Phog Breakdown: The Running Backs

Injuries and unexpected departures may have left the 2010 Jayhawks thin at a couple of positions, but one area where the program appears to be rich in talent – if not experience – is running back. With a two-deep yet to solidify and the first game little more than a week away, dives headfirst into the competition for carries.

When junior running back Rell Lewis went down with a season-ending knee injury last week, many Kansas fans probably thought the hazy picture at running back had finally become clear.

Lewis was something as a surprise in 2009, when injuries pressed him into service late in the season as the number three tailback on the depth chart. Utilizing heretofore unseen speed and quickness, he gained 43 yards on five carries versus Texas, and took a swing pass 42 yards in the season finale versus Missouri.

When Head Coach Turner Gill released his first depth chart of the fall last week, it showed senior Angus Quigley in the top spot at running back. However, the belief is the number two back will play an important role in the offense installed by Gill and first year offensive coordinator Chuck Long. And until the moment of his injury, there was Lewis, battling it out for the number two spot on the depth chart with redshirt freshman Deshaun Sands and vying for major playing time.

But as disappointing as it was to lose the junior speedster unexpectedly, one would assume things would be solidified in the backfield. Kale Pick at quarterback, Steven Foster at fullback, Angus Quigley and Deshaun Sands at running back.

Simple, clean cut. Right?

Not exactly.

At Sunday's Fan Appreciation Day open practice, Quigley, Sands and freshman Brandon Bourbon took snaps with the first-team offense. Freshman James Sims ran with the second-team, and has been consistently mentioned in the athletic department's write-ups of weekend scrimmages as a standout performer.

Afterward, Gill told the media Bourbon and Sims are still in the hunt for playing time, and that things at running back are far from set in stone.

"All of them have had a little taste of having some success in our practices, in our scrimmages and all those type of things of that nature," he said. "We've got a couple of guys that we think right now in our mind, though we're not going to release that at this point in time, that are probably the top two as far as at running back."

Without knowing exactly who will be on the field quite yet, is instead here to provide a look at the individual talents and abilities of the four athletes in contention, in the third of our "Phog Breakdown" series.

Angus Quigley – Senior – 6-foot-1, 222 pounds:

There may not e a name more familiar to Kansas fans on the current roster than that of AQ. After arriving on campus in 2005, the Cleburne, Texas native suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries without ever taking a snap.

An inauspicious beginning to a career, to be sure, but that didn't stop fans from drooling over Quigley's potential. Built like college senior as an 18-year-old, it seemed only a matter of time before he would be back on track, hammering defenses like a crimson and blue battering ram and carrying the Kansas rushing attack on his back.

Only that idyllic future never quite materialized. Reports of fumbleitis in practice plagued him throughout 2007, but in 2008 he appeared in 11 games at running back, carrying 59 times for 309 yards.

Still, his playing time faded as the season stretched on, and by the end of the 2008 season Jake Sharp had solidified his spot as the team's go-to running back. Not wanting to waste Quigley's athletic talents, former Head Coach Mark Mangino shifted him to linebacker in the spring of 2009, and Quigley played sparingly in nine games at the position.

When Gill was hired, however, Quigley received another shot to achieve his dream of becoming the starting tailback at Kansas – and it's an opportunity of which he appears to be making the most.

The best way to describe AQ's running style is to call it "brutal." Merely "physical" just doesn't get the job done, because there's an almost angry quality to the way he carries the ball, as if seeking out defenders for contact. Just ask Texas safety Blake Gideon, whom Quigley knocked unconscious during the 2008 contest in Lawrence.

While not as fleet of foot or as quick as the other running backs on the roster, he has worked hard to improve himself in this area – and it shows. Though he weighed 235 pounds at the end of spring football, none of it was what one might consider "sloppy" weight. Even so, Gill approached the sixth-year senior with a challenge to cut more than 10 pounds off his frame, maximizing his speed and agility.

Quigley answered the bell, and now has himself in position to become what Jayhawk Nation always hoped he could be.

Deshaun Sands – Redshirt Freshman – 5-foot-7, 190 pounds:

Physically, "Tuxedo" Tony Sands probably shouldn't have been a successful running back in the ultra-competitive Big 8 conference – let alone one of the best in Kansas football history.

He wasn't big, standing just 5-foot-6 and weighing 175 pounds. Nor was he fast, or even particularly quick. But from 1988-1991, the diminutive Jayhawk baffled opposing defensive coordinators with his penchant for slithering through seemingly non-existent holes, and running with the strength and power of an athlete twice his size.

By the time the sun set on his career, Sands had claimed at least a share of 17 Kansas rushing and scoring records; a list that included not only the well-known single game record (396 yards in his final home game, versus hated rival Missouri) but the career mark as well (3,788 yards).

Now, after redshirting as a freshman in 2009, it may be his progeny's time to shine.

Though he isn't much bigger than his dad, Deshaun Sands possesses much of the natural athleticism his father did not. A native of Sunrise, Fla., as a senior at Piper High School he rushed for 1,276 yards and 10 touchdowns in what is generally regarded as the most athletic pool of high school talent in the country.

His prep film tells the tale of his abilities. Exceptionally quick and agile, he runs with a strength and durability that will remind many of Tony in his prime. In fact, his 235 career carries at PHS rank 10-best in the history of Broward County.

While not slow, Sands likely won't be what one might classify as a home-run threat at the college level. Fortunately, nowhere is it written that one must be a track star in order to succeed as a running back in major conference football – as Tony proved almost 20 years ago.

What he does have is outstanding zero-to-60 ability to go along with his agility, vision and disproportionate strength, which are all powerful tools to have at a running back's disposal.

Though his exact role has yet to be determined, it's not hard to see Sands finding a place as a third-down back at a minimum, capable of catching a screen or shovel pass and picking up crucial yardage to keep the chains moving.

Brandon Bourbon – Freshman – 6-foot-1, 208 pounds:

To many Kansas fans, the late addition of Brandon Bourbon to the Class of 2010 was solid evidence of the new coaching staff's prowess on the recruiting trail.

At one time committed to Stanford, Bourbon was a highly-rated running back prospect courted by the likes of Brigham Young, Kansas, Missouri and Notre Dame, in addition to the Cardinal.

Bourbon is a rare blend of physical talent. Though he now weighs 208 pounds, at one point prior to training camp his weight had climbed to approximately 220 pounds. At the behest of the coaching staff he trimmed 12 pounds of muscle from his frame, presumably to maximize his speed and agility – much like Angus Quigley.

Where Bourbon sets himself apart athletically, however, is with his speed. A multi-sport star at Potosi (MO) High School, he holds the school record in the 100-meter dash with an asphalt-melting time of 10.4-seconds. And while some track stars never manage to apply their gifts to the gridiron, for Bourbon that was hardly an issue.

Named the Missouri Class 3A Player of the Year in 2009, he led PHS to an 11-1 record on the strength of 2,531 yards rushing the 36 touchdowns on just 196 carries.

While Bourbon carries with him all the hallmarks for collegiate success, there are some potential red flags in this, his first season on campus. For one, it's a sizable leap from high school to college for any athlete, but Missouri Class 3 football is not elite competition at the prep level – far from it. In fact, so physically advanced was Bourbon that in many contests he dwarfed the defenders trying futilely to bring him down.

Additionally, so much more is asked of college running backs today. Playbooks are bigger and more complex than ever, and understanding how best to keep a 260-pound defensive end from tearing the head off the quarterback is an experience that can't be simulated.

Based on his talent level, Bourbon's playing time in 2010 will likely be dictated by how quickly he adjusts to the college game – both physically and mentally. Nevertheless, Jayhawks fans can expect fireworks galore from him during the next four years.

James Sims – Freshman – 6-foot, 226 pounds:

This talented running back was one of the first commitments to the Kansas 2010 recruiting class, pulling the trigger for the Jayhawks in July of 2009.

At the time, Sims was a relative unknown to most college recruiters, but in the months that followed interest in obtaining his services picked up in a big way, as he earned offers from the likes of Arkansas, Purdue and Utah.

The Irving, Texas native held firm to Kansas, however, even when the staff responsible for obtaining his commitment was replaced wholesale. Gill and his staff sold Sims on their philosophy, and he put pen to paper for the Jayhawks on National Signing Day in February.

It's not hard to understand why Sims is considered to be one of the jewels of the class, along with Bourbon. Though he doesn't have his classmate's straightline speed, he's got plenty of big-play ability. What stands out about him on film is how shifty he is for his size, frequently making multiple defenders miss with decisive lateral cuts and jukes.

Additionally, he possesses outstanding balance. Some running backs have an almost instinctive ability to turn crushing hits into glancing blows and stay upright. Sims has this ability in spades.

Though perhaps to varying degrees, the same limitations that apply to Bourbon apply to Sims, however. While his level of prep competition was unquestionably higher in the Dallas Metroplex, it's still a far cry from the BCS. He has also added more than 20 pounds to his frame since he last took a snap in a game, and it remains to be seen how quickly he will adjust to carrying the additional load.

Whether or not he sees the field in 2010 remains to be seen, but Sims is nonetheless one of the program's brightest young stars.

Steven Foster – Junior – 6-foot-1, 257 pounds – Fullback:

It's been a long time since a fullback has been utilized on Mount Oread in more than a situational role, but that stands to change in 2010.

Gill and offensive coordinator Chuck Long have stated that the I-Formation will have a home in the playbook once more, and to run the "I" a team needs a fullback.

Enter Steven Foster.

A native of Sedgwick, Kan., Foster has been something of a man without a position since arriving on the Kansas campus in 2007. First at fullback in the occasional short yardage situation, he shifted to defensive end as a redshirt sophomore in 2009 where the previous staff believed his athleticism could be used in the role of an edge rusher.

Now, however, he is back at fullback, and it's a position for which he is ideally suited physically. Big and bruising at 6-foot-1, 257 pounds, he is athletic and physical enough to take on most defensive ends – and all linebackers – head-to-head.

It's unclear just how much I-formation Kansas fans will see in 2010, but it's a safe bet it will make more than a guest appearance. That being the case, Foster has the chance to make a real impact on offense's fortunes in the weeks ahead.

Author's Note: Gill announced Sunday that Foster would continue work with the defense at defensive end, in addition to his duties at fullback.

Other Running Backs on the Roster

Ryan Burton – Redshirt Freshman – 5-foot-9, 187 pounds:

2009 (RS): Redshirted the season... Named KU offensive scout team player of the week vs. Missouri.

High School: Was a three-year letterwinner at Air Academy... Played running back and cornerback... Was an all-state first-team pick by Prep Colorado as a senior... Was a two-time first-team all-area selection... Played played baseball and basketball... Competed in speech and debate... Was academic all-state in football, speech and debate and baseball.

Tyler Hunt – Sophomore – 6-foot-2, 240 pounds:

2009 (Fr.): Named KU offensive scout team player of the week vs. Nebraska.

2008 (RS): A walk-on to the team who redshirted the season.

High School: Was a three-year letterwinner as a running back and linebacker... Earned all-state honorable mention honors... Named to all-area, all-metro and all-league teams as well.

Rell Lewis – Junior – 5-foot-9, 205 pounds:

2009 (Fr.): Saw action on special teams in every game, making three tackles on the season... Recorded rushes in three different games... Ran five times for 17 yards at UTEP in second game of the season... Rushed five times for 43 yards at Texas for season-best mark... Added three carries for 12 yards against Missouri in season finale... Had two catches on year, including a 42-yarder against Missouri.

2008 (Fr.): Saw limited time on special teams and in a reserve role... Made three tackles on the year.

2007 (RS): Redshirted his first year at Kansas... Named KU Scout Team Offensive Player of the Week vs. Florida International.

Justin Puthoff – Redshirt Freshman – 6-foot-3, 252 pounds:

2009 (RS): Redshirted his first year at KU.

High School: Was an all-state linebacker as a senior... Earned all-league honors as a junior and senior... Registered a team-best 109 tackles as a senior... Also forced four fumbles and recorded an interception... Let team with 90 tackles as a junior, while recording 13 tackle for loss and an interception... Was an all-state and all-league basketball player... Also played baseball... Earned a 4.0 grade-point average throughout high school.

Nick Sizemore – Sophomore (TR) – 6-foot-2, 246 pounds:

Quickly: Transferred from Buffalo, but will sit out the 2010 season before having three years of eligibility starting in 2011.

Buffalo: Played in all 12 games as a true freshman in 2009... Was one of just three true freshmen to see action for the Bulls... Did not have any rushes and had one reception for seven yards at Miami (Ohio)... Made four tackles on special teams.

High School: Was an all-state second-team selection as a senior... Earned all-league honors three times... Set school record with 311 career tackles... Had 111 stops, including 5.5 sacks as a senior... Rushed 34 times for 177 yards and caught six passes for 67 yards... Was also all-league in wrestling and lacrosse... Earned four football letters. Top Stories