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.

SPRING PRACTICE - PLAY OF THE DAY # 6 from Kansas Jayhawks on Vimeo.

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.

Daymond Patterson (15) finds an open hole for a 51-yard dash in the first quarter Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010 in the home opener Kansas against North Dakota State at Kivisto Field.

Daymond Patterson (15) finds an open hole for a 51-yard dash in the first quarter Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010 in the home opener Kansas against North Dakota State at Kivisto Field. by Kevin Anderson

According to, 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.

Running back Deshaun Sands (36) leaps over Missouri's Andrew Gachkar (6) for some short yards in the second half. Kansas and Missouri met at Arrowhead Stadium Saturday for the 119th game in the rivalry series.

Running back Deshaun Sands (36) leaps over Missouri's Andrew Gachkar (6) for some short yards in the second half. Kansas and Missouri met at Arrowhead Stadium Saturday for the 119th game in the rivalry series. by Richard Gwin

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.

Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David stops Kansas running back James Sims during the third quarter, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David stops Kansas running back James Sims during the third quarter, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. by Nick Krug

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.


WoolyMammoth 7 years ago

Its hard to establish a running game if your offensive line cant block! Hopefully the line can stay healthy this year.

beenahawk 7 years ago

Nice run, decent blocking, but where the hell was the defenses outside containment?

burnedout 7 years ago

I'm glad i read your post first - it's almost exactly what i was going to say.

KGphoto 7 years ago

Not sold on the idea that the OL is only responsible for the first 4 yards. That said, those rankings, even if not totally accurate, are pretty staggering.

Darrian Miller definitely seems to possess the elusiveness and speed to ratchet those numbers up a bit for KU. From what I've seen, he's the best scatback Kansas has had since I don't even know when. Jake was quick and fast, but he was a little stiff, and didn't have the natural, dynamic athleticism or vision of a guy like Miller.

And, after reading this, I am even MORE upset about Bourbon's injury. I just hope he gets put back together right and somehow gets on the field this year. He has the sneakiest, smoothest speed. I'm dying to see him find a seam or a corner and just go.

Andy Tweedy 7 years ago

I guess I'll be shocked if Pierson ends up at running back, even with the injury to Bourbon. That kind of speed needs to be on the field, and there is so much depth at the RB position now. Personally, I think Sims is a decent back, but I've never really felt like he was the star in the making that some do. I could be wrong, but I'm hoping Smith and Miller tear it up this fall. I hate relying so heavily on freshmen, but they have the reputation of guys who can bring it. Sands never really seemed to add much value last year, but I do agree with Wooly that the OL has got to be better this year for any of this to matter much. I think it will!!!

Chris Bailey 7 years ago

I guess I don't worry so much about relying on Freshman at RB. I mean really the best running backs in the country seem to always be Fresh-Junior. Rarely do you see a stud that's a senior. Besides I'd rather rely on freshman with talent and potential than juniors and seniors with experience minus talent.

jaydee909 7 years ago

For a RB to break off a long run, they also need help from the wide receivers in downfield blocking. We were not very good at that last season. With Coach Beaty back, I am in hopes that this will improve.

Rivethead 7 years ago

This is the answer right here. Explosive runs down field almost always require good blocking from the WRs. And we haven't seen that for awhile (Kerry Meier, Dexton Fields and Marcus Henry were fantastic at this, IMHO).

With Coach Beaty back, I'm confident we'll see this area improve.

number1jayhawker 7 years ago

RB was one of three positions Mangino could not recruit. The other two, QB and OL.

He got lucky with Bill Whittemore and Todd dropped into his lap and even then nobody knew that Todd would turn out to be that good.

His best OL men were converted DL guys or TEs.

Rivethead 7 years ago

I disagree. Mangino had some bad luck with RB recruits (Donte Bean, Carmon Boyd-Anderson, and the #1 Juco RB in the country (who's name I can't recall)). But to say he couldn't recruit them is false.

Jon Cornish was a Mangino recruit who ended up being the leading rusher in the conference in 2006.

Jake Sharp was a Mangino recruit and a major recruiting victory as far as in-state talent goes.

And let's not forget that KU's leading rushers the last two season (Sims and Operum) were both Mangino recruits. Both are talented kids who ran behind horrible OLs.

number1jayhawker 7 years ago

The JUCO rb that you can't remember, because he fizzled out, was Jauqes Crawford.

Check on Cornish. He was recruited as a linebacker.

I like Jake Sharp, but he ended up a big disappointment.

Operum wanted to go to Purdue, but they and Notre Dame said he would have to play fullback. That's the only reason KU ended up with him, because KU said he could play rb.

Sims, the jury is still out on him. Liked what I saw out of him last year though. Also, he could have removed his verbal to KU but Gill and comapny did a good job of keeping him solid to KU.

Swamphawk 7 years ago


Can you clarify the formula for me a little... Do the runs within the 0-4 yard range still count as a carry? I would think they would need to be removed from the scenario to make the highlight runs average work at all. After all, if the running back gets no credit for going 0-4 then they should also not have it count against their average.

Dirk Medema 7 years ago

Jesse - There really is no additional explanation (beyond what you gave) at the link.

Swamphawk's point is very valid. If we're discussing "highlight yards", there should be no discussion of yards or plays inside of LOS+4. If a RB doesn't get credit for those first 4 yds (b/c they are about the OL), then they also shouldn't get blamed for an attempt that doesn't make it to the 5th yd. If the eval starts at the 5th yd, then discussion of the first 4 yds, and attempts therein, are just chaff.

Otherwise, it is like you and me racing with the winner claiming to be faster than someone that wasn't in the race.

BillConnelly1 7 years ago

I understand what you're saying, swamp, but not counting those carries minimizes the effectiveness of the measure. Let me use an extreme example:

  • Runner A carries the ball 10 times for 40 yards. He goes for exactly four yards every carry, meaning he takes only what the line gives him. It's 4.0 line yards per carry and 0.0 highlight yards per carry.

  • Runner B carries the ball 10 times for 40 yards. He goes for 31 yards in one carry and one in the other nine. The line gets credit for 7.5 yards in the 31-yarder and one on everything else. It's 1.65 line yards per carry and 2.35 highlight yards per carry.

By not counting shorter runs as carries, Player A would have a Highlight Yards Per Carry of N/A, Player B 23.5. That tells us almost nothing. Highlight Yardage tells us about two things: 1) explosiveness and, 2) when comparing to a runner's real yards per carry, how much of a player's averages were due to the line. Changing the definition to not include shorter carries tells us "what happens if they get to the second level?" and nothing more.

hiphopopotamus 7 years ago

Pretty interesting, Jesse.

What's the explanation on DeMarco Murray though? Outlier? Because I don't think I can find anyone that not only doesn't think of him as a good back, but also an explosive back. Between running, receiving and kick returns, he's had a pretty good size handful of 50+ yard touchdowns.

Jesse Newell 7 years ago

I would have to think he's lost some explosiveness because of his nagging injuries (hamstring, ankle and knee, IIRC). show him having just one 40-plus yard run last year; seven Big 12 players had at least two 40-plus-yard runs last year.

hiphopopotamus 7 years ago

I agree with this whole post...but this stat just doesn't do much for me. Between my question and the one above - about not factoring in those yards, but still punishing them for those carries - this seems pretty flawed. I think a stat like this is necessary, but they need to refine it a bit before it tells us much.

JJHAWK 7 years ago

Maxhawk - your right! Insurance companies Government agencies Big league scouts Player/owner Arbitration boards radar guns coaches Somebody loses - its just that the who isn't always so clear.

KGphoto 7 years ago

That was really well put.

And it should be noted that running QBs like Martinez, are themselves, off the highlight-yard charts. Basically doubling the highest RB averages. So maybe we should just get one of those instead. It seems to be working all right for Nebraska. And it's almost weird that one of the all-time great running QBs is coaching a college team that doesn't utilize one.

Also, the stat doesn't take into account level of difficulty. It's gonna be a whole lot tougher for Sims to post a high number against the blackshirts, and easier for Helu to do it against KUs bad defense.

Once more, it doesn't take into account the style, or speed of the offensive design. I'd bet you my legs that Gill wants to grind out 1st downs to slow the game down. He would love every play to be a 4 yard run. At least until he can field a defense that can stop somebody.

Last point. Example really, of the last two points.

Central Florida has 3 RBs with more total highlight yards than any member of the Florida Gators. For one, they play a weaker schedule. Secondly, that's there style.

So while I would love to watch Miller bust out some highlight yards, I'd be happy with 4 yards, a cloud of dust, and a W.

justanotherfan 7 years ago

I think the thing this stat tells you is whether or not a guy gets caught from behind very often. Think about it, let's say you do stack the box, that will lead to a lot of short runs (0-4 yards). However, if a back breaks containment on a stacked box, he should break a long run because with both safeties up, once he gets past the LB level, there's no one else there. At that point, the stat is telling because instead of running for 10-12 yards like he would against a regular defense (that would be about where the safeties would come up and make the play or slow him down), a guy with speed is gone once he breaks that second level because he doesn't get caught from behind. Really, that's what this stat is about - what happens after the second level. Does a guy get caught, or does he pull away.

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