KU football still desperately needs breakaway running back
The other day, I stumbled upon this video of Kansas freshman running back Darrian Miller's 40-yard touchdown run during a KU scrimmage this spring.
There was a reason it caught my attention: We haven't seen that type of run from KU in the last two seasons.
In 2009, KU's longest run by a running back was just 30 yards by Jake Sharp. That was the lowest mark in the conference, and Colorado (36) was the only other team whose longest running back run was in the 30s.
Amazingly, in 2010, KU was worse when it came to big runs. As Tom Keegan wrote earlier this week, the Jayhawks' longest run by a running back was just 28 yards by James Sims — again the worst mark in the conference.
To put that in perspective, Kansas State's Daniel Thomas had nine, 30-plus-yard runs all by himself last year.
KU's only run of more than 30 yards came from receiver Daymond Patterson, who had a 51-yard run way back in the first game against North Dakota State.
According to cfbstats.com, there were 22 Big 12 players that had two or more 30-yard runs last season.
Also, KU was one of only six Div. I teams (Bowling Green, Buffalo, KU, Minnesota, Washington State, New Mexico State) to have one 30-plus-yard run or fewer last season.
Those six teams, not surprisingly, combined to go 14-58.
Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, the answer for a breakout running back doesn't appear to be someone who played last year.
Last year, we looked at a statistic called "Highlight yards" to identify which KU backs were best at breaking long runs.
The statistic is created by Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall.
Here's a brief explanation.
In general, an offensive line is mostly responsible for the rushing yards near the line of scrimmage. After all, linemen can only move so far in a short period of time and can't continue their blocks way downfield.
Connelly created "highlight yards" to help take the offensive line's impact out of a running back's rushing totals. For "highlight yards," a running back is given no credit for a run of 0-4 yards, half-credit for any yards gained 5-10 yards downfield and full credit for any yards gained 11 yards or further downfield.
For example, a three-yard run gets no highlight yards. A 70-yard run gets 63 highlight yards (3 highlight yards for yards 5-10 of the run, then 60 highlight yards for yards 11-70 of the run).
Highlight yards, then, are a good judge of how explosive a back is and how much of his production came without the help of the offensive line blocking for him.
So how did the Jayhawks fare in 2010?
Connelly posted the final highlight yard totals over at Football Study Hall, and from there, I pulled out only the Big 12 players.
The list below is all the Big 12 non-quarterbacks ranked by highlight yards per carry (only rushers with at least 50 carries are included; the first number is the player's national rank in highlight yards/carry).
2010 Big 12 non-quarterback highlight yards/carry
22. Roy Helu Jr. Nebraska 3.19 highlight yards/carry
31. Jay Finley Baylor 2.99
50. Kendial Lawrence Missouri 2.75
62. Henry Josey Missouri 2.60
78. Cyrus Gray Texas A&M 2.43
124. Kendall Hunter Oklahoma State 2.09
129. Eric Stephens Texas Tech 2.07
130. Daniel Thomas Kansas State 2.06
132. Rex Burkhead Nebraska 2.05
133. De'Vion Moore Missouri 2.04
157. Joseph Randle Oklahoma State 1.87
162. Alexander Robinson Iowa State 1.85
208. Christine Michael Texas A&M 1.60
228. Roy Finch Oklahoma 1.49
244. Rodney Stewart Colorado 1.42
246. Foswhitt Whittaker Texas 1.39
260. Baron Batch Texas Tech 1.31
261. Cody Johnson Texas 1.31
270. DeMarco Murray Oklahoma 1.27
271. Mossis Madu Oklahoma 1.27
283. James Sims Kansas 1.22
290. Jeremy Smith Oklahoma State 1.20
324. D.J. Beshears Kansas 0.84
330. Deshaun Sands Kansas 0.76
343. Tre' Newton Texas 0.63
344. Angus Quigley Kansas 0.55
(347 Div. I players had at least 50 carries)
Amazingly, out of the 26 Big 12 running backs that had at least 50 carries, KU's backs took up four of the last six spots in highlight yards per carry.
Take out freshman James Sims, and KU's other three running backs all finished in the bottom 25 nationally in highlight yards per carry.
I asked Connelly to try to make sense of the numbers above.
"Well, the good news is, Beshears was young and Sims and Sands were super-young," Connelly said. "That said, the fact that they were so much lower than the rest of the conference is a warning sign.
"Looking at the last couple years of data, the only player I saw who averaged 1.20 highlight yards per carry or lower who ended up turning out all right was Tennessee's Montario Hardesty. But even he only averaged 1.52 per carry the next season.
"It's certainly a legitimate concern, as are most concerns regarding the Kansas offense."
Sims, who enters the spring as KU's top running back, appears to be a guy that gets a few more yards than you would expect on each play, though he probably doesn't have the speed to break away for 40- and 50-yard runs.
That means players like Miller, Rell Lewis, Brandon Bourbon (now injured), Dreamius Smith and even Anthony Pierson should come into fall camp trying to win the position of breakaway running back for the Jayhawks.
Two years already is too long to go without one.