Jayhawks desperately need breakaway running back


The Kansas Jayhawks need a running back that will be on SportsCenter in 2010.

Yeah, I know. Athletes shouldn't strive to make it on the nightly highlights show. And many times, the most crucial plays of the game — and overlooked efforts in the game — never make it to ESPN.

But seriously, the Jayhawks need a guy that can make a highlight-reel run. They need one who can break tackles in the open field and then use his speed to get into the end zone.

They need one because, for the last two seasons, they haven't had anyone who could do it. Friend-of-the-blog Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders was nice enough to pass along some of his statistical findings from the last two years.

He's started to do some extensive work with running backs and has created a statistic known as "highlight yards."

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 last season?

Here is a list of the each Big 12 player with at least 100 carries last season, showing their highlight yards per carry.

Now, let me be the first to say that this does not mean that Jake Sharp and Toben Opurum* are bad running backs. Because a team can continue its drive if it gets 10 yards every three plays, there's plenty of value in a back that can keep the chains moving.

* — Opurum actually was a well-above-average running back last year, which we'll get to in a later blog.

This does tell us, though, that KU received practically no help offensively by its running backs in the big-play department.

This probably won't come as a surprise, but KU's longest run by a running back last year was just 30 yards by 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.

But what about Angus Quigley? After all, he's moved back to running back this season and is currently on the top of the depth chart.

Because he was a linebacker last year, he had no rushing stats for 2009. But Connelly was nice enough to provide the Big 12 rushing statistics from 2008.

Let's take a look. For this chart, all players with at least 25 carries are included. Quigley had 59 carries in 2008.

Though the numbers are better than in 2009, the KU backs all still ranked toward the bottom of the Big 12 in highlight yards per carry. Though Quigley might provide KU with a bruising back, he doesn't appear to be the breakaway runner the Jayhawks need.

So who will fill that "highlight" role for KU? Let's look at the candidates:

DeShaun Sands: This seems most likely, as the red-shirt freshman is currently second on the depth chart. Sands might be a bit undersized at 5-foot-7, but he would give the Jayhawks exactly what they need: a speedy, big-play threat and also a nice complement to Opurum and Quigley.

Rell Lewis: Though he is still a bit unproven, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound junior has been clocked before at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash, according to Out of 13 carries in 2009, his longest run was 15 yards.

Brandon Bourbon: Don't be surprised if one of KU's two highly touted freshmen step in right away. Bourbon, who switched his commitment to KU after originally choosing Stanford, runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and averaged 13.8 yards per carry during his senior year of high school.

“I’m definitely shooting for some playing time, and I think I have a shot to get some,” Bourbon said in March. “I don’t want to seem cocky or anything like that, but I definitely have some things that I’m wanting to get done next year.”

James Sims: The three-star recruit has received less fanfare than Bourbon, but he should have a chance in the fall to earn immediate playing time. The 6-foot, 205-pound back runs a 4.5-second 40, according to

One of these four running backs needs to make SportsCenter a frequent destination in 2010, or the Jayhawks once again will be missing out on explosiveness that they've already been lacking the last two seasons.


Benjamin Piehler 11 years, 10 months ago

jayhawk football 2010-11: bring an advil and dont show up sober... its going to be rough.

MitchumMan 11 years, 10 months ago

hawkinator - I think you are completely wrong! And you actually sound like the type of fan I absolutely hate ("don't show up sober..."). Not once have I ever gone to a football game drunk and I have a good time every time. Maybe I'm just weird though. I guess I don't understand how you can stand and yell the whole game when you're drunk and dehydrated...

"Fans" around here need to learn how to become better fans! All I'm going to say...

Bear86 11 years, 10 months ago

Relax Francis (Hawkinator). We like to drink and tailgate at KU Football games or any Football game for that matter. If the Lawrence PD and the University didn't create such an anti-drinking/tailgaiting environment over the last 30 years we probably would get more people to go to the game and support the program. Students and Alumni want to have fun on game days. When the LPD is writing tickets it creates such a bad environment that no one will want to attend the game's. KU has great fans. The University should take note on the BCS re-alignment issues we had a few months ago. Football drives the bus. The bus is not going to move forward with out Students and Alums having a good time (Yes - Drinking Beers & Tailgaiting). You think the PD & University Administration in Austin, Norman & Lincoln act like the LPD on game days in their perspective city's and campus? It's time to bring the Kegs back onto the Hill !!!!

hailtoku 11 years, 10 months ago


Couldn't agree more about KU making gameday "anti-tailgating".

KU has one of the worst gameday experiences in the nation and it has an effect on attendance numbers.

Bear86 11 years, 10 months ago

Thanks hailtoku.

It's to bad our game day experiences are weak due to the anti drinking & anti tail gaiting attitude the LPD & KU administration have. KU has one of the most beautiful campus/Football Stadium's (with the hill in the background) in the Nation. There is no reason the stadium should not sell out and the Hill is packed watching a huge Video board. Hopefully the Bible Thumpers see the light.

Rock Chalk !!

KCHawk81 11 years, 10 months ago

Don't you mean 2009? 2008? 2006? 2005? Any year this decade besides 2007 (the only time we finished better than the North)? I'd say things are looking up.

Great article, by the way. I like the idea of highlight reel yardage, though I'm skeptical of its independent effect on wins and losses. Anyone more bored than me want to do the math?

Matt Bowers 11 years, 10 months ago

MitchumMan, define "better fan." That is a very broad statement and maybe hawkinator wrote that post to get an agitated response. I think that no matter the outcome of the season, that it is going to be very exciting. I believe that the majority of KU fans believe that KU is going to be very successful in football and hopefully will become more of a football school.

Rock Chalk

justanotherfan 11 years, 10 months ago

That's an interesting stat, particularly because, with all of Sharp's speed, I would have assumed he would break more long runs.

Of course, running the spread means less running opportunities for backs, but at the same time, they are being challenged by DBs rather than linebackers most of the time.

I've said before that KU needs more playmakers to emerge. The last three years, our only big play guy was Briscoe, really. Meier was generally a short yardage move the chains type, at least how he was used more often than not. Our backs didn't break many plays, and the former administration seemed determined to bench anybody with highlight type talent (Daymond Patterson and others).

I think Sims or Sands gives us the best chance for a breakaway type. Bourbon is also in that mix. I don't see Quigley or Oporum as a breakaway guy. We definitely need a "home run" hitter in the lineup.

Jeremy LeMaster 11 years, 10 months ago

Why do you think Sims over Bourbon? Just curious, I haven't seen either play.

justanotherfan 11 years, 10 months ago

Just watching high school highlights of both, it seems like Sims had more "breakaway" type plays against better (i.e. faster) competition. Bourbon had some long runs, but he played in a small class in Missouri, so the competition wasn't the same. Sims seemed to have an extra gear to hit when guys were trying to run him down. Bourbon looked fast, but it was hard to tell if he could run away from Big XII speed because he didn't face a lot of Big XII speed in HS.

LAJayhawk 11 years, 10 months ago

Jake Sharp was hurt almost the entire year.

blackhawkjayhawk 11 years, 10 months ago

Interesting stuff. My son is a wide receiver in high school, though, and I know how important downfield blocking is to "highlight" runs. This is a minor quibble......

Being able to change field position with a 40+ yard run is a huge advantage for any team. It completely changes the game - especially in the way you are defended. Ripping a gash through a defense is one of the most dominating things that you can do in football.

Another interesting take on this would be to look at some of the top NFL backs and see what their "highlight" numbers were in college. I wonder if this would be a good predictor of success in the league....

Jesse Newell 11 years, 10 months ago

blackhawk — Bill used highlight yards as part of this article looking at the best running backs headed to the last NFL Draft. Definitely worth a look:

KU 11 years, 10 months ago

Great point about the role downfield blocking (receivers) plays in long runs. I loved watching Kerry Meier block downfield. He was a bulldog. He never let his guy off the block. He worked harder at blocking than receiving. That's one reason he may stick in the NFL. Briscoe improved a lot at blocking with Meier's influence.

I'm gonna call out Johnathan Wilson right now--I can't tell you how many times last season he whiffed on downfield blocks that COULD have sprung long gains. He better work more on blocking and talk less about being the leading receiver between now and September.

Kirk 11 years, 10 months ago

I think it's been several decades since KU had a real "breakaway running back." As in Laverne Smith.

psychoanalyst 11 years, 10 months ago

I think Jon Cornish was a pretty good breakaway back when he got a chance to show his stuff. I remember several long runs of his. I wonder what his highlight yards would be.

hailtoku 11 years, 10 months ago

Here is how I see the season going:

North Dakota State- W Georgia Tech- L Southern Miss- L New Mexico State- W Baylor- W Kansas State- L () Texas A&M- L Iowa State- L () Colorado- L (*) Nebraska- L Oklahoma State- L Missouri- L

(*)- key games.. toss up games we have to win to make or break the season.

Michael Leiker 11 years, 10 months ago

I just don't see how anyone could feel like they can predict what is going to happen this year. It's totally up in the air. Way too much uncertainty with a new coach, player turover, changing schemes, etc. That's why I'm looking forward to it, I get to re-learn my KU Football this year. Gonna be fun.

hailtoku 11 years, 10 months ago

If history has shown us anything, its that "uncertainty" is never a good thing in football. A new coach with new players, a new scheme and new beliefs is never a good thing... unless you're at rock bottom... not when you're on the brink of turning your program around.

Michael Leiker 11 years, 10 months ago

Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of the hire, or the way things were handled last year, but I'm gradually moving past it...I agree it could be an absolute disaster.

Michael Leiker 11 years, 10 months ago

Thinking about that, my favorite KU road trips were back when the team was horrible, so it's really no skin off my back if they're good or bad. I'll be there one way or the other.

KCHawk81 11 years, 10 months ago

This is a terrible thing for a fan to say.

KGphoto 11 years, 10 months ago

Oklahoma isn't crying about their coach. How about Pete Carroll? Bo Pelini? Urban Meyer? Chris Peterson? Gary Patterson? Brian Kelly? Skip Holtz? Jim Harbaugh?

Let's not be haters, kay?

KCHawk81 11 years, 10 months ago

Last year, you predicted the North race to come down to UN and KU--a "coin toss," I believe you said. So I'm going to get my predictions elsewhere. I guess the downside of predicting wins is that you actually have to be disappointed if we lose. You're clearly a fan, but come on: unless you're getting paid, why put your money in the loss column?

hailtoku 11 years, 10 months ago

I'm sorry... last year I picked either Nebraska or KU to win the North correct?

Refresh my memory... who won the North?

You're taking your predictions elsewhere because I correctly picked last years winner??

KCHawk81 11 years, 10 months ago

That'd be a hell of a coin if you didn't mean KU would finish second at worst. A die...maybe. But if you're rolling dice for your predictions, how are you any different from Keegan (besides the fact that they pay him to do it)? I have to predict pro bono, so: we're gonna win. Rock Chalk.

DevilHawk 11 years, 10 months ago

Well, that is the worst that I reasonably expect to see. On the other hand, we could also reasonably go 10-2 with losses only to Georgia Tech and A&M.

I think that expectations should be set at going 6-6 on the season - with the realistic possibility of doing much worse or significantly better.

Also: a KU fan never pens in losing to Mizzou unless it's part of a bet.

Michael Leiker 11 years, 10 months ago

Your other loss would be to A&M, not Ok St or NU?

DevilHawk 11 years, 10 months ago

Yeah. I figure that our losses are more likely to occur early in the season while everything is still getting settled, whereas NU and OSU are games 10 and 11, respectively.

Also, I figure that Coach Gill wants to get back at Nebraska for not hiring him. One opportunity before NU leaves the conference...I'm guessing that he will have the team ready to win.

hailtoku 11 years, 10 months ago

^^^^ Also Southern Miss is a key game.

DevilHawk 11 years, 10 months ago

Some numbers to consider from 2007:

Touchdowns: 72 Passing: 36 Interception return / fumble return: 2 Special Teams: 4 0 - 5 yd run: 18 6 - 10 yd run: 4 11 - 20 yd run: 5 (20-yd, Sharp; 15-yd, McAnderson; 11-yd, Sharp; 12-yd, McAnderson; 13-yd, Quigley)

20 yd run: 3 (26-yd, McAnderson; 23-yd, McAnderson; 22-yd Quigley)

jhox 11 years, 10 months ago

The last true break away back we had was John Randall and, unfortunately, he couldn't stay out of trouble. What a wasted talent.

The current coaching staff has the right idea...go after the speedy backs, and if they can't earn offensive playing time, I bet they turn them into DB's. Speed kills. You can never have too much of it on your football team.

jsillyghawk 11 years, 10 months ago

This may be an idle quibble--I am not a numbers guy, nor do I watch enough football to know if the following is in touch with reality.

Having played on the offensive line, I know that I never felt like the running back failed (got no credit) for a run of less than four yards--no, our unit failed. But that's not the point of the stat that I take issue with. I guess my issue is, it seems that just as many "highlight" runs (for which the backs do get credit) are due to the offensive line's opening a hole as are due to the running back's breaking tackles.

One of my favorite memories from 2007 is hearing Bob Davis say so many times that season, "And you could've driven a truck through that hole that opened up!" or words to that effect.

I don't know: maybe it's just my "o-linemen never get enough credit" bias that makes me question the "highlight yards" statistic.

DevilHawk 11 years, 10 months ago

The concept of "highlight yards" is something like this:

  • Yards 0 - 4 are mostly about the success of the o-line. Therefore, the RB does not get credit for those yards.

  • Yards 5 - 10 are a combination of the o-line creating a hole and the RB going a little further than expected. However, the hole opened by the o-line is the key, so the RB only gets credit for half of those yards - for a maximum of 3 highlight yards on a 10-yd run.

  • After 10 yards, the RB is past the line and is mostly on his own, except for receivers blocking for him.

In other words, the entire concept of "highlight yards" is to give the o-line credit.

KGphoto 11 years, 10 months ago

Perhaps you should lookup Barry Sanders or Walter Payton.

Jayhawk1116 11 years, 10 months ago

Rell Lewis should start. He's shown sparks of brilliance. He needs more reps. Toben didn't impress me much last year. He's a good third down guy, but seems one dimensional as a north-south runner. Quigley has a great name and is a physical specimen, but spews the ball all over the field, and lacks breakaway skills. I say Rell is the man.

KGphoto 11 years, 10 months ago

Quigley didn't spew the ball all over the field, he had a couple of fumbles that landed him in the doghouse. Other than that, he led the team in ypc.

Opurum, as well as Sharp, suffered from OL play. You are smoking crack if you think Rell Lewis can beat out any of the 4 guys in front of him.

LAJayhawk 11 years, 10 months ago

I would have to say that the biggest reason for our lack of "highlight yards" last season had to be the O-line and an unhealthy Jake Sharp. Why didn't we run farther than 30 yards? Because it's rather difficult to run over 30 when you don't get past 2. Don't get me wrong, we definitely could have used a "breakaway" back last year (I'm guessing if we had Walter Payton on the team we would have done significantly better than 5-7....), but our O-line played a huge part in keeping our backs from gaining big yards.

Again, though, if Jake Sharp is healthy, that stat probably increases a fair amount.

I don't disagree, we could use a running back that tears apart defenses. But that statement kind of goes without saying..... If a running back is breaking away game after game, we will do well. Seems fairly obvious....

newjayhawk 11 years, 10 months ago

sims will start by midseason!!!!!!! HE IS THE HOMERUN HITTER...HE IS THE BEST RB AT KU !! BOURBON is Northern good....JAMES IS TEXAS GREAT!!! You guys will see......

newjayhawk 11 years, 9 months ago

If they have four RBs better than James , then KU has no excuse to but to go 11-1. I don't think you understand just how good this kid is! Don't think that because he came to KANSAS that he is just another pretty good RB! I have watched Texas Football forever and James is the pure uncut truth. James "WILL" play ....and you can bet the farm on it! I have seen some great ones come through Texas...."J Boogie" can flat out play.....

LukeT 11 years, 10 months ago


Enjoyed the story, but as you observe, TO is underrated using this statistic. Why? My guess is that he's disproportionately used as a goal-line guy, which means he's often initiating runs with maximum possible distances of less than ten and even five yards - i.e., in the area where the "highlight yards" measure penalizes him. A more indicative statistic would remove all runs begun less than ten yards from the goal line.

Luke T.

Jesse Newell 11 years, 10 months ago

Luke — I went back and looked, and by my count, 18 of Toben's 133 carries came from the opponents' 10-yard line or closer last year. Though this might be a little higher than a typical Big 12 back, it's not so high that I would say that Toben didn't have an opportunity to rack up highlight yards.

Michael Leiker 11 years, 10 months ago

So you went back and looked at 133 carries to see how many were inside the 10, just because some random posted something on a message board? You guys are awesome.

lonestar90 11 years, 10 months ago

I truly believe that TO is going to surprise people this year. Remember a year ago when everyone was in love with him like they are now with BB? Then as soon as a new recruit comes along, (don't get me wrong BB and Sims are great backs), people tend to get caught up to much in recruiting rankings instead of proven production. If you look back to TO's first career start against Southern Miss last season, he was in the entire game, scored two touchdowns (his hands are a very valuable asset), and if I recall was the first running back to break the century mark against them in almost 9 or 10 games. I have personally seen and talked to TO and he is in some of the best physical shape and conditioning he has ever been in.

Being a bigger back that is the best north south runner on the team, he is suited perfectly for a power running game with a lead blocker in front. It was hard for him to get up to full speed as fast last year because he normally had to come flat footed out of the gun making his first half step or so east-west. Coming out of the I formation he will be able to get up to full speed faster and be that much harder to bring down. While there are many who only see a short-yardage power back in Opurum, he has solid/underrated speed for his size which will only improve as he continues his KU career, and is very agile for a big man. I truly believe given the chance in a run oriented offense, he will be able to break down the defensive front 7 the first half and will be able to break off the long runs in the third and fourth quarter.


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