LAWRENCE (AP) — Most of the eyes in Memorial Stadium last Saturday were surely fixed on Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist, the once-heralded recruit who transferred from Notre Dame.
If so, they missed Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox running roughshod over South Dakota State.
While the Charlie Weis era has ushered in a pro-style offense centered on Crist, the new coach also has been quick to praise the Jayhawks’ running game, which is expected to alleviate some of the burden from the high-profile quarterback and give a breather to a suspect defense.
That certainly was the case in the opener.
The speedy Pierson ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns, including a dynamic 47-yard dash to the end zone. Cox went for 121 yards and another score in his first game since transferring from the tiny College of the Siskiyous in California.
“It means a lot to have a whole crew of good running backs and have us in the game in different situations,” Pierson said. “That’s going to be good in the future.”
Their performance against the lower-division Jackrabbits was a relief on several fronts.
For one thing, Crist was just 17 of 36 for 169 yards with a touchdown and an interception, showing some of the rust that comes with barely playing last season. Crist overthrew several receivers and had a completion percentage that no doubt resulted in a poor grade from the coaching staff.
Then there’s the fact that the Jayhawks are playing without James Sims, their top rusher a year ago. He’s suspended for three games for violating team rules.
His absence means that Pierson and Cox, along with Brandon Bourbon, are getting more chances in practice and games. The Jayhawks play Rice on Saturday before facing No. 20 TCU on Sept. 15.
“Coming off a win, there are obviously good things that we did, but you can’t pride yourself on only the good things,” Cox said. “You have to humble yourself by looking at the things you need to improve.”
Of all the revelations in the opener — the debut of Weis on the sideline, Crist under center and a whole new look on both sides of the ball — Cox may have left the biggest impression.
He committed to Washington State out of high school but did not qualifying academically, so he wound up at College of Siskiyous in the “truck-stop town” of Weed, Calif., where Cox said the “only thing we had was McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell for eat spots.”
“There’s a local bowling alley, but besides that we drive to Redding and go to the mall,” he said. “Redding is about two hours south. But besides that it’s football, school and bowling.”
Cox made a name for himself on the picturesque campus at the base of Mount Shasta, running for more than 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman, and 1,507 yards and 14 TDs in 10 games as a sophomore. But the big schools still stayed away, many of them skeptical about the competition Cox was facing and perhaps unsure they’d even find a town called Weed.
“It’s a tough place to find,” Weis said. “What a good player is supposed to do against players that aren’t as good, they’re supposed to dominate. All they can do is dominate, and that’s what he did.”
It’s what he did against the Jackrabbits, too.
While the shifty Pierson has pop around the corners, the 210-pound Cox has the ability to run anywhere on the field. He was just as adept over the right side of the line, where Gavin Howard and Aslam Sterling were making their first career starts, as the left, where Duane Zlatnik and Tanner Hawkinson have each started 37 consecutive games.
“I definitely enjoy watching Tony run. He’s a speedster and he could take it to the house at any time,” Cox said. “We both run hard and we both can make plays.”
They both could have a field day against Rice, which gave up 343 yards rushing in a 49-24 loss to UCLA last weekend. Johnathan Franklin had 15 carries for 214 yards and three touchdowns, while redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley scampered loose for a 72-yard scoring run.
“Right now we’re extremely happy,” Kansas running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said. “The coaches’ philosophy is that you talk about the guys that are here, but with the three guys that we have playing right now, we feel like we have a lot of depth there.”