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August 14, 2013

Kansas deep at running back

One player that isn't in the running backs meeting room all the time is Tony Pierson. This year Pierson has moved to the F-position on the depth chart. That means he is a little receiver and a little running back.

So what room is he in?

"I go in different rooms," Pierson said. "Wherever they tell me to go that's where I go."

Kansas running backs coach Reggie Mitchell recruited Pierson. Last season Mitchell had Pierson every day but with the position switch it has changed. Yet Pierson doesn't always end up in Rob Ianello's room at receiver either.

"With him being a hybrid guy he has to split time between being a running back and a receiver," Mitchell said. "For me it is more dealing with him in the running game. Then coach Ianello and other guys working with him in the passing game. He's put in a ton of extra work. He looks like a receiver now. That's how he views himself now."

These days Pierson said he will often seek advice from Charlie Weis Jr. Although Weis Jr. isn't a full-time coach he bounces questions off the younger Weis.

"He has a guy that he trusts that can tell him the right things," Mitchell said of Weis Jr. "He can counsel him and tell him what he needs to do. I can be over here coaching the running backs and Tony can be other there and I'm comfortable with him being able to do that. It is a great resource for us to be able to have in Junior."

Heavy competition at running back

When Weis and his staff arrived two seasons ago they went after a junior college running back. Somehow they were able to find Taylor Cox. Weis has joked they could barely find College of the Siskiyous where Cox played. The GPS navigator barely made it to Weed, California.

At one point last year they approached Cox about the possibility of redshirting. But he didn't want to do that. That's the type of attitude that has created the competition at running back going into the 2013 season.

"We talked to him about redshirting last year but Taylor said he wanted to compete," Mitchell said. "By him saying that he put everybody on that room on notice that he was going to work extremely hard every day. Most people see James as the front-runner but in the room those guys see James as someone they are challenging."

Cox turned in a solid performance at the beginning of last season. His first three games he rushed for 121, 79, and 47 yards. He was averaging over 80 yards a game until he suffered an injury and James Sims returned to action after sitting out the first three games.

"Up until the Northern Illinois game Taylor was right there as the leading rusher," Mitchell said. "Then Taylor got hurt and James came in and took off. So I think if you give Taylor the same amount of opportunities that James I'm not so sure if Taylor wouldn't have been as successful. Taylor is a really good running back. He could start for a lot of other teams."

Although Sims sits on top of the depth chart right now, the competition is a fluid situation. Also in the middle of the running is Darrian Miller. Two seasons ago he emerged over Sims in a tight battle to be the starter. Miller has returned to Kansas after spending a year at Butler County Community College.

"He has matured," Mitchell said of Miller. "When he was here was before he didn't have structure he needed. He came in mid year and probably shouldn't have done that. When he visited here this summer coach Weis didn't read him the riot act but he said if you do these things we can help you be successful. Darrian has bought into what coach Weis has said. He's been really, really good to work with. Having work with him before and now is night and day."

In the Jayhawks final home game in 2011 they led a Robert Griffin III-led Baylor squad going into the fourth quarter. Sims and Miller had an identical 24 carries in the game with Miller rushing for 80 more yards. If you watched that game Miller looked like the better runner. Yet Weis said Sims has fought off the competition and has a grasp on the top spot.

"Taylor is second team right now and one play away from being the starter," Mitchell said. "Darrian Miller is two plays away. A lot of people think James Sims is at the top of the pecking and rightfully so because he has earned that. But if you talk to coach Weis the best guy is going to play. If Taylor is the best guy then he will play. Same with Darrian. You try to make them all feel like they are as important."

More news and notes

Brandon Bourbon has joined Pierson over at the F-position. Like Pierson, Mitchell also recruited him to Kansas. Bourbon was committed to Jim Harbaugh at Stanford before Mitchell convinced him to sign with the Jayhawks. In the last press conference Weis held he praised Bourbon's work in camp.

Mitchell believes Bourbon has the talent and is the closest to bolster the F-position along with Pierson.

"He has been doing the same thing and gives us more depth there," Mitchell said. "Brandon on our team is the closest guy that can do the same things that Tony can do. He's giving us the flexibility to get in and out of personnel groupings. He has good hands maybe not the level of Tony because he's not been doing it as long. Tony went through the spring and summer and it is more of a new thing with Brandon."

In the past when Bourbon gets momentum built and climbs up the depth chart something has happened. Injuries have been a part of it. When he's healthy he can be a contributor.

"The thing with Brandon is he's been hurt," Mitchell said. "When he hasn't been hurt James has played well and then you had Darrian so we redshirted him as a freshman. When Brandon has had his opportunities he's put up some good numbers. I think with Brandon it is more getting the chance to do it enough. Moving him to F position he will get that opportunity."

• Sims and Pierson are two of the main weapons on offense. They are both leaders but go about go it a different way.

"They're not leaders by being vocal," Mitchell said. "They are more leaders by example. You won't see James Sims out in front or Tony doing that, or even Taylor. It is more because of their personalities. I don't want them to and coach Weis doesn't want them to get away from who they are."

• Mitchell has coached several NFL running backs in his career. Sims led the Big 12 in rushing last season and has a chance to be on NFL draft boards. Mitchell was asked which one of his former backs Sims reminded him of.

"He would be closer to a Pierre Thomas (New Orleans Saints)," Mitchell said of his former running back. "He doesn't have great top-end speed but he's got functional speed. He's tough and hard-nosed. He can make people miss, can catch and block. I'd like to say he's a guy that's not great at any one thing but good at a lot of things."

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