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35 Days Until KU Football: Previewing the Running Backs

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Kansas has some interesting options at running back for 2021.

Kansas v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Gone is Pooka Williams, off to the NFL, which if we’re honest, leaves the RB group in what I’ll call interesting shape. The Jayhawks have, in my opinion, four guys who are capable, and any one of them could step up and be “the guy” for 2021.

Last year, Velton Gardner led the Jayhawks in rushing with *checks notes* 325 yards. Yikes. As a team, KU’s top 4 backs rushed for just 895 yards, just under 100 yards per game (KU played 9 games last year). I’ll say it again - yikes.

I’m guessing that will NOT be the case this year, simply due, if nothing else, to the coaching change. Here are the rushing totals for Buffalo under Lance Leipold:

2020 (7 games): 2012 yards, 6.7 per carry

2019: 2648 yards, 4.5 ypc

2018: 1693 yards, 3.6 ypc

2017: 1839 yards, 4.3 ypc

2016: 1643 yards, 3.8 ypc

2015: 1965 yards, 4.4 ypc

Trust me, you do not want me to compare those totals to KU’s since 2015. Yes, the competition will be better in the Large Dozen than it was in the MAC, but I also think Leipold has better backs to work with from the get-go.

Projected Depth Chart

Obviously, there’s no official depth chart, so I’m just gonna kinda rank guys where I think (hope?) they’ll fall by the time the season opens. Again, any of these guys could end up as the primary RB1, and honestly, I hope we see lots of Devin Neal despite where I have him ranked as of today.

RB1 - RS-FR Amauri Pesek-Hickson

Hickson was the primary back in the spring game, going for 65 yards on 14 carries. While it probably doesn’t mean much since Leipold effectively took over the next day, that along with his production toward the end of last season I think gives him the edge over everyone else, at least to start the season. Hickson had a 100-yard game against TCU last November, and just seems poised to nab the RB1 job in fall camp.

If you’ll recall, Hickson is the guy out of high school who was committed to Michigan until Jim Harbaugh began playing games with scholarship numbers.

RB2 - JR Velton Gardner

As noted above, Gardner was KU’s leading rusher last year, and so far has averaged 4.7 ypc in his first two years at KU as Pooka William’s primary relief option. A high school quarterback, he has good burst and has shown some elusiveness.

RB3 - SO Daniel Hishaw

Another high school quarterback, Hishaw was used as a power back last season, and had a few snaps out of the Wildcat formation. Regardless if he wins the RB1 job or not, he’ll likely see the field on short yardage and goal-to-go situations.

RB4 - FR Devin Neal

The gem of the most recent recruiting class, Neal comes to KU more highly rated than Pooka Williams out of high school. A combination of P5 power and speed, he drew heavy interest from multiple Big 12 and Big 10 schools. Big things are expected of Neal, but he’ll have to beat out some veterans if he wants significant playing time in year one.

The Depth

Malik Johnson, Jack Codwell, DeAndre Thomas Jr, Gayflor Flomo, and Rob Fiorentino round out the rest of the RB room per the roster available on the KU Athletics website.

Coaching

The running backs are coached by Jonathan Wallace, who returns for his second season at KU, and obviously his first season under Lance Leipold. Wallace came to KU from Air Force. He also coached under Brent Dearmon at Bethel. Prior to that, he was an offensive analyst at Auburn under Gus Malzahn. Wallace played college football as a quarterback at Auburn from 2012-15.

Cause for Optimism

Much like the wide receiver group we just looked at, there’s a lot of talent and potential in this group that just hasn’t had the chance to manifest itself on the field. Part of that was due to Pooka Williams being the guy for the last two years, and part of that was the “coaching” that we saw after Pooka’s season last year got cut short. If the offensive line can improve even a little bit, Leipold and OC Andy Kotelnicki have a proven system that gets results, and now they have some really talented guys to put into that system.

Cause for Pessimism

Again, a lot of this hinges on the offensive line, doesn’t it? Sure, Barry Sanders didn’t need an O-line, but he’s about the only one I can think of. Although Gardner and Hishaw still managed to average 4.5 yards per carry combined last season, neither is what you could really call a “proven” Big 12 back. Hickson had fewer carries than QB Miles Kendrick last year, and if he only shows out in practice, KU might find it hard to move the ball on the ground if no one steps up and shows the ability to be a P5 RB1.