Just last spring, Jon Cornish was buried on the depth chart at linebacker.
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Cornish exited this spring as Kansas’s number one option at running back, following a season where he led the team in rushing yards with 780 and was named the John Hadl Most Valuable Offensive Player of the Year. He chipped in nine touchdowns, ran for 5.8 yards per pop and collected the team’s longest run of the season when he ran for a 72-yard touchdown to break open the Nebraska game.
So what’s he got for an encore? Cornish has said that his goal is to top the team in rushing this year, and hit a number no Kansas back has ever hit, the 1,500-yard plateau for a season.
Cornish wasn’t always in such a great position. He came to Kansas after rushing for 3,200 yards and scoring 49 touchdowns in three years for St. Thomas More HS in New Westminster, B.C., Canada, where he was selected the British Columbia Provincial Player of the Year. He was a talented back with track speed — Nebraska offered him a scholarship to compete in spikes — who figured to see quick time in a rebuilding Kansas program that lacked talent.
But Cornish received a medical redshirt his first year, then had one carry for three yards as he played mostly special teams as a redshirt freshman. As a sophomore, it was much of the same, with Cornish mostly seeing the field in special teams situations. Cornish did catch a 12-yard pass against Kansas State, the same game he recorded a 15-yard kick return. He carried the ball twice for five yards on the season.
Then, his junior year came. Motivated by illness in the family that showed him “my problems weren’t so bad,” Cornish stood out in fall practice, earning the backup spot behind Clark Green at running back. But Cornish surpassed Green as a runner, and against Appalachian State, the same Cornish who had three career carries coming into the year, scored three touchdowns.
But Cornish wasn’t ever a full-time player. He struggled at times blocking and catching the ball, which meant that Green was never too far behind. Cornish did have his moments — he scored two touchdowns on shovel passes in the bowl game against Houston. But Mangino said after the spring game that there was more to playing running back than toting the ball, implying that Cornish still had improvements to make in that area.
With the ball under his arm, Cornish is one of the top backs in the Big 12 North. But it’s two things, his inability to become a complete back and his special teams aptitude that may open up a spot for another back to get snaps.
Right now, that back is Angus Quigley. Quigley has great size at about 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, to go along with excellent speed.
“He’s probably as fast as Jon,” said Brandon Blaney, Kansas assistant coach. “I don’t think many people know that. But he’s certainly explosive.”
The question is whether Quigley can fill in where Cornish is lacking. If he shows consistent hands and a willingness to pop the blitzing linebacker, he could see extended field time. Quigley used a strong spring to cement himself as the number two running back, and with the next three spots likely taken by the incoming high school recruits, he has a step up in terms of experience in the system and a year more of physical development.
But if Quigley too struggles in the passing game, Brandon McAnderson could find himself playing in shotgun formations, much as he did in the spring. A solid all-around fullback, McAnderson could be one of the Big 12’s top players at his position. He excels at kickout blocks, and is a monster to run behind, meaning Kansas could see more I Formation sets with bigger running backs pounding after McAnderson.
But while McAnderson has a nice skill set, his lack of deep speed eliminates him as a major threat receiving the ball, possibly opening the way for the younger, faster freshmen in third-down situations.
If the offense needs a change of pace running back, both Jake Sharp and Donte Bean, are smaller, quicker options with big-play capability. DeMarcus Lang is another plus-sized runner with decent burst.
Cornish and McAnderson are nice pieces to build the running backs corps around. After that, it gets iffy, as none of the serious contenders for playing time have taken a handoff yet, though Quigley shows potential as a second. The battle for third could be interesting, with Sharp showing excellent potential as an immediate return man, while Bean could have the most upside in the passing game.
HEADING INTO FALL GRADE: B+