Jayhawks' running backs ramping up competition

Jayhawks' running backs ramping up competition

Published Aug. 27, 2011 6:36 p.m. ET

The running back competition at Kansas is entering its final week.

Sophomore James Sims appears to be in line for the start in the season opener Sept. 3 against McNeese State, but carries are still up for grabs.

Freshmen Darrian Miller and Anthony Pierson are making a push for playing time during fall camp, and redshirt freshman Brandon Bourbon has been impressive after recovering from a broken ankle that he sustained last spring.

Jayhawks coach Turner Gill knows that his team will have to shorten games to have a chance of winning this season. So he plans to lean on his entire running back-by-committee to keep the chains moving and keep his suspect defense off the field.


Said Gill: ''We have a good, solid core of running backs that are going to help our football team this year.''

James Sims had an encouraging freshman season for Kansas, rushing for more than 700 yards and nine touchdowns while sharing time at running back.

At most schools that would be enough to guarantee Sims the starting job as a sophomore.

That's not the case with the Jayhawks.

While he may be the most complete player in a heated running back competition, Sims is finding a stiff test from redshirt freshman Brandon Bourbon and true freshmen Darrian Miller and Anthony Pierson heading into their season opener Sept. 3 against McNeese State.

''It's just pushing me to work harder,'' Sims said, ''and every time I touch the ball, you have to do something with it. Because every day is competition, you know?''

That's precisely the atmosphere second-year coach Turner Gill is trying to create.

The Jayhawks struggled to a 3-9 finish last season, which included an embarrassing 6-3 loss to North Dakota State in their opener, a 59-7 blowout defeat to rival Kansas State, and three straight Big 12 losses to conclude the season by a combined score of 103-24.

Gill knows that a team that's become even younger will need to shorten games in order to be competitive, and the best way to do that is with a sound running game. The Jayhawks' talented running back-by-committee may be their biggest weapon on both offense and defense, keeping the chains moving while also keeping a suspect defense on the sidelines.

''Coach Gill has made it clear, I mean, you have to keep earning your spot,'' Sims said, ''and if you don't produce, they're going to put the person in there that's going to produce.''

Sims will get the first crack at it after leading the Jayhawks' ground game last year, but Miller could be first out of the bullpen. The state of Missouri's all-time leading prep rusher, Miller was rated the No. 1 prospect in the state last year after gaining 2,226 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior.

He enrolled at Kansas in January, giving him extra time to get up to speed.

Miller appears to be the Jayhawks' running back of the future, but Pierson will also get ample opportunities at a number of positions. The freshman is speedy enough to offer a change of pace out of the backfield, but his athleticism gives him the ability to play wide receiver and cornerback, too.

Pierson was rated among the top 5 prospects in the state of Illinois as a senior, and he was committed to border rival Mizzou before ultimately deciding on the Jayhawks.

''Obviously with him, it comes down to speed,'' Gill said. ''He can turn the corner, outrun some people out there and make some things happen. He brings that speed and explosiveness to our football team and to the offensive side of the ball.''

Then there's Bourbon, who broke his ankle in spring practice after just two scrimmages last season. He was forced to redshirt but looked so good once he finally got back on the practice field in the fall that the coaching staff pondered whether to yank his redshirt late in the season.

They decided against it and preserved Bourbon's four years of eligibility, and by all accounts he has been phenomenal this fall. He scored two touchdowns in an open scrimmage inside Memorial Stadium last weekend, and has been showing the kind of speed, power and change-of-direction that he exhibited before the most significant injury of his career.

''Coach told us we still don't have a starter, so everyone is working hard and trying to earn a spot,'' Bourbon said. ''I think they've seen flashes of what I'm capable of.''

Flashes, yes, but it may take more than that to win this running back competition.

''I think that just solidifies what we're talking about, that we have a good, solid core of running backs that are going to help our football team this year,'' Gill said. ''You need quite a few of those guys because they're going to get banged up during the course of the season. But I feel like we have quite a few guys that, when they're called on, can produce.''