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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 Rivals.com. 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 Rivals.com 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 Rivals.com.
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.