For this blog, I have consulted a Div. II offensive assistant coach, someone we'll just call "Coach."
Kansas coach Charlie Weis has made a few mentions this week about how he was disappointed in his offensive line play.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at a failed running play from the Jayhawks' 23-14 loss to Rice on Saturday. At this point, KU was leading, 14-13, with possession in the fourth quarter.
This is a basic "Power" run play. Those offensive linemen on the "play" side — the direction where the ball is going to be run — are down blocking, meaning they are blocking the defenders to the inside of them (with the left tackle going upfield to take out a backside linebacker). Meanwhile, the right guard pulls around to kick out a linebacker in the hole.
I've made a GIF showing each KU player's blocking assignment.
This play falls apart on multiple levels, the most glaring of which coming in the battle between Rice's defensive tackle Christian Covington and KU's left guard Randall Dent (No. 64).
Right after the snap, Dent is driven backwards by Klare, in essence getting "his (stuff) pushed in," Coach says.
This disrupts the entire play. KU right guard Mike Smithburg tries to pull around to block, but he bangs directly into Dent instead.
Smithburg's blocking assignment on this play is Rice linebacker James Radcliffe (No. 10), and with a free path, Radcliffe is able to get to the backfield to trip up KU running back James Sims.
"That’s a good indication of a defensive tackle not getting in on the stats and making a tackle or tackle-for-loss, but the defensive tackle is the one who makes this play," Coach says. "He’s getting a pat on the butt in the film room after this one."
Sometimes a team can help out its left guard on this play, as the left tackle can combine with him to form a double-team on the defensive tackle. After that block is secure, then the left tackle can move forward to take out the backside linebacker.
"I guess KU just thought that the left guard could handle this block one on one with the defensive tackle," Coach says, "and really, it didn’t end up working."
Dent isn't the only one who struggles, though.
Notice the left tackle Aslam Sterling (No. 77) almost completely whiffs on his block of Michael Kutzler (No. 42), who is listed at 110 pounds lighter than Sterling. Because of that, Kutzler is able to get to Sims and help finish off the tackle on the one-yard gain. Look closely at the end, and you can even see Sterling slap his hands together in frustration.
Coach also says KU tight end Trent Smiley (No. 85) isn't perfect here against Rice defensive end Tanner Leland (No. 13) either, as he allows quite a bit of penetration and at least needs to work for a stalemate to keep Leland out of the backfield.
Bottom line: Coach says this a good example of KU getting "out-physicaled" up front.
And while many fans have questioned why Weis didn't run the ball more against Rice, Coach says no play call is going to work if it isn't run correctly.
"You can call the hook-and-ladder, you can call the double-reverse pass, you can call this simple power play, you can call a simple inside zone running play," Coach says. "No matter what you call, you have to execute it."
"Why is James Sims a good running back?"
If I asked the average Kansas football fan that question, my guess is that I would get two main responses.
• In only nine games in 2012, Sims was second in the Big 12 with 1,013 rushing yards.
• Sims led the Big 12 in 2012 with 112.6 rushing yards per game.
At face value, those feats are impressive. Still, we need to give them the proper context.
Though it is true that Sims only played nine games in 2012, did you know he was still second in the league in carries (218)? Sims averaged 24.2 rushes per game a year ago, while no other back in the league had more than 22.
This greatly impacts how we should look at his numbers.
Out of the Big 12 running backs who played in 75 percent of their team's games and had at least four carries per game, Sims ranked 18th out of 23 with a 4.65-yard-per-carry average last year.
Yards per carry doesn't tell us everything, though. My favorite running back stat is an advanced one called Adjusted Points Over Expected, or Adjusted POE for short. The number compares the production of a running back to an average back given the same carries against the same opponents with the same offensive line. A runner with a plus-6.0 Adjusted POE would have created a touchdown more for his team over that of an average back.
Here's how Sims compared to other Big 12 non-quarterbacks in Adjusted POE a year ago.
While the top of the list has names we'd expect (Lache Seastrunk, Tavon Austin, Tony Pierson), Sims is nowhere to be found, as he ranks 48th out of 50 Big 12 non-QBs a year ago.
To be fair, having so many carries probably allowed Sims to go further into the negative than some other backs. On the flip side, some of these players probably had their carries limited when they weren't giving better production.
Sims doesn't rank much better in Adjusted POE in his two previous years at KU.
His freshman year was his best in the measure, and even then, he produced below what would have been expected from an "average" back.
The biggest issue for Sims appears to be that his lack of speed keeps him from breaking off big runs.
Looking at the raw numbers, we might not see that from the number of "explosive" runs in 2012.
Again, those numbers above need more context. Remember, Sims had more opportunities for big runs (228 carries) compared to his teammates (Pierson had 117 carries; Cox had 91).
Breaking it down further, let's take a look at how many explosive runs each player had a season ago per 25 carries ... or roughly one game of being a workhorse back.
In this measure, Sims doesn't even appear to be as strong as Cox in explosive runs, especially in 10-plus-yard plays. Cox doesn't appear to be an explosive back either, but given the same opportunities, the numbers show he might be able to put up the same sort of line (or even slightly better) than Sims.
Ben Lindbergh wrote a great piece on Derek Jeter earlier this week, talking about how the eye test and defensive metrics don't agree on Jeter's defensive abilities. It's hinted in there that perhaps, because Jeter's a great player and his jump-throw from the hole at shortstop has become famous, that as humans we start to see what we want to see with his ability instead of what's actually there.
It made me wonder if we're doing the same thing with Sims. Are we noticing his great vision because we assume his high-yardage totals make him a great running back? Are we ignoring his lack of speed because he seems to move a pile a couple extra yards each game?
On a personal note, I like Sims. He's a nice guy and is respected by his teammates to the point that he was named a team captain.
He talked to me at Big 12 media days about working hard in the summer to improve his speed, and maybe we saw a glimpse of that when Sims had a 62-yard touchdown run in a team scrimmage a couple weeks ago. He also talked about how he likes to clip articles from people who doubt him next to his bed — and I'm sure I might be making an appearance soon.
The numbers are the numbers, though. Sims has lots of room to improve, and if he isn't going to break big runs, he needs to be even better at squeezing out extra yards on the shorter ones.
Either way, KU coach Charlie Weis shouldn't be looking to make Sims his workhorse back this year. With the talent he has at the running back position with Cox, Darrian Miller and Colin Spencer (and the versatility of Pierson), the coach shouldn't hesitate to get fresh legs into the game.
Given the opportunity, those backs have the potential to give KU better production than they've received from that spot the past few years.