Why James Sims shouldn't be a workhorse running back for KU in 2013

"Why is James Sims a good running back?"

James Sims.

James Sims. by Jesse Newell

If I asked the average Kansas football fan that question, my guess is that I would get two main responses.

• In only nine games in 2012, Sims was second in the Big 12 with 1,013 rushing yards.

• Sims led the Big 12 in 2012 with 112.6 rushing yards per game.

At face value, those feats are impressive. Still, we need to give them the proper context.

Though it is true that Sims only played nine games in 2012, did you know he was still second in the league in carries (218)? Sims averaged 24.2 rushes per game a year ago, while no other back in the league had more than 22.

This greatly impacts how we should look at his numbers.

Out of the Big 12 running backs who played in 75 percent of their team's games and had at least four carries per game, Sims ranked 18th out of 23 with a 4.65-yard-per-carry average last year.

Yards per carry doesn't tell us everything, though. My favorite running back stat is an advanced one called Adjusted Points Over Expected, or Adjusted POE for short. The number compares the production of a running back to an average back given the same carries against the same opponents with the same offensive line. A runner with a plus-6.0 Adjusted POE would have created a touchdown more for his team over that of an average back.

Here's how Sims compared to other Big 12 non-quarterbacks in Adjusted POE a year ago.

2012 Adjusted POE for Big 12 non-QBs.

2012 Adjusted POE for Big 12 non-QBs. by Jesse Newell

While the top of the list has names we'd expect (Lache Seastrunk, Tavon Austin, Tony Pierson), Sims is nowhere to be found, as he ranks 48th out of 50 Big 12 non-QBs a year ago.

To be fair, having so many carries probably allowed Sims to go further into the negative than some other backs. On the flip side, some of these players probably had their carries limited when they weren't giving better production.

Sims doesn't rank much better in Adjusted POE in his two previous years at KU.

KU's 2011 Adjusted POE leaders.

KU's 2011 Adjusted POE leaders. by Jesse Newell

2010 Adjusted POE leaders.

2010 Adjusted POE leaders. by Jesse Newell

His freshman year was his best in the measure, and even then, he produced below what would have been expected from an "average" back.

The biggest issue for Sims appears to be that his lack of speed keeps him from breaking off big runs.

Looking at the raw numbers, we might not see that from the number of "explosive" runs in 2012.

KU's explosive runs in 2012.

KU's explosive runs in 2012. by Jesse Newell

Again, those numbers above need more context. Remember, Sims had more opportunities for big runs (228 carries) compared to his teammates (Pierson had 117 carries; Cox had 91).

Breaking it down further, let's take a look at how many explosive runs each player had a season ago per 25 carries ... or roughly one game of being a workhorse back.

KU explosive runs per 25 carries.

KU explosive runs per 25 carries. by Jesse Newell

In this measure, Sims doesn't even appear to be as strong as Cox in explosive runs, especially in 10-plus-yard plays. Cox doesn't appear to be an explosive back either, but given the same opportunities, the numbers show he might be able to put up the same sort of line (or even slightly better) than Sims.

Ben Lindbergh wrote a great piece on Derek Jeter earlier this week, talking about how the eye test and defensive metrics don't agree on Jeter's defensive abilities. It's hinted in there that perhaps, because Jeter's a great player and his jump-throw from the hole at shortstop has become famous, that as humans we start to see what we want to see with his ability instead of what's actually there.

It made me wonder if we're doing the same thing with Sims. Are we noticing his great vision because we assume his high-yardage totals make him a great running back? Are we ignoring his lack of speed because he seems to move a pile a couple extra yards each game?

On a personal note, I like Sims. He's a nice guy and is respected by his teammates to the point that he was named a team captain.

He talked to me at Big 12 media days about working hard in the summer to improve his speed, and maybe we saw a glimpse of that when Sims had a 62-yard touchdown run in a team scrimmage a couple weeks ago. He also talked about how he likes to clip articles from people who doubt him next to his bed — and I'm sure I might be making an appearance soon.

The numbers are the numbers, though. Sims has lots of room to improve, and if he isn't going to break big runs, he needs to be even better at squeezing out extra yards on the shorter ones.

Either way, KU coach Charlie Weis shouldn't be looking to make Sims his workhorse back this year. With the talent he has at the running back position with Cox, Darrian Miller and Colin Spencer (and the versatility of Pierson), the coach shouldn't hesitate to get fresh legs into the game.

Given the opportunity, those backs have the potential to give KU better production than they've received from that spot the past few years.

More from Jesse Newell

  • Examining grips with KU's Jake Heaps, Michael Cummings
  • Charlie Weis should embrace risk with this year's Jayhawks
  • How does KU basketball rank compared to other blue bloods in terms of playing fast?
  • Ranking the top 10 dunks of 2012-13
  • How a fingertip, a late rotation and a great player contributed to Michigan's frantic comeback over KU
  • ;


    pizzashuttle 7 months, 2 weeks ago

    Well at least it's a more interesting article than the puff piece about long snapping. I prefer Weis analysis on Sims (from the LJW), “He can run inside and he can run outside and he can pick up the blitz,” “He can run and he can catch. I don’t know what he can’t do. Does he run sub-4.5 (second 40-yard dash time)? No. But he’s a really, really good player. And if you’re a really, really good player here, there’s a better than even chance that you’re going to have a chance to be a really good player (in the NFL). His football will not end next year when he finishes up his senior year. His football will continue.”


    Dirk Medema 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Thanks for the article Jesse. It is rather funny to see so many turning your observation of an advanced statistic into a personal attack - and a few (many?) doing it without even having a clue what the statistic is or taking the time to go to the link. The adjusting of the metric should even have taken into consideration the fact that Sims didn't play against the non-con, higher yardage foes. One of the "what-ifs" that would seem unfair is to say, "What if Pierson got as many carries as Sims?" That is a physical impossibility, because Tony doesn't have the physicality to handle the advance reps. Sims' strength and durability is part of his physical make-up. Tony's "what-if" is the ying to asking what if Sims had Tony's speed. Also unrealistic. Darrian Miller would seem to be one of the big variables this year. He was starting to steal reps as a true freshman. My guess is that a year off will require some time to shake off the rust. Thanks again for continuing to be an objective number-nerd, even if others look down on you for it.


    Max Ledom 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    I find this article very annoying. Yes, discredit our only star player Jesse. Smart move.


    Jim Stauffer 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    I think this stat favors a player like Pierson who usually runs in situations where there is a greater element of surprise and greater opportunity to get into open space.

    Guys like Sims are often called on to get a yard to move the sticks. Put Pierson in the tailback position and have him run it 20 times per game and you will need another tailback by the time conference games roll around.

    There are things more valuable than just this stat. Sims is an excellent blocker as well. All around backs rarely have the yards per carry that specialists do.

    I think this stat is largely irrelevant. Even though it can be useful it should not be the be all end all in determining who should get the ball the majority of the time.


    TexiCaliHawk 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    As they say, there are 3 kinds of Lies: 1) Lies, 2) Damn Lies and . . . 3) 'Statistics!'

    Folks, there are simply WAAAY too many variables/moving parts to draw this type of definitive conclusion. Unfortunately, it's not a true 'scientific' exercise as many other posters have pointed out; rather it amounts to nothing more than mental masturbation that makes for an interesting read (at best).

    Those of us who watched most, if not all, of KU's games last year could clearly 'see' who the premier running back was . . . James Sims -- with the other backs mentioned playing roles suited to their respective skill sets and game situations.

    Yes, Jaybate is right . . . 'Strategy' plays a huge role in the outcome of events. 'Statistics' represent the results of those outcomes and, in some cases, can indeed help predict future events and outcomes; however, ONLY if the information collected is used properly.

    Otherwise, you might have an explorer who sets out to find India and ends up discovering . . . the Bahamas!

    Anxious to see how this season plays out as we ended up very one-dimensional last year -- with Heaps an upgrade at QB (Please!) and more/better Receivers to throw to (who can catch?), a stable of high quality RB's (inside/outside runners and pass catchers out of the backfield or slot) and more imaginative sets/play calls, we should be much more difficult to defend this year to where Mr. Sims doesn't HAVE to be a 'workhorse' -- I think that really is the whole point, right?

    F.O.E. > P.O.E.


    leonard 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Good effort as usual, Jesse...but...

    This was a really labored attempt to create a situation and then find the numbers to back it up. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy statistics as much as anyone but many times they can lead you down a blind alley...irrationally leading to conclusions that defy reality.

    In all sports there are players who transcend the numbers and that's especially true in football. They're simply called "football players".

    Yep, just plain old ordinary football Ben Heeney. Coach Kumbayah didn't like his numbers...too small, too slow, yada yada yada. When given his chance all he did was become one of the top tacklers in the conference.

    James Sims is a football player...period.


    Micky Baker 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    There isn't a "suggest removal" button for the articles, but I'd suggest removal of this article.


    Chris Bailey 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    I don't have time to read a book on here Jaybate. Your stuff is good but just sum it up.

    The more I think about what Jesse wrote the more I'm seeing what he means. And I agree that Pierson, Cox and Bourbon all probably carry the ball in all different situations and their turn comes to run on each down. So thinking about that it's possible this is correct. But allowing Pierson, Cox or Bourbon to run it 25 times a game I'm not sure any could handle that workload either. No way Pierson or Bourbon could. So the best option is Sims. Hope they mix it up alot this year and with adding in Miller that should spell sims more and allow him to not get so tired.


    Richard Benson 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    As a devoted reader of Journal-World Sports for a great many years, I cannot help but comment that the data Mr. Newell runs down here amount to a bunch of numbers full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Like others who go to games on Saturdays, I know what I have seen. And it's not about numbers. (Although the big picture is that Mr. Newell's seeing-eye tour through his cherry-picked obscure statistical matrixes is --after all-- on its face self-admittedly Mr. Newell's attempt to explain away Sims's huge numbers.)

    Like Mr. Newell, I hope Mr. Sims doesn't play much this year. That would mean someone else is having a year so historic as to erase Jayhawk memories of Gayle Sayers and John Riggins. Actually, I hope it is Mr. Sims that has that historic year.


    jaybate 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    First, wrong, or right, it's great you're using QA on the problem.

    Second, it would be good for you next to take some game theory and some strategy classes.

    Strategic choice tendency sometimes explains QA statistical outliers better than ability.

    Sims likely was being given the ball a lot, because he was thought to be the back most likely to get a few yards between the tackles without a hole without fumbling. Weis would make this seeming sub optimizing running choice (relative to his other more explosive backs) for two reasons:

    1) because his offensive line can rarely open holes to get explosive backs room to run; and

    2) to maximize his chances of getting into passing mode, where he sees a better risk/return trade/off.

    Most coaches with a passing philosophy use the run to keep a defense from cheating toward stopping the pass, not to maximize running productivity in yards/carry.

    And when they have a weak offensive line and an immobile QB, then they run more than they like to shield their QB as much as possible. But running more with a weak line makes them put more emphasis on using a back that can take punishment, get a yard or two, and not fumble. The goal is still to use the run to create a passing situation from which to take risk.

    The strategic reason the more explosive backs on KU are hugely more explosive is that they are being used to explode situationally; I.e., used in situations where Weis thinks he can spring them, not for grind it out duty where they would fumble more and get him a couple yards the hard way less frequently, despite breaking a few that Sims won't.

    KU's explosive backs are also free riding a bit on the defense's tendency to scheme to stop the pound it out and pass tendency, which would change were Weiss to change to more explosive running plays and backs.

    If KU's line sharply improves, then a more explosive running game can be pursued.

    Talent is often the cause of strategy.

    Statistics are a cascade of the strategy chosen because of the talent.


    Micky Baker 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    There is no doubt that Sims should be the work horse. Let's face it, if it had been 2007 when all phases of the offense were working, Sims would have had around 20 TDs and maybe on a few less carries and he would have a bigger yards per rush average. The running game was the only thing that worked consistently last year and he was up against a stacked box. This is quite simply a story that was written just to fill some space, and it shouldn't have been published.


    Mark Lindrud 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Wouldn't it make a difference if we passed more? Jesse, I am curious how many times we passed compared to ran the ball last year. I am curious if the success of the running game improves with a better passing attack. I would expect that to be the case, which should lead to less situations with 8 men in the box.

    Also, with the variety of skill sets we will have this year I bet Sims will average less carries per game, but his yards per carry may increase because the pressure will be off of him. An improved offense is vital to the success of this season.


    Sparko 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    This was one of the worst bits of analysis I have seen in some time. Sims also played the most downs against bowl teams of any RB, and was the only threat many days--especially after injuries to others.


    Glen Grunz 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Goodness where did you learn statistical analysis. For instance your "POE" the key here is expected how was that number generated, what was the population, what parameters were set for inclusion in this population, and most significantly what is the standard deviation. There is quite a trend going in sports today promoting all these metrics (statistics) as the mecca of player evaluation. Since most of the general population has very little understanding of the statistical models and the underlying probability models these numbers can be quite compelling. Alas many of these metrics come under the heading of figures don't lie but liars figure. No I don't think you are a liar but you may well have been taken in by clever numbers comparisons that have no established validity or reliability. In short those tables you have put up may indeed hold significant information but lacking some very important information regarding these table they are essentially statistical blag-blah. G


    Charles Logan 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    I think some of you are missing the point. Did you notice that at the top of almost Every category was TONY PIERSON? And second was Cox. Pierson was injured last year, and that slowed him down a little. Cox kind of got the shaft after Sims came back. Pierson is the explosive big play maker. These charts show that. Cox is a hard strong runner that can carry defenders as well as Sims. We saw Miller running over people AS A FRESHMAN. Just think of how good he could be now. What Jesse is saying is that these other guys have proven their worth. The numbers show it. With 228 carries last year Pierson would have been number 1. With 228 carries Cox could have been number 1. Jesse is not being negative. I agree with what he is saying. What he is saying is give them all the ball. We have the players. Miller, and Cox can be just as effective in goal line situations as Sims.


    Kip_McSmithers 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Also take into account which teams Sims played against vs which teams that Cox, Bourbon, and Beshears played against. And I'm not only talking about which games (SDSU <-- our one win, Rice, & TCU), but which string. James played against all of the oppositions first team defense. When in the game did Cox, Bourbon, and Beshears get their carries? Was it against Oklahoma's first team D or against their 3rd string D?


    Jim Stauffer 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Jesse, I think you are crazy, man.


    bville_hawk 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Mark Twain once said that "Statistics are like ladies of the evening. Once you get them down you can do anything you want with them..."


    texashawk10 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Jesse, do you have any kind of breakdown for what Sims numbers looked like as his carry attempts got higher because it usually seemed like he was a back that got better with more carries because he would wear defenses out.


    BayPark 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    He should be the workhorse because between the tackles--where you still need to be able to run to win in any football league--he's the best we got. If he were on any other Big-12 team last year, his stats would look a lot different. My gosh, James Sims was one of only a few legit D-1 players we had last year. Without him, we would have been blown out every game. It bothers me to disparage a really good player based on numbers that don't factor in all the variables.


    Doug Cramer 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Darian Miller is the best running back on this team...and I think Bourbon is better than what folks think. Not to take anything away from Sims...because he's consistent and he never gets hurt. Sims is as durable as they come...but from a raw phyical talent standpoint...Miller has him beat.


    mikehawk 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    They have a saying out in western Kansas...It goes something like..."you can ride a good horse to death."


    Eliott Reeder 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Tough crowd today, eh Jess? Thanks for the Friday afternoon read!!!


    Keith Hummel 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    I think the salient point to take from this article is this: As good as James Sims is, and he's pretty darn good, he isn't superman. He can't do it all himself. The more they are able to spread the load the better this team will do. That said, I believe he is still clearly the best all-around back we have.


    Micky Baker 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    I don't agree. Sims should be. It was not his fault the team wasn't in scoring position enough times. I think this article misses reality in a big way.


    AzHawk97 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    "Again, those numbers above need more context. Remember, Sims had more opportunities for big runs (228 carries) compared to his teammates (Pierson had 117 carries; Cox had 91)."

    Wouldn't you have to subtract carries inside the D's 30, 20, and 10 yard lines where there are no opportunities for runs that meet the explosive criteria? So if we adjust the carries for this, would it look any different?


    David Leathers 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Yea I don't care what advanced statistics you pull up, Sims does things in games that you can't teach. His vision, toughness, and ability to run no matter how many defenders are in the box is uncanny. I hope Heaps can live up to expectations so that Sims can get his chance to run without the defense knowing what is coming.

    No matter how you put it, Sims is one good season away from being the all-time leading rusher at KU.


    orbiter 7 months, 3 weeks ago


    My, my, my, aren't you grouchy!

    It's just stats and analysis. Sims is fast, but he doesn't have world class breakaway speed, like Tavon Austin or Pierson. Sure, he has broken through defenses, but there is no need to pretend he has that type of speed. It doesn't take away the fact he is arguably the top RB in the Big 12.

    Projections aren't reality, by definition. Take a calming bath, "dude".


    d_bradley27 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    When you're a one dimensional team Jesse, what do you expect?? The box was stacked nearly every play. And to suggest Sims doesn't have speed.... why don't you load the Okie State game (see pic) and watch how many defenders he was running away from all game. This article is somewhat of a joke dude and I don't say that lightly as I usually enjoy your stuff. The "numbers" can be spun to say anything.


    qringer 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    Oh ya - and thanks for nothing James...


    B0B 7 months, 3 weeks ago

    where did you mention that he was getting his numbers against 8 or 9 in the box?


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