LAWRENCE — Tony Pierson leaned forward on a wooden lectern inside the Kansas football facilities, slumping his shoulders inward. This was not totally comfortable. He fidgeted. He swayed. For a moment, he stood up straight.
Pierson, a sophomore running back, had rushed for 141 yards in just seven carries, earning offensive MVP honors Saturday after KU’s spring football game. He’d provided the highlight of the day on a Usain Bolt-inspired 88-yard touchdown run. Heck, he’d even taken some of the attention away from a new coach (Charlie Weis) and a new quarterback (Dayne Crist). But that was the easy part.
“It was a good day,” Pierson said. “I showed off a little bit, showed the crowd my speed.”
But now Pierson, a quiet kid from East St. Louis, had to talk about his performance — and what it all meant in the context of the first spring game of the Weis regime.
“Much fun,” Pierson said.
For Pierson and the rest of the Jayhawks, there wasn’t much else to say. Beautiful weather. Lots of points. No major injuries. A good day.
The blue team routed the white team 45-0 in front of an estimated 15,000 fans. It was an afternoon that included a little Weis flavor — a 28-yard touchdown on a reverse by receiver D.J. Beshears and a 46-yard flea-flicker from junior quarterback Jake Heaps.
“The fans want to have some fun, too,” Weis explained.
Crist, a senior transfer from Notre Dame, made his first public appearance under center for Kansas and finished 11 of 19 for 156 yards — numbers that were skewed by a handful of drops. For one day, Crist generally looked like a former top recruit with four seasons at Notre Dame on his resume. He was accurate. He was poised. He also looked like he was playing against the second-team defense, which he was.
“Well, he could make every throw,” Weis said. “And he didn’t look too rusty to me.”
Crist led the blue team, a squad with nearly every offensive and defensive starter. And really, the blue team did pretty much what every KU opponent has done for the last two years. Race up and down the field on offense and shut the door on defense. So, of course, the final score also put a little focus on the Jayhawks’ major issues. The depth is suspect on both sides of the ball. And there are talent gaps all over the field.
“You saw the problem that we’ve had all spring,” Weis said. “That shows up when you’re really thin at the defensive line. And even though we’re rolling those guys through there, there’s only so much you can do.
“We need to get an influx of people. Some of (the current players) will be playing. Some of those guys will be moving way down the depth chart.”
And this is part of the problem in assessing a spring game. Did the KU offense look that good? Or is the second-team defense that bad?
On Saturday, late in the third quarter, Pierson exploded through a gaping hole, hit daylight and was gone. The play went into the box score as an 88-yard touchdown run, an explosive example of Pierson’s speed and talent. But there was also this: There wasn’t a single player on the white team’s defense that could stay within 10 yards of Pierson in an open-field race.
“I told him when the hole is that big,” Weis said, “he better be able to score a touchdown.”
Last season, Pierson averaged 5.6 yards in 71 carries as a freshman. His game-breaking ability was undeniable, but his frame — 5 feet 11 and 175 pounds — was a question mark.
This fall, with Crist under center and a new offensive system in place, Weis says he’d like to get Pierson the ball 15 times a game. Maybe more. Maybe less. The Jayhawks have depth at running back, Weis says, and there’s no reason to let Pierson take a pounding.
“I think if he carries the ball seven times for 141 yards, I’ll take that,” Weis said. “And if I come in and you call me dumb after a game, I’ll say ‘OK, I’m dumb then.’ ”
A few minutes later, Pierson was back in position, hunched over, trying to get comfortable as he talked about this fall. There will be good days and bad days. Weis says the Jayhawks have a long way to go to be competitive on a weekly basis. But Saturday was a good day. And when Pierson heard what Weis had to say about his role this fall, he finally looked a little more comfortable.
“It’s going to be a good challenge this year,” Pierson said. “I’ll see what I can do with 15 touches.”
Blue — Doherty 30 FG, 10:22.
Blue — Beshears 28 run (Doherty kick) 3:52.
Blue — Beshears 6 pass from Heaps (Doherty kick) 13:25.
Blue — Jackson 7 run (Doherty kick) 9:06.
Blue — Pierson 88 run (Doherty kick) 3:45.
Blue — Jackson 3 run (Doherty kick) 10:05.
Blue — Jackson 15 run (Doherty kick) :58.
Rushing — White, Sims 14-58; Burton 2-2; Cumming 7-(-15); Blue, Pierson 7-141; Jackson 10-76; Beshears 1-28; Heaps 2-8.
Passing — White, Cumming 2-7-0-14; Jablonski 1-3-0-5; Blue, Crist 11-19-0-156; Heaps 7-10-0-106.
Receiving — White, Omigie 1-14; Shepher 1-5; Sims 1-0; Blue, Patters 5-64; Pick 4-82; Mundine 3-50, Beshears 3-33. Attendance — 15,000.