LAWRENCE, Kan. -- An underwhelming win against South Dakota State, a fourth-quarter meltdown against Rice and a closer-than-expected loss to No. 17 TCU have left Kansas looking for a spark.
James Sims could provide it.
The Jayhawks' top returning rusher is back from a three-game suspension for violating team rules -- he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in April -- and will join a mostly successful backfield of Tony Pierson and Taylor Cox when Kansas (1-2) visits Northern Illinois (2-1) on Saturday.
Sims has led the program in rushing the past two seasons, and started all 12 games under Turner Gill last year, rushing for 727 yards and nine touchdowns. However, the past several weeks, he's been restricted to a seat in the stands for games and the scout team at practice.
What exactly Sims will bring to the field is a mystery.
Cox said the veteran has been a quiet leader in the film room. Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said Sims has lost weight and gotten faster. Pierson said Sims has abandoned his signature flat-top hairstyle for more of a Mohawk -- perhaps a signal that his attitude has changed. Sims wasn't allowed to speak with the media on Tuesday.
"He came out, didn't show any signs of rust and looked like he was ready to go," Mitchell said of Sims' first practice, giving fans some reason to be positive.
In Sims' time away, Pierson and Cox combined for 546 yards and four touchdowns, and Pierson also emerged as a downfield target against TCU, catching six passes for 99 yards.
"The most exciting thing is that he's seen those other two guys playing pretty well," coach Charlie Weis said. "For him to get his snaps, he's going to have to earn it."
Pierson and Cox realize their roles could change with Sims back on the field, but they've been supportive of him. Weis thought it was important to keep him involved in the offense, so Sims has been at every meeting, quietly taking everything in to ensure a successful return.
Now, Pierson and Cox are as interested as anybody in seeing how good their backfield can be.
"They don't have an ego. They all pull for each other," Mitchell said. "They were pulling for James and encouraging him to work through it and James was encouraging them to work in games."
That sentiment has spread through the whole team.
Through the past two seasons, and with his work on the scout team this year, he has impressed him teammates with his dedication to get better and willingness earn his spot back on the team. Instead of sulking, he put his head down and took care of business.
"James has always been a hard worker on and off the field, so it's nothing new," Pierson said.
Coming out of spring practice, Mitchell said Sims was the most complete player at the position, and his return only means the running back position -- already one of the deepest on the team's depth chart -- has become even stronger.
Pierson is currently No. 1 on the depth chart, with Cox or Sims listed as second. Weis said he will have no hesitation playing Sims despite the success of the other two players.
"He is very hungry to get out there on the field," Pierson said, "so we need to just keep doing what we're doing."
The Jayhawks will certainly be relying on a solid run game against Northern Illinois, which allowed six touchdowns and 486 yards last week against Army. Sims had 117 yards and two TDs against the Huskies last season, when the Jayhawks won a shootout in Lawrence.
"We're just excited to show the talent level we have in the backfield," Cox said. "It doesn't get much better than this in my opinion."