Despite the graduation of James Sims, the third-leading rusher in KU history, the Kansas running backs corps appeared in good shape this season with fifth-year seniors Brandon Bourbon, Taylor Cox plus junior college transfer De’Andre Mann and freshman Corey Avery.
Then heartbreak happened when Bourbon and Cox went down with season-ending injuries over two weeks ago.
That means Mann and Avery will now carry the load for the Jayhawks in 2014. And KU coach Charlie Weis likes what he’s seen from them in fall camp. They’re both listed as co-starters heading into Saturday’s season opener with Southeast Missouri State at 6 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
“I think you’re going to see a whole lot of both of them,” Weis said before comparing the two backs.
“Corey actually is probably the better athlete,” Weis said. “De'Andre's probably the better football player. But Corey's upside is through the roof. De'Andre's ready for prime time. He's built with that body to take a big pounding, and that's what his body is. If you look at his body, a little short in stature, but he is just a rocked-up dude. I think that it's really not that important to me which one of those guys is in there because we feel very confident about both of them.”
Both Mann and Avery arrived at KU with impressive credentials. Mann, a 5-9, 195-pounder, is a Miami, Fla., native who played the last two seasons at Hartnell College. He was rated the top junior college running back in the country by JCGridiron.com, while helping lead the Panthers to the Coast Conference title, including a 9-2 mark and a victory in the Living Breath Foundation Bowl in 2013.
Mann, who set the Hartnell single-game, single-season and career rushing records and also the school’s record for touchdowns in a career, rushed for 1,706 yards and 27 TD’s on 223 carries as a sophomore.
Avery, meanwhile, is a 5-10, 170-pounder from Carter High School in Dallas, Texas. He was rated a four-star prospect by ESPN and 35th best running back in the nation. A two-time district MVP, Avery carried the ball 158 times for 1,667 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013.
Weis gushed over Avery’s play in the opening week of fall camp.
“Corey's probably been our most exciting guy on offense,” Weis said at the time.
With the loss of Bourbon and Cox, freshman Joe Dineen from Lawrence switched from safety to running back and could also play Saturday.
“I think Joe Dineen's ready to play in the game, and I'll only say that because they're (Mann and Avery) 1 and 1A,” Weis said. “That means Joe Dineen would be a two, but he's ready to play in the game. I can play Ed Fink and I can play Aaron Plump in the game, and they'll be dressed. If I need to use them, I can use them and they know what to do. I think Joe Dineen is clearly the next guy in and he's ready to play. He knows what to do, and he's been, since we've moved him from defense to offense he's just continued to get better.”
While Dineen could see backup duty, all eyes on Saturday at the KU running back position will be on Mann and Avery.
Weis, for one, expects them to shine.
“I'd be surprised if they don't play well,” Weis said. “Curious? You betcha. But I think you also have to know what your expectations are, and my expectations would be for them to play very well.”