Leaning into the running game should be KU’s primary focus heading into the 2021 season
photo by: Chance Parker
Most years, it’s hard to take too much, good or bad, out of Kansas football’s annual spring game.
But this year, during the White team’s 74-42 win over the Blue, it was darn near impossible.
However, throughout all of the big plays by the defense, missed opportunities and depth chart juggling that went on during Saturday’s spring game, one thing stood out that could — and absolutely should — be a big part of the upcoming season.
Kansas should run the heck out of the football.
“We’ve just got to be fully locked into executing every play,” junior tight end Mason Fairchild said after Saturday’s game. “You saw that in some plays (tonight); when we did that, we had big chunk plays.”
Not only were the Jayhawks using most of their roster and a modified scoring format that had the defense leading the offense by the odd score of 39-4 at one point, but they also were led by a group of coaches who might not even be here this fall.
With newly named head coach Lance Leipold taking over immediately — Leipold was watching the action at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Saturday night — the coaching staff figures to look at least a little different in the months ahead.
That almost certainly means a few new position coaches or coordinators on either side of the ball. And that could mean new schemes, which would make a lot of what Kansas did this spring a little less meaningful.
No reason to analyze that.
But breaking down KU’s potential in the run game is worth talking about. And it showed up on Saturday night.
The KU offense looked best on Saturday when it featured the ground game. And that was without KU’s top returning running back, Velton Gardner, even suiting up.
Amauri Pesek-Hickson and Daniel Hishaw Jr. showed flashes and ran hard all night. Pesek-Hickson carried the load almost single-handedly on one long drive. And, later, he showed off his athleticism by hurdling a defender to wow the crowd.
Hishaw opened the second half with an easy rushing touchdown and appears to have added a burst to his bowling-ball style in the offseason.
Those two combined for 118 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown.
Senior bruiser Gayflor Flomo added another 28 yards on 12 carries. And the ground game as a whole — not counting quarterback carries — gained 160 yards on 45 carries for an average of 3.6 yards per carry.
And that was without Gardner, who is the most proven of KU’s backs, and freshman-to-be Devin Neal, who may be the most promising.
“I definitely think we can be a team that can run the ball very effectively,” Fairchild said. “We’ve got a really good stable of running backs and that does make you excited for where our running game can go. I think we can be a force to be reckoned with, for sure.”
Added senior defensive lineman Sam Burt: “I’ve really been impressed with the run game this spring, and I’m excited to see them keep improving. It was a little more defense-dominated tonight, but it hasn’t been that way all spring.”
Relying on running the ball can be hard to do in the high-octane Big 12 Conference, but it should absolutely be the focal point for the Jayhawks heading into the 2021 season.
For one, some of KU’s best players line up at running back, and they all bring slightly different styles and skills to the offense and are capable of taking some of the load off of whoever the Jayhawks line up at quarterback.
For two, Leipold has experience featuring the run, with his most recent Buffalo team ranking second in the nation in rushing offense last season at just shy of 300 yards per game.
You’ve likely heard this before, but given the fact that Leipold also has done it before, it’s worth repeating as a viable strategy for the rebuilding Jayhawks. Controlling the ground game, and therefore the clock, will help KU stay competitive deeper into games. And this bunch needs to lean into that idea with all it has.
It might not mean the difference between winning and losing. At least not in Year 1. But it might make game days more tolerable for Kansas fans who desperately want to believe that Leipold is the man who can do what those who came before him could not — return Kansas to respectability.
The path to that type of relative euphoria is on the ground, with KU’s deep stable of running backs staying fresh and running hard behind an offensive line built in Leipold’s image.