Can Kansas' running game keep the Jayhawks competitive as the opponents get tougher?
With Big 12 Conference play starting this weekend and the Kansas football team likely to be an underdog in nearly all of its remaining games, it’s time to shift the focus to what the Jayhawks can do to stay in games and compete into the fourth quarter.
The easiest way to do that is by controlling the clock through running the football and KU Offensive Coordinator Andy Kotelnicki said this week that he viewed that to be a “critically important” part of any game plan, underdog or not.
But while the old concept of Kansas keeping its offense on the field to keep the high-powered opponent off it still holds water, Kotelnicki said the Jayhawks have bigger goals this season.
“Our evolution needs to be to make sure we’re finishing those drives however they look,” he said Wednesday. “The most important metric in football is your points per possession. When you’re on the field, you need to finish with points. If it takes 20 plays to go do that, fantastic. If it takes one, great. But we want to be able to end those things with touchdowns.”
KU did just that last Friday night in its 56-10 win in the season opener. The Jayhawks had the ball 11 times against Tennessee Tech and converted that into seven touchdowns. Kansas actually scored eight TDs in the win but one came via a blocked field goal on special teams.
Still, a 64% success rate with the football is pretty darn good. It also came against an FCS opponent that was overmatched physically. West Virginia will not be. But that doesn’t concern Kotelnicki all that much.
“I’m excited about the test that we’re about to take,” he said of Saturday's 5 p.m. showdown in Morgantown on ESPN+.
The biggest reason is it gives KU another opportunity to establish the type of offensive identity it wants to have both this season and well into the future.
“There’s still a really physical element to football and we want to embrace that,” Kotelnicki said. “We want to thrive in that environment. That’s who we want to be.”
Having five running backs capable of carrying out that mission certainly does not hurt. The Jayhawks’ deep and talented stable of running backs made its presence felt in limited opportunities last week. The lopsided nature of the game kept KU from running up the rushing totals for Devin Neal, Daniel Hishaw and Ky Thomas. Sevion Morrison and Tory Locklin also played meaningful snaps in the opener, and Morrison and Kotelnicki both said they would like to see that continue, as well.
“I think our coordinator loves that because if we need to we can get a running back in the game that fits that situation and does what needs to be done,” Morrison said on Wednesday. “And we can stay pretty fresh with all those backs.”
Kotelnicki made Morrison’s words sound awfully smart a little later in the day Wednesday.
“Fantastic,” he said of the idea of using multiple backs on a regular basis. “Because, in theory, everyone should be still pretty fresh. If you can go on one of these long drives and, all of a sudden, fresh legs come in every three carries, that’s good. That can be tough on a defense. Real tough.”
Regardless of whether you view it as KU trying to shorten the game to stay in it as long as possible or as a staple of the Jayhawks’ offensive philosophy, Kotelnicki emphasized this week that the running game was going to remain a key part of KU’s attack week in and week out.
“I don’t know that I’d ever say you move past that,” he said. “Because (when you look at) how an offense controls a game, time management is one metric that someone would use to do that — staying on the field, keeping your defense off the field.
“For anyone’s success, I think you have to establish a run game. For us to do that, (would be) a good first step in our journey.”