LAWRENCE, Kan. — One day after revealing $350 million in renovations focused primarily on its football facilities, a Kansas program that has struggled for years got another reason to believe in its future.
His name is Khalil Herbert.
The sophomore running back ran roughshod through West Virginia last Saturday, piling up 291 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the third-most productive game in school history. The monstrous performance included a 67-yard touchdown run late in the first half that gave the Jayhawks some momentum, spurring a comeback that made the 56-34 loss competitive until late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s just the attitude, knowing that we could run the ball a lot,” Herbert said afterward, giving all the praise to his offensive line. “I think they love me, so keep doing it.”
The performance was remarkable for a number of reasons.
First, the Jayhawks have implemented a version of the “Air Raid” offense under coach David Beaty and offensive coordinator Doug Meacham. The basic premise of the system is to sling the ball all over the field, using the running game to open things up for a prolific passing attack.
Turns out it was the run game that opened up thanks to the passing game.
Second, the performance came from a diminutive running back who stood out in spring practices but was expected to share the load this season. He carried just 44 times for 189 yards as a freshman, and he had a combined three carries for 10 yards in his first two games this season.
But the Jayhawks began to feed him in a loss to Ohio, when he toted the ball 19 times for 137 yards and two scores, and they thought they could have similar success against the Mountaineers.
Herbert carried it 10 of the 14 plays that helped Kansas to a field goal on its first possession, and the Jayhawks stayed with him the rest of the game. Even when they fell into a 35-13 hole at halftime, they didn’t depart from the game plan, ensuring No. 10 would get plenty of work.
“I said last year that I thought he had the potential to be one of the better ones that we have had, particularly in the time that I’ve been here,” Beaty said. “We knew he had a terrific skill set.”
Indeed, he showed all of it against the Mountaineers: shifty hips to make guys miss, power to run through arm tackles and enough breakaway speed to take it to the house.
“After the (first) game we talked and I challenged him a little bit to not let the game come to him, but take it to the game,” Beaty said. “He made the adjustments in practice and the byproduct has been exactly what we thought he could do. He did not come out of nowhere.”
The Jayhawks, who are off this week, have had plenty of talented running backs over the years.
Start with the early 1960s, when Gale Sayers was setting all kinds of records before heading off to a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears. He gave way to John Riggins, who likewise had a standout career in the late ’60s before helping the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl triumph.
More recently, guys such as Tony Sands and June Henley — the school’s career rushing leader — kept the torch blazing, and James Sims finished his career with more than 3,500 yards rushing.
Yet of all those stars, only Sands (396 against Missouri in 1991) and quarterback Nolan Cromwell (294 against Oregon in 1975) ran for more yards in a game than Herbert did against the Mountaineers.
Herbert was expected to share carries with a couple other running backs this season. But touted junior college transfer Octavius Matthews had to retire after a heart issue was detected during a routine screening, and Dom Williams and Taylor Martin have not been nearly as productive.
Then again, few running backs have ever been more productive than Herbert was last weekend.
“I thought we ran the ball really, really well,” Beaty said. “We had a back run for 291 yards. That’s third all-time, and pretty close to the second all-time, which is — man, that’s good.”