As Kansas’ running backs draw ‘a lot of buzz,’ coaches will try to keep them productive
photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World
Devin Neal is aware of what Kansas’ coaching staff has been able to achieve over the years with a strong rushing attack.
So, as he considers the situation the Jayhawks find themselves in this season, with five running backs whom they believe have the ability to be significant contributors, Neal can’t wait to get back out on the field.
“I just think everybody’s on the same page about what needs to be done for the team,” said Neal, the Lawrence High grad who led Kansas in rushing last season as a freshman. “I think we’re all just excited to see what we could do as a unit. There’s a lot of buzz around this running backs room — and as an offense — and we’re all excited about that.”
As Kansas prepares to open its season Friday night at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium against Football Conference Subdivision opponent Tennessee Tech, considerable attention will be on the running backs — and not just because of how productive they all believe they could be.
Neal will join returning redshirt sophomore Daniel Hishaw Jr. and redshirt junior Torry Locklin, as well as redshirt sophomores Ky Thomas, a Topeka native and Minnesota transfer, and Sevion Morrison, a Nebraska transfer, in forming arguably the deepest offensive backfield in the Big 12.
Who plays, and what role each player takes and when, will be of interest not just in Week 1 but throughout the rest of coach Lance Leipold’s second season.
And it will all be a strong indicator of whether Kansas can continue to make strides under Leipold and escape more than a decade of inability, ineffectiveness and, arguably, incompetence in the conference.
“With those types of backs that we have, not only can you play to your strengths, hopefully, but we’re going to have other strengths on that offense,” said Leipold, who oversaw a rushing offense that gained 139.3 yards per game last season, second worst in the Big 12. “If you’re going to win football games and you have the lead, you’ve got to find a way to run the ball.”
Leipold’s team has always done that, whether he was racking up six Division III national championships in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater or rebuilding Buffalo behind Jaret Patterson, one of the most prolific college running backs of the past decade.
But it’s not just that the schools had great running backs. They have often had more than one in the same season; in 2020, the year Patterson ran for 1,072 yards and 19 touchdowns in six games, teammate Kevin Marks Jr. gained 741 yards with seven touchdowns.
And in 2014, Leipold’s last season and last national title with the Warhawks, Dennis Moore ran for 1,107 yards and five touchdowns and Jordan Ratliffe gained 950 and nine.
“It’s definitely big to have a running mate, or a few running mates, nowadays in your running back group to keep guys fresh,” said Patterson, who teamed with Marks from 2018-20 and is now a running back with the Washington Commanders. “You’ll have fresh legs down the stretch … because this game comes with injuries and things like that.”
Patterson earned national attention in 2020 when he rushed for 409 yards — the second-highest single-game total in FBS history — and eight touchdowns in a win against Kent State. A smaller, shifty, quick-footed back, he contrasted with Marks, a hard runner with more straight-line speed who was in training camp with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Their dynamic resembled what UW-Whitewater had with Moore and Ratliffe, though their union was more a product of circumstance. Moore tore an ACL early in 2013, giving Ratliffe the opportunity to rush for a conference-leading 1,259 yards with nine touchdowns.
Moore, who often ran outside the tackles, returned the following season and shared carries with Ratliffe, a bigger back. Kept fresh by their division of snaps, they helped the Warhawks average 218.2 rushing yards per game.
“(Kotelnicki’s) mind is different when it comes to offense, and he had a plan for us and he always kept us confident,” Moore said. “In talking to him, we always knew we were going to get ours together. There’s never a point where I thought I was just going to take a back seat in a game. He made it work out that we both had a good amount of opportunity to do what we needed to do.”
That’s where the challenge lies this season for Kansas. The five running backs all have diverse playing styles: Neal’s a bruiser, Thomas makes decisive cuts, Morrison is shifty, Hishaw is explosive and Locklin is a receiving threat, according to running backs coach Jonathan Wallace.
Leipold has made it clear that a rushing attack is crucial for success, and like the connections that Patterson and Marks shared, and Moore and Ratliffe, Neal can already tell that he and the other running backs will be supported.
“I still think everyone’s still going to root for each other’s success no matter how it’s going to go,” Neal said. “That’s just the type of group we are. We’re just all super tight with each other, and like I said, team is first for all of us.”