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Thursday, September 1, 2022

As Kansas’ RBs draw ‘a lot of buzz,’ coaches enter season trying to keep them productive

Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) runs during the first half of an NCAA football basketball game against Kansas State Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) runs during the first half of an NCAA football basketball game against Kansas State Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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Devin Neal is aware of what Kansas' coaching staff has been able to achieve over the years with a strong rushing attack.

So, as he considers the situation the Jayhawks find themselves in this season, with five running backs whom they believe have the ability to be significant contributors, Neal can't wait to get back out on the field.

"I just think everybody's on the same page about what needs to be done for the team," said Neal, the Lawrence High grad who led Kansas in rushing last season as a freshman. "I think we're all just excited to see what we could do as a unit. There's a lot of buzz around this running backs room — and as an offense — and we're all excited about that."

As Kansas prepares to open its season Friday night at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium against Football Conference Subdivision opponent Tennessee Tech, considerable attention will be on the running backs — and not just because of how productive they all believe they could be.

Neal will join returning redshirt sophomore Daniel Hishaw Jr. and redshirt junior Torry Locklin, as well as redshirt sophomores Ky Thomas, a Topeka native and Minnesota transfer, and Sevion Morrison, a Nebraska transfer, in forming arguably the deepest offensive backfield in the Big 12.

Who plays, and what role each player takes and when, will be of interest not just in Week 1 but throughout the rest of coach Lance Leipold's second season.

And it will all be a strong indicator of whether Kansas can continue to make strides under Leipold and escape more than a decade of inability, ineffectiveness and, arguably, incompetence in the conference.

"With those types of backs that we have, not only can you play to your strengths, hopefully, but we're going to have other strengths on that offense," said Leipold, who oversaw a rushing offense that gained 139.3 yards per game last season, second worst in the Big 12. "If you're going to win football games and you have the lead, you've got to find a way to run the ball."

Leipold's team has always done that, whether he was racking up six Division III national championships in an eight-year span at Wisconsin-Whitewater or rebuilding Buffalo behind Jaret Patterson, one of the most prolific college running backs of the past decade.

But it's not just that they had great running backs. They have often had multiple quality running backs in the same season; in 2020, the year Patterson ran for 1,072 yards and 19 touchdowns in six games, overshadowed teammate Kevin Marks Jr. gained 741 yards with seven touchdowns.

And in 2014, Leipold's last season and last national title with the Warhawks, Dennis Moore ran for 1,107 yards and five touchdowns and Jordan Ratliffe gained 950 and nine.

"It's definitely big to have a running mate, or a few running mates, nowadays in your running back group to keep guys fresh," said Patterson, who teamed with Marks from 2018-20 and is now a running back with the Washington Commanders. "You'll have fresh legs down the stretch ... because this game comes with injuries and things like that."

Patterson earned national attention in 2020 when he rushed for 409 yards — the second-highest single-game total in FBS history — and eight touchdowns in a win against Kent State. A smaller, shifty, quick-footed back, he contrasted with Marks, a hard runner with more straight-line speed who was in training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Their dynamic resembled what UW-Whitewater had with Moore and Ratliffe, though their union was more a product of circumstance. Moore tore an ACL early in 2013, giving Ratliffe the opportunity to rush for a conference-leading 1,259 yards with nine touchdowns.

Moore, who often ran outside the tackles, returned the following season and shared carries with Ratliffe, a bigger back. Kept fresh by their division of snaps, they helped the Warhawks average 218.2 rushing yards per game.

"It all depends on the people," Ratliffe said. "It won't work if you get a guy who's on board and another guy who's unhappy because he feels like he should be get those runs. With Dennis and me, we had that understanding that we both were going to get playing time. That's what we wanted."

Because they were roommates, egos never got in the way. Moore recalled one occasion during that season when he took every carry during a lengthy possession and ran out of energy, only for Ratliffe to replace him and score a touchdown.

"(Kotelnicki's) mind is different when it comes to offense, and he had a plan for us and he always kept us confident," Moore said. "In talking to him, we always knew we were going to get ours together. There's never a point where I thought I was just going to take a back seat in a game. He made it work out that we both had a good amount of opportunity to do what we needed to do."

That's where the challenge lies this season for Kansas. The five running backs all have diverse playing styles: Neal's a bruiser, Thomas makes decisive cuts, Morrison is shifty, Hishaw is explosive and Locklin is a receiving threat, according to running backs coach Jonathan Wallace.

Conceivably, those differences mean the coaching staff could find a way to get them all involved in a game, though Moore believes it won't be long before Leipold or Kotelnicki decides who plays.

"At some point, (the coaches are) going to say, 'You can't roll with four backs,'" Moore said. "That's something you can't do. ... Hopefully, through the process of when they decide that, humbly, the person who doesn't get picked understands that the reason he didn't get picked was simply because someone was better."

Of course, the entire dilemma rests on whether the Jayhawks remain healthy, or that they are even in position to run the ball for much of the game. Conventional thinking dictates that the trailing team must throw the ball to gain more yardage and stop the clock in order to catch up; Kansas trailed its opponents frequently last season, though it still ran the ball 435 times with 319 pass attempts.

Leipold, though, has made it clear that a rushing attack is crucial for success, and Kotelnicki said the offense will always be tailored to the players' strengths.

This season, that appears to be the running game, regardless of which of the five players emerges to seize a lead role by the end of the season. And like the connections that Patterson and Marks shared, and Moore and Ratliffe, Neal can already tell that he and the other running backs will be supported.

"I still think everyone's still going to root for each other's success no matter how it's going to go," Neal said. "That's just the type of group we are. We're just all super tight with each other, and like I said, team is first for all of us."

Comments

Brett McCabe 2 months, 4 weeks ago

I do think that running backs need carries to get rhythm. It will be interesting to see what the real depth-chart is once the game starts.

Forever, we've been asking for a run game in order to shorten games and keep us in them. On paper, it looks like that is exactly what we have. Hope to see it on turf on Friday!

Dirk Medema 2 months, 4 weeks ago

A couple years ago, we had some early success when Pooka and Herbert were in the backfield together. I wonder if we’ll see many/any 2-back sets.

I’m also wondering what the o/u is for # of players taking significant snaps before it gets out of hand (3-4 scores)? I’m guessing it will be all of the 2-deep+ on D and close to the same on O.

In the end, it mostly needs to be a decisive W.

Edward Daub 2 months, 4 weeks ago

KU Football cannot afford to be looking ahead. We need to focus on the task at hand.

Lance needs to tell the players, envision that the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles are the Tennessee Volunteers.

As for the stable of running backs, it will be interesting to see how Andy K. manages the depth.

Rock Chalk!

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