"Why is James Sims a good running back?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.