams fortifies his stance.
“We are fortunate that we are talented in that spot,” Miles said of playing Week 1 without sophomore Pooka Williams, who is serving a one-game suspension for his offseason arrest and domestic battery charge. “Khalil Herbert is a guy that will play some very significant roles. And there’s Dom Williams, as well. These guys are veteran guys.”
Indeed, before Pooka Williams turned into a go-to skill player as a true freshman for Kansas in 2018, Herbert and Dom Williams projected as major factors for the offense.
On this week's episode of the KU Sports Hour, Matt Tait, Benton Smith, Shane Jackson and Braden Shaw talk all things related to the KU football opener and offer their game predictions and season predictions for the Jayhawks in 2019.
The upperclassmen expect to get many opportunities to showcase their talents versus Indiana State (11 a.m., FOX Sports Net). Herbert, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound senior from Coral Springs, Fla., said the running backs intend on giving the offense “a spark,” even without the team’s All-Big 12 rusher.
“Putting the team on our backs is what we pride ourselves on,” Herbert said. “So just a spark, make plays, get in the end zone.”
The season opener is accompanied by anticipation for all players, but Dom Williams, a 5-10, 200-pound junior from McKinney, Texas, said he and Herbert are excited about being put in position to give the offense even more than usual.
“It’d be nice to have Pooka,” Dom Williams said. “But it kind of lets us see what we can do. And then once he gets back it will be even better.”
The Jayhawks, you may recall, also played their 2018 opener without Pooka Williams — on that occasion due to an unspecified “nondisciplinary” matter.
According to Herbert, their suspended teammate, like he did a year ago, has challenged his fellow running backs to perform well without him.
“We already know what we’ve got to do,” Herbert said. “He’s going to be there cheering us on.”
Playing without Pooka Williams didn’t go so well for KU a year ago, when the Jayhawks dropped their home opener to Nicholls in overtime. Then head coach David Beaty and his staff only ran the ball with Herbert and Dom Williams a combined 18 times (for 96 yards) in the loss to Nicholls.
With Miles’ history of building offenses around running backs, it’s difficult to picture a similar approach playing out for Herbert and Dom Williams this time around.
While the head coach long has warned his players not to reveal details about KU’s offense, Herbert didn’t mind sharing that he expects the Jayhawks will show commitment to their rushing attack, based on what’s transpired during the team’s closed practices.
“You could expect a lot of things really. We’re going to run the ball a lot,” Herbert said. “I know that. But it’s a lot of stuff that we put into the offense. You’ll see come the season.”
Playing less featured roles in 2018, Herbert finished with 499 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while Dom Williams added 231 rushing yards. Both expect to be given chances to provide more offensively this season.
In Week 1 in particular, they hope to highlight their strengths.
“We’re both just very physical backs,” Dom Williams said. “And we can both kind of do it all — block, catch, just everything. And probably some of the differences are he's probably like a more fluid type of runner and I’m more like patient.”
Herbert’s scouting report of his teammate proved more generous.
“Oh, you know Dom,” the senior said. “Slashing, hard runner. He’s shown it through fall camp, running through people, breaking tackles, running over people.”
The two veterans say they don’t mind splitting carries because it keeps their legs fresh. They also think watching each other from the sideline will prove helpful.
If Herbert delivers a big play while Dom Williams is out, or vice versa, the junior rusher said that makes the observer want to duplicate his teammate’s success more.
“It's like a friendly competition,” Dom Williams said, “to see who could do better.”
Both of them might get to watch another back, freshman Velton Gardner, together at times versus the FCS No. 16-ranked Sycamores, when it isn’t either of their turns to contribute.
Herbert said KU’s running backs are striving to be the strength of the offense. And the way Miles talked, he might want that for them, too.
“I think you’ll find,” KU’s head coach predicted about playing without Pooka Williams, “that we have very capable backs and backs that look forward to rushing the ball.”