LAWRENCE – Even if you don’t like Kansas and believe the Jayhawks’ football team deserves every bit of ill will that has been bestowed on it the past three seasons, you have to have some compassion for senior running back James Sims.
This is a kid, after all, who has a chance to become Kansas’ career rushing leader this season. And two of the people ahead of him, John Riggins and Gale Sayers, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sims has the numbers of an all-time KU great. But they’re empty, really, because while Sims has been rolling up more than 2,500 yards on the ground, his team has lost, lost and lost some more.
Sims is only 1,265 yards behind June Henley, the Jayhawks’ career leader. He should easily pass former Wichita Southeast standout Laverne Smith (3,074 yards) and move into third place. Then only Tony Sands (3,788 yards) and Henley would be ahead of him.
“It would be great, just leaving here with a bunch of wins,’’ Sims said. “Leaving the program in a positive situation, that’s all that really matters to me. If the record comes, it comes. But winning games is the most important thing to me.’’
The Jayhawks’ 31-14 season-opening win over South Dakota on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium is only the seventh of Sims’ career. And Sims has experienced only one Big 12 win – 52-45 over Colorado in 2010 during which Sims rushed for 123 yards and four touchdowns.
“Ah, man, if I think back to that game it’s just right there,’’ Sims said. “That was such a crazy game and we had such a crazy comeback. It was just so fun to be a part of that.’’
Sims was one of the top three or four running backs in the Big 12 last season, when he rushed for 1,013 yards and nine touchdowns in nine games. And what did he get for it besides a few postseason honors?
He got 1-11.
Sims should be a Big Man on Campus. Instead, he probably feels like stashing his letter jacket behind the pickle jar in his refrigerator.
There’s no doubt that Sims takes pride in his personal accomplishments. But it’s a little tough to gloat when you’re 1-25 in conference games and the other nine schools are wrestling to make you their Homecoming opponent.
Sims had another nice game against South Dakota, rushing for 94 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, though he did lose a fumble. The 6-foot, 202-pound Sims uses an effective mix of speed and power. He’s just as comfortable smashing between tackles as he is looking for a way to turn the corner.
He’s a complete back and KU has a stable of running backs able to support him, including Tony Pierson, Taylor Cox, Darrian Miller and Brandon Bourbon.
Sims, Pierson and Cox combined for 2,237 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Now Miller is back after a redshirt season. In 2011, he rushed for 559 yards.
KU has rushing depth. But Sims is the lead dog.
“Everybody else,’’ KU coach Charlie Weis said, “is a complement to him. He’s the No. 1 guy.’’
Still, as the past few seasons have proven, just being able to run the football isn’t enough. And it’s difficult to tell after Saturday’s win over a cream puff whether the Jayhawks have done enough to improve in other areas.
New quarterback Jake Heaps, a transfer from Brigham Young, was kept under wraps. He didn’t have to do too much, so he didn’t try to do too much as Kansas turned almost exclusively to its proven running game to build a substantial third-quarter lead.
In staying grounded, the Jayhawks failed to answer any of the questions facing the team with a much tougher grind ahead.
Is Heaps good enough to make KU a dangerous passing team?
Are the Kansas receivers, led by transfer Justin McCay, good enough to give Heaps some targets?
Is the defense better than the one that allowed 36 points and 482 yards per game last season?
We already know Kansas can run the football. And Sims, especially, is a given. He topped 100 yards in six of eight Big 12 games. He had 176 yards against Texas and 138 against Oklahoma State.
Every team the Jayhawks played knew Sims was coming, but few could slow him.
“James is typical of a lot of fourth- and fifth-year players here,’’ Weis said. “It would be really nice if he could leave here on a good note. We know he has a chance as he’s moving up the charts to challenge right to the top among our leading rushers.
“But we don’t play for individual records, we play for wins. And I would think James would trade yards for wins every day of the week. That’s how unselfish he is.’’