About this series: This is the third in a series of previews of Kansas University’s football team by position. The series will run Wednesdays and Sundays in the Journal-World. Coming Sunday: linebackers.
With the return of experienced backs Toben Opurum, Rell Lewis and Angus Quigley, along with the boost expected from newcomers Deshaun Sands, Brandon Bourbon and James Sims, the running back position appears to be a strength for the Kansas University football program heading into the 2010 season.
Not so, according to running backs coach Reggie Mitchell.
“You know what, in my opinion, we’re thinking that we’re the underdogs and we have to go out and prove ourselves,” Mitchell told the Journal-World on Monday, during a quick breakdown of the position. “We have some guys that have played but not to the level that they want to play at. I think we have depth, but I still think we have a lot to prove. We’d like to have the best group of running backs in the Big 12.”
That remains to be seen and will be proven on the field. But, as the team prepares to report to its first fall camp under new coach Turner Gill, there are as many questions at running back as answers.
For starters, most coaches said sixth-year senior Angus Quigley had the best spring of the bunch. Sound familiar? It should. Throughout his career at Kansas, Quigley, 6-foot-1, 231 pounds, has shown big-man-on-campus potential but has yet to carry that onto the field with consistency. When spring drills wrapped, Quigley’s name was at the top of the depth chart, largely, Mitchell said, because he was the most consistent running back this spring.
“He wants to show the world that he can be a running back,” Mitchell said. “He’s a big guy who was running the ball tough inside this spring, he has pretty good hands and he did a great job in pass protection. A lot of his success was due to the fact that he was in there playing down after down.”
Behind Quigley sit a host of unknowns, some because of injury and some because of age. Sophomore Toben Opurum, 6-1, 240, is the most accomplished runner of the bunch — he carried 133 times for 554 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman — but he missed the end of 2009 with an injury and was limited throughout the spring. Because of that, Opurum was left off the Jayhawks’ two-deep, post-spring depth chart. But such an omission should be taken lightly, said Mitchell.
“To his credit, he’s done a great job of rehabbing and trying to come back,” Mitchell said of Opurum. “The depth chart is just a starting point, it’s not a finishing point for us.”
Junior Rell Lewis, 5-9, 205, is the only other running back on the roster to have carried the ball in a game at Kansas. Lewis, who also was slowed by injury this spring, gained 72 yards on 13 carries last season, making him a bit of an unknown, as well.
“It’s kind of hard to say (what we have) because we didn’t have all of the guys healthy and they didn’t all have a chance to compete the way they wanted to and the way we wanted them to,” Mitchell said.
That leaves Deshaun Sands, a 5-7, 190-pound red-shirt freshman, and true freshmen Brandon Bourbon, 6-2, 205, and James Sims, 6-0, 205.
Sands is listed second on the current depth chart, and Mitchell said the son of former KU great Tony Sands impressed the coaching staff in April.
“Deshaun is a guy who has the ability to make people miss and he has good ball skills,” Mitchell said. “That’s what the staff saw from him in the spring, his ability to make people miss in space. He’s going to have a good opportunity to come in and show what he can do.”
Of course, that’s the idea with all of these guys, any of whom could emerge as the starter during the next several weeks.
“Coach Gill’s philosophy is that when they all come in in the fall, he’s going to give everybody an opportunity to play,” Mitchell said.
Asked if it may prove difficult to find enough carries to keep everyone happy, Mitchell responded with an emphatic no.
“The one thing I can say about that position is that none of the guys have an ego and they all want to do what’s best for KU football,” he said. “I don’t think any of them will have a problem with who’s playing, and they’ll cheer each other on. The best guys will play, and the other guys will find a role.”
That’s fine with Opurum, who, this spring, said he was pumped about the number of quality backs in the program and their varying strengths.
“We say it every year, but this year, I really feel like we have a chance to have great depth with our running backs,” Opurum said. “We all bring a different style to how we run.”