Charlie Weis was met with a dilemma.
No, not how to get people past him calling the Jayhawks "a pile of crap" during Big 12 media days. The Kansas coach has bigger concerns, like getting the elite talent he has on the roster onto the field as much as possible.
Running back James Sims has secured his spot among the Big 12’s best running backs. Yet, the Jayhawks also boast Tony Pierson, Sims’ backup in 2012 who is one of the most explosive playmakers on the roster. It’s a quandary for a team looking for as many playmakers as possible with the hope of turning around a program which has gone 1-25 in Big 12 play during the past three seasons.
Having Pierson on the sidelines didn’t make sense to Weis. So he devised a plan to get the junior on the field and the football in his hands. Heading into the 2013 season, Pierson moved to the brand new “F” receiver position in KU’s offense, a running back/receiver hybrid position designed to get the ball in the junior’s hands.
“Tony is a guy that, you want to get him the ball,” quarterback Jake Heaps said. “He’s so explosive and he has the ability to make that home run play happen at any moment. The more times he gets the all the more likely we’ll have a big play and score points.”
Pierson was quietly one of the Big 12’s top offensive threats in 2012. He rushed for 760 yards while adding 21 receptions for 291 yards. Texas Tech’s defense must still have nightmares about his 16-carry, 202-yard performance in KU’s loss in Lubbock last year.
The goal is to have Pierson aim to approach those numbers on a weekly basis. Just when the conference was starting to forget West Virginia all-purpose threat Tavon Austin, the Jayhawks are hoping Pierson can attack Big 12 defenses in a similar fashion.
“Tavon Austin was a good player and I’m trying to do the same thing in the Big 12,” Pierson said.
When Pierson learned he would be moving to the “F” receiver this season, he immediately began watching Austin and getting a feel for how the first-round NFL draft pick handled the role for the Mountaineers while rushing for 643 yards and amassing 1,289 receiving yards in 2012.
“To this day I watch Tavon Austin,” Pierson said. “All the time I watch his highlight film to see what he’s doing against linebackers and defensive backs.”
And yet none of this would be possible without Pierson’s football intelligence. A huge football fan growing up, Pierson spent many Saturdays and Sundays learning how to play the game and attack defenses by watching college and NFL players.
“Growing up I studied the game of football a lot to see what the defense was doing,” he said. “I tried to know every position on offense to get my football I.Q. going because you never know where a coach might need you.”
Endless hours in front of the television are paying off for Pierson now.
“We can put Tony anywhere on the field, he’s so intelligent,” Heaps said. “We’re able to put him everywhere in all sorts of different positions. It’s unusual to be able to put a guy in so many spots with the complicated offense we have.”
A complicated offense with the goal of putting Pierson in space and allowing him to create. Last season he’d often get the ball in the backfield, with at least four or five defenders to beat to make a game-changing play. This season the Jayhawks hope that number drops to one or two defenders.
“I think it’s exactly the right way to use him,” Heaps said. “He’s a guy you have to pay attention to all times. He opens things up for our passing game and opens things up for James and the rest of the running backs.”
Pierson has made a fairly seamless adjustment to the running back/receiver hybrid position, with Heaps calling him “a natural receiver” and expressing excitement about their developing chemistry.
It all adds up to what could be a big year for Pierson, one that could watch him go from second billing to headliner in KU’s offense, at a position expressly created to get him on the field more and ensure his number of touches will increase in 2013.
“It gets me more in space, something I like,” Pierson said. “I make a catch, I only have to make one or two people miss. More space, more opportunity for me.”