Kansas' running game emerges as surprising strength


Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Opposing teams have accounted for Kansas’ potent passing game early this season. Nickel and dime pass defenses have been the rule as teams have tried to snuff out Todd Reesing’s aerial attack on nearly every down.

It’s almost seemed like opposing teams have been willing to dare the Jayhawks to beat them with a ground game and an offensive line that were presumed to be question marks entering the season.

Consider the dare answered after the first two weeks of the season, thanks to the potent one-two rushing attack of senior Jake Sharp and bullish freshman Toben Opurum.

“Teams have realized that we have a great quarterback and receiver combination and have been willing to do what they can to try to stop our passing game,” Sharp said. “They’ve been willing to challenge us. And so far, we’ve been able to capitalize.”

The Jayhawks’ running game has been one of their biggest surprises as they have averaged a Big 12-leading 291.5 yards per game in their impressive 2-0 start.

Kansas started the season by gashing Northern Colorado for 334 yards. It was the Jayhawks’ top rushing performance since 2001. And they followed that with 255 yards against UTEP to spark a 34-7 victory.

“A lot of people have had questions about the offensive line coming in,” Opurum said. “They’ve had a lot of people moving around and some that maybe some people haven’t heard of. But they’ve done a good job of opening holes for me and Jake. They’ve played well, exceeded expectations and can only get better.”

Sharp has built on a fast 2008 finish to rush for 100 yards in both games, becoming only the second player in the Big 12 along with Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas to accomplish that feat this season.

And the muscular 235-pound Opurum has also had a blazing start, inviting comparisons to former Kansas tailback Brandon McAnderson because of his size and tough inside running ability.

Despite the offensive line's lack of experience together, Sharp has been impressed with their work.

“Everything came together with confidence and a better understanding,” Sharp said. “When I’m going to hit the hole, I have confidence it will be there. Our offensive line has done a great job so far.”

And Oburum has quickly shown that same kind of ability, averaging 70.5 rushing yards per game to rank ninth in the conference.

Kansas coach Mark Mangino credits some of Sharp and Opurum’s quick start to the growth of a precocious offensive line.

“Jake Sharp is quicker and faster than he was a year ago. And Toben is a young running back who is learning and has a lot of natural ability and a lot of tools,” Mangino said. “But the other key is our line. We have a bunch of young guys, but they are very talented.”

Mangino switched starting left tackle Jeremiah Hatch to center and inserted 285-pound redshirt freshman Tanner Hawkinson, a converted defensive end, into the starting lineup.

“The way I describe our offensive line is that you’d like to have experience, toughness and talent,” Mangino said. “We have the talent and toughness, but what we lack in experience we are making up because of the other two. It’s a combination of those things.”

But the real test for the Jayhawks will be when they start facing conventional defenses that aren’t skewed to the pass.

That trend, Sharp said, would be the biggest indicator that Kansas’ ground game finally has arrived.

“I would like to think they would have to do that before long,” Sharp said. “The spread offense we run is obviously very explosive and they have to account for that. But we take what people give us. We can throw the ball, no question. But we’ve shown we’ve got a balanced attack and can run the ball a little, too.”