LAWRENCE — When sophomore running back Darrian Miller ran out of the tunnel before Kansas began its season at home against South Dakota, a single thought raced through his mind.
“I didn’t know if anybody would remember me or what people were expecting,” he said. “I just kind of kept it all inside, more of just not trying to make it something for myself.”
Miller could be excused if he had made it all about himself. After all, even playing for Kansas this season seemed improbable when Charlie Weis became coach in December 2011.
Weis dismissed Miller for off-field issues soon after being hired, ridding the team of its second-leading rusher. Miller transferred to Butler Community College in El Dorado, but did not play football so that he could maintain a season of eligibility.
One player on Butler’s team, cornerback Dexter McDonald, could empathize.
McDonald also was among 29 players that Weis dismissed, though his issue was academics. He landed at Butler and told Miller, whom he’d known since high school, to join him. The idea was that they could spend a year there and work their way back to the Division I level.
Maybe even work their way back into Weis’s good graces.
“I knew his situation, so I suggested it to him,” McDonald said. “They were a great school and a lot of coaches coming in and out of there.”
At first, they didn’t speak much about trying to return to Kansas. But eventually, both of them made enough progress that they convinced Weis and running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, who had recruited them, to bring them back to Lawrence.
“I feel like I’m back at home where I should have never left in the first place,” McDonald said. “It was already home so it just kind of seemed to me, ‘Why not go back?’”
Kansas, which is 2-1 heading into its Big 12 opener against No. 20 Texas Tech on Saturday, has found Miller and McDonald, a junior, to be two stable pieces of a heralded junior college recruiting class that’s undergone more shake-ups than expected.
Defensive end Chris Martin was dismissed in June after being arrested in connection with an armed robbery. Defensive tackle Marquel Combs, the Jayhawks’ highest-rated JUCO signing, was granted his release to transfer in September, days after the NCAA declared that cornerback Kevin Short ineligible for the season. Short was battling McDonald at the right cornerback position.
Even without Short, Kansas’ revamped secondary is allowing 111 fewer yards passing per game than last season. McDonald leads Kansas with seven pass breakups and an interception.
“Dexter has big-time ability,” Weis said. “I think that we should have high expectations for Dexter. He’s been good. He’s been really good.”
The Jayhawks’ running game didn’t undergo a major overhaul in the offseason, but the coaches still were excited to have Miller back for another chance. He did about everything he could in the season opener to make sure Kansas fans remembered who he was, running 14 times for 72 yards.
Miller touched the ball only six times in the next two games, but that’s largely because he’s sharing a job with James Sims, who is coming off a 1,000-yard season.
“I think James is a great inside runner,” Mitchell said. “I think Darrian is a change-of-pace guy, that he’d like to be a little on the edge a little bit more.”
With his talents, Miller could have searched for a second chance at a different Division I school, maybe somewhere he’d have been the clear-cut starter. But he’s comfortable with Mitchell and wanted to prove he could atone for his first stint at Kansas.
Having to work to get on the field didn’t deter him.
“Competition pushes me more than a lot of things,” Miller said. “I look to the older guys for support as well as they look to me for things in my strong points.”