As the start of the college football season inches closer by the minute, here at KUsports.com and the Lawrence Journal-World we are counting down to kickoff by each day revealing a new KU player on Benton Smith’s list predicting the top 11 Jayhawks for the 2019 season.
Les Miles will lead the Kansas football team onto the field for the first time on Aug. 31 versus Indiana State.
Dating back to early in his sophomore season, when he put together back-to-back massive rushing games, Khalil Herbert’s potential at running back has tantalized Kansas football fans.
On the best days of his first three seasons, Herbert has registered:
• 137 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns at Ohio (2017)
• 291 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns versus West Virginia (2017)
• 91 rushing yards versus Iowa State (2018)
But for most of the previous three years, his carries on a game to game basis have been limited — especially for a player who enters his senior year averaging 4.9 yards per carry in 31 career games.
Herbert, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound rusher from Coral Springs, Fla., still won’t be KU’s featured back this year — that job will belong to Pooka Williams once the sophomore returns to the lineup in Week 2, after serving his one-game suspension as part of his punishment for a domestic battery charge.
Still, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Herbert becomes a fixture of KU’s offense as a primary backup. Last year, as a junior, he carried the ball 113 times for 499 yards and five touchdowns. But he could conceivably outperform all of those numbers this year if the offense relies as heavily on its running backs as it seems the Jayhawks will.
“I can’t imagine that Herbert won’t be a guy that vies for playing time,” head coach Les Miles said. “Being the solid guy that he is, he anticipates an agile cut well before many. And can bounce into a cut and out of a cut in a heartbeat.”
At times the past couple of years, Herbert seemed like a bit of an afterthought for KU’s offense for some reason, despite his flashes. It doesn’t look like that will be the case now that Miles is in charge, and has Les Koenning coordinating the offense.
“Today I saw him run in between a blocker and a defender — like in between them,” Miles told reporters earlier this week, following a KU preseason practice. “The blocker and defender were in contact. And he ran in between them. And I’m just saying, guys that have that kind of vision will play on Sundays. I think he’s going to be pretty special.”
Those words won’t soon be lost on Herbert, who has one year of college football left.
“It means the world that he believes in me, just being able to play at the next level. But I just take it as I have more work to do and keep working,” Herbert said. “It’s a childhood dream and it’s right there, so I just have to do my job. Do what I’m coached to do and I think it will be possible.”
Before his final season at KU is completed, Herbert, like many seniors before him, would like to help the program bust out of its losing rut. He said his goals for 2019 include: winning, going to a bowl game and leading the Big 12 in rushing.
Those are all lofty and may prove unattainable. But Herbert should be the best version of himself that KU has seen so far. And the senior running back said he has improved aspects of his game since the end of last year, too.
“I feel like my blocking and just running through tackles, running hard, breaking tackles,” Herbert said of ways in which he is more effective now. “That’s something I’ve really tried to work on and feel like I’ve done.”
Predicting the top Jayhawks for 2019 season
In a turnover-free Big 12 opener at Baylor on Saturday, the Kansas football team put together too few highlights on either side of the ball to keep up with the Bears in a 26-7 defeat.
One 90-yard scoring drive was the exception rather than the rule for KU’s offense, and the Jayhawks (2-2 overall, 0-1 conference) didn’t come close to crawling out of a 23-point first-half hole.
And though redshirt senior linebacker Joe Dineen delivered 13 total tackles, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries, the defense as a whole too often suffered breakdowns, and surrendered 447 yards, a season-high for a KU opponent.
Here are five statistics that kept Kansas from truly competing with Baylor.
Not enough support from passing game
The Bears (3-1, 1-0) knew the Jayhawks would like nothing more than to feature freshman running back Pooka Williams as much as possible, and the Bears game-planned accordingly.
But KU never forced BU to adjust its run-stopping defense with an effective passing attack.
Senior quarterback Peyton Bender completed 10 of his 17 throws, but a whopping seven of his completions picked up seven yards or fewer. Another completion — a touchdown pass to Jeremiah Booker — went for 10 yards.
So, between seven incompletions and eight completions of 10 or fewer yards, 15 of KU’s passing plays with Bender in the game netted a combined 40 yards.
Keep in mind: not all of that goes on Bender. The offensive line has to provide better pass protection and receivers have to find more opportunities to get open and bring in catchable passes in order for this offense to reach its ceiling.
Finding balance in the backfield
The Bears reminded the Jayhawks that even Pooka Williams can’t do everything.
While the talented freshman from Louisiana was able to bust a 72-yard rush that set up KU’s lone TD, eight of his 14 carries went for three yards or fewer.
Some of that is to be expected, especially with a freshman playing his first Big 12 game and a still jelling O-line taking on the best front it has seen so far this season.
More surprising, though, was how little KU used its other two running backs. Junior Khalil Herbert carried the ball just twice for six yards. And sophomore Dom Williams also finished with only two runs, picking up two yards.
For the benefit of the running game and offense overall, KU likely needs to find ways to incorporate Herbert and Dom Williams more, while also relying heavily on Pooka Williams. It’s difficult to pull off such balance, particularly if a defense is keying on your run game and presenting matchups that lead you to pass more. But it’s something KU’s coaches will have to figure out.
On 55 plays at Baylor, one of KU’s top three running backs carried the ball on 18 snaps (33 percent).
3rd down struggles
Outside of a touchdown pass from Bender to Booker in the third quarter, the Jayhawks mostly struggled to convert on third downs.
Overall, just four of KU’s 13 third-down plays went for a first down. On average, the visitors had 8.8 yards to go on their third downs, adding to their plight. They only averaged 3.4 yards gained on third downs.
On third-and-short (one to four yards), KU was fine, picking up two of three — Pooka Williams ran for one in the second quarter and backup QB Miles Kendrick converted on a carry in the third.
However, on third-and-longs (nine-plus yards), KU went two for six. Although the Jayhawks converted six of eight passes on third downs, they averaged just 1.3 yards per attempt and were also sacked three times.
Conversely, the Baylor offense’s 7-for-14 third-down success was fueled by gaining, on average, 9.4 yards on third down.
Long fields ahead
KU started every possession at least 75 yards from the end zone.
On average, thanks to Baylor’s kickoff and punt teams, the Jayhawks’ average starting field position was their own 17-yard line.
On KU’s 11 drives, one concluded with a score and seven possessions traveled fewer than 20 yards. Only four series ventured into Baylor territory.
The Jayhawks went three-and-out on four possessions and punted seven times.
Baylor’s offense, on 11 drives, had no three-and-outs.
Carter Stanley’s late-game reps
Given the context of the game essentially being over and Baylor not having incentive to play all of its first-stringers, it’s difficult to know how Carter Stanley would have performed if he played earlier in the game.
Still, the redshirt junior at times looked both comfortable and effective, once he took the field with less than six minutes remaining at McLane Stadium.
A shoulder injury kept Kendrick from handling KU’s final two possessions. In his place Stanley completed four of his six passes for 37 yards and rushed three times for 27 yards (second-best total on the team).
On his first series, Stanley made two short completions to Kerr Johnson, but suffered a second-down sack. KU went three-and-out.
The final possession began in the last minute of the fourth quarter, and Stanley hit Evan Fairs for 20 yards and Booker for 10 yards through the air. He also took off for rushes of 18 and 15 yards. KU went 63 yards in six plays before time ran out.
There’s no word yet on the extent of Kendrick’s injury. But if he happens to miss some time, KU knows it has another QB it can use in Stanley.
And, let’s face it, even though Bender has started all four games it’s not as if anyone would consider his status a lock going forward. Should Stanley see more playing time in upcoming weeks and give the offense a spark, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him move up the depth chart.
Kansas football’s offensive coaches think they have three perfectly capable running backs , all effective in their own way and all viable threats to break open a drive with a big play.
But junior Khalil Herbert just might prove to be the strongest and most complete back in the bunch.
With 19 games of experience behind him, including two monster outings as a sophomore, when he combined for 428 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in a two-week span, the 5-foot-9, 210-pound upperclassman possesses the potential to be the most explosive player on the offense.
An injury during the fifth game of his second college season mostly derailed Herbert the remainder of 2017, and he finished the year with 663 rushing yards and the 4 aforementioned TDs.
A healthy Herbert, though, could easily surpass all of those totals this fall, even while splitting reps and touches with Dom Williams and Pooka Williams.
Herbert figures to be KU’s true do-it-all running back. His powerful legs have shown burst before, so you know he can run off tackle, turn a corner and bust a long rush. But coaches also think he can catch the ball. And in short-yardage situations, he’ll be the one trusted to lower his shoulder and deliver on an old fashioned carry up the middle.
He can slash when he needs to and has the mass to make him tough to tackle.
If KU is ready to embrace its running game behind a revamped offensive line, Herbert could be on the verge of a breakout year.
KU hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since James Sims, in 2013. After averaging 5.5 yards per carry as a sophomore on 120 attempts, maybe a healthy Herbert is the one to break that streak.
— Check out the rest of the MVP countdown at Tom Keegan’s Lunch Break blog: Nos. 6-25
In 2016, a rebuilding Kansas football team put a far more sound defense on the field than it did the year before, in head coach David Beaty’s first season. Still, KU’s offense couldn’t produce enough first downs or scoring drives to keep the Jayhawks competitive for much of the season. This coming fall, the Kansas offense will look a lot different. And it should be far more productive.
Over the next several days at KUsports.com, we will highlight some of the spring indications that signal better days ahead for the KU offense.
No one who watched Kansas football the previous two years would characterize the team’s running back production or depth as a strength. That could change this fall.
Before spring football began, it seemed reasonable to think KU’s starting running back might not even be on campus this semester. The headliner of Beaty’s 2017 high school recruiting class, after all, is four-star running back Dom Williams. The 5-foot-9 dynamo from Frisco, Texas, won’t report to Lawrence until the summer. What’s more, three-star junior college running back Octavius Matthews will officially join the roster at the same time.
This past fall, neither Taylor Martin (91 carries, 324 yards, four touchdowns) nor Khalil Herbert (44 carries, 189 yards, three touchdowns) showed enough to prove they should enter 2017 at the top of the depth chart. However, this spring both looked far more intriguing, exhibiting flashes as players who need to touch the ball and make an impact on offense.
During KU’s spring game, Herbert, a 5-foot-9 sophomore, displayed the speed and power he rarely got to show off as a true freshman due to a toe injury that slowed him down. On one fourth-and-1 play early on, Herbert made a slight, swift cut to avoid a head-on tackle and his muscular frame powered him through the contact for nine yards and a first down.
Herbert also helped create one of the more impressive offensive plays of the open scrimmage that Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Lined up to the left of quarterback Peyton Bender in the backfield, the promising back from Coral Springs, Fla., took a screen pass in the right flat, with center Hunter Saulsbury and right guard Larry Hughes hustling out in space to block for him.
As an aside: KU’s offensive linemen actually look more like Big 12 O-linemen now. Big guys with the ability to move their feet and execute blocks. Saulsbury (filling in for banged-up Mesa Ribordy) and Hughes did a nice job on this play, as they teamed up with tackles Hakeem Adeniji and Charles Baldwin and sophomore left guard Malik Clark.
Back to Herbert. Bender’s pass was a little high due to some QB pressure from All-Big 12 defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr., but Herbert made the grab look simple and then used key blocks from Saulsbury and Hughes to create a 26-yard gain. Going right-to-left off the blocks, he shot out of the running lane after a great cutback.
Speaking of impressive reads and reactions on the run, Martin, a speedy 5-10 junior from Fort Worth, Texas, made one early on in the spring game, too. Martin was headed right out of the backfield and could see the defensive line penetrating at the point he planned to attack. With one cut to the left Martin re-routed and sped ahead for a nine-yard gain.
In the past, Martin got himself and the offense into trouble by trying to make too many jukes and cuts rather than utilizing his sprinter’s speed on straight-away paths. During the second quarter of the spring game Martin proved he has made strides to address those habits that he used to get away with in high school.
On one carry, Martin made the slightest cut left in the backfield to avoid a bunch of snarled linemen, only to tear ahead, spin off a would-be tackler and go eight more yards for a 12-yard pick-up. He got the offense half-way to another first down on the very next play by surveying his blocks and jetting through them after one necessary left-to-right juke to put himself in position.
On his longest carry of the scrimmage, Martin didn’t need to cut, spin, leap or zigzag. He just followed the O-line as it shifted to the right, creating a lane for him to show off his track speed, which Martin harnessed to reach the secondary level of the defense on a 13-yard carry. In particular, senior left guard Jayson Rhodes stood out as a blocker, getting over quickly to seal the left side of Martin’s running-lane chute to a first down.
It was only a spring game, and neither Herbert (six carries, 27 yards) nor Martin (seven rushes, 43 yards) dominated by any means in KU’s Air Raid offense. But they both looked like Big 12 backs capable of playing at a starting level this fall.
The competition between Bender and Carter Stanley to become KU’s starting quarterback has the most attention. But with Herbert, Martin, Williams and Matthews all vying to reach the top of the running backs depth chart, that will be an even more challenging battle.
Regardless of who emerges as the starter, KU looks to have its best stable of running backs in some time, and the Jayhawks should have no problem out-performing their 119.1 rushing yards a game from a year ago, which ranked ninth in the Big 12 and more than 40 yards a game behind eighth-place Iowa State.