With unproven running backs comfortably resting behind junior James Sims and the transfer of promising sophomore Darrian Miller, the importance of Sims' continued productivity in the Kansas offense could not be overstated as we approached the 2012 season. Following his April DUI arrest and subsequent three-game suspension, the Jayhawks' offense would not be forced to rebuild but the diversity of an already fresh playbook would be compromised.
In an uninspiring victory over South Dakota State and frustrating losses to Rice and TCU, the Kansas ground game provided the only consistency on both sides of the ball. Spearheaded by little-known transfer Taylor Cox and athletic freak Tony Pierson, the Jayhawk duo rushed 82 times for 462 yards in those three games, leading many to wonder if James Sims' impending return against Northern Illinois would provide any boost to an already potent rushing attack.
While James Sims was certainly a reliable weapon in Turner Gill's arsenal in 2010 and 2011, it is difficult to argue any of the four non-Georgia Tech Jayhawk wins under Gill were a direct result of Sims' production. In Sims' defense, Chuck Long's offense had about as much creativity and diversity as Lou Holtz's yearly Notre Dame predictions. The ineffective ho-hum shotgun ground game coupled with a horrific defense left little room for dynamic showings by the talented Irving, Texas native but regardless, it is rational to believe any of the other Kansas running backs could have replaced him with little drop off in the box score or final tally.
Following a TCU loss in which a heavier work load for Pierson and Cox may have kept the Horned Frogs' defense honest and opened up a few passing lanes for the struggling Dayne Crist, more than a few Jayhawk fans wondered if Kansas really needed the suspended Sims when he was eligible to return from suspension.
James Sims did not appear to have lost a step during his first game in 10 months as he racked up 115 total yards on 20 touches, including a nifty 26-yard scoring dash in the second quarter. He was enormously more efficient than incumbent starter Tony Pierson and barring another DUI, Sims will be the clear-cut starter moving forward regardless of Taylor Cox's recovery from a leg injury. However, if the Jayhawks expect to create running lanes during conference play, they must find a way to get their clumsy passing game clicking.
No one expected Dayne Crist to make a seamless transition to Kansas and become a Heisman candidate but few could have predicted the awkwardly uncomfortable start the passing game is off to. He may boast an NFL quarterback physique with above average arm strength but thus far looks as poorly, if not worse, than former Jayhawk and current Colorado Buffalo Jordan Webb. Has Weis been waiting for the traditional running of James Sims to create added attention between the hash marks?
Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox clearly have shown the ability to run up the middle but opposing teams rarely add an extra 8th, 9th, or 10th man to the box. Crist appears to be getting respect from defensive coordinators as they are routinely leaving two deep safeties and even dropping multiple linebackers deep into coverage. This has allowed KU running backs to successfully sneak between the tackles, occasionally bouncing outside with their electric speed but 3rd down inconsistency has halted those drives. Teams appear to be willing to sacrifice a few 4-5 yard gains on the ground in order to shut down the passing game, and why not? It is working.
With Sims as the starter receiving 18-20 carries between the tackles, this allows Pierson to work the open field outside the numbers with a quick pitch or wheel route as he further proves his value as a pass catcher. Now, will this immediately change the fortunes of the Kansas offense? A bye this week will certainly aid in further role development for the three backs but immediate results will not come despite encouraging results against an elite Big 12 defense in TCU two weeks ago.
As the Jayhawks regroup at 1-3 with the feisty and suddenly BCS title-contending Kansas State Wildcats looming on October 6th, an elevated stress on the run game could considerably benefit both Dayne Crist and a soon-to-be fatigued defense. Converting a higher percentage of 3rd downs, especially 3rd and 3-5 yards, is imperative as they look to neutralize aggressive Big 12 safeties and give the defense much-needed rest. As an all-around back, Sims can bring versatility and unpredictability to these 3rd down situations, ones Kansas is only converting 25% of the time.
With only two Big 12 rush defenses (Iowa State and Baylor) currently ranked in the FBS Top 100 (yards per attempt), the opportunity to control the clock and slow down the powerful offenses of Kansas State, Oklahoma and others could help Kansas scratch out a couple conference victories or reasonably attractive losses.
Charlie Weis insists losses are unacceptable, but he continues to praise exceptional efforts and competitive close losses. Besides, a thrilling finish in Manhattan or Norman would not hurt recruiting efforts.
Would Kansas have won if Sims was still suspended? Or would they have been defeated by a score of 30-10?
Those outcomes are impossible to predict but following the grueling 9-game Big 12 slate, Jayhawk nation will undoubtedly find out if James Sims is the difference-maker this dehydrated program needs.