LAWRENCE — A coach’s dilemma: You have a dangerous playmaker, fast enough to burn the retinas of fans watching at home, the kind of speed that can leave a vapor trail to the end zone on every play.
But here’s the thing: the kid is a little slight (5-foot-10, 175 pounds). Not quite big enough to handle the pounding of an every-down running back, not quite polished enough to be a full-time receiver.
For Kansas coach Charlie Weis, the dilemma was supposed to be a gift. That’s how he saw junior Tony Pierson, a running back who averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season and hauled in 21 passes. When Weis looked at Pierson, he saw former West Virginia star Tavon Austin, or Chiefs receiver Dexter McCluster, or any of the other hybrid weapons that have begun to infiltrate football in the pro and college ranks.
“It’s a copycat league,” Weis said during the offseason.
The goal appeared to be pretty simple: Find ways to get Pierson in space. Runs. Passes. Whatever. Just sit back and watch him run. But after two games, including a loss to Rice on Saturday, the idea of what Pierson can be has been a lot more scintillating than what he has actually been.
Pierson has had 12 touches in two games, including five touches (four catches and one carry) in Saturday’s 23-14 loss. And the fact that Pierson has averaged 14.8 yards per touch, including a 77-yard touchdown reception against Rice, emphasizes the need to get Pierson more involved on offense.
But how? On Saturday, Rice shaded a safety over Pierson for most of the game, eliminating some of his opportunities. So KU spent part of this week trying to solve that type of coverage. One change in scheme could feature more playing time for junior running back Brandon Bourbon, who is playing behind Pierson at the hybrid running back-receiver spot.
“Just having me and Brandon on the field at the same time,” Pierson said. “If they double me, you’ve got James (Sims) and Brandon on the field. If they double them, you’ve got me on the field.”
The KU passing game has plenty of issues beyond Pierson and Bourbon’s limited production. The Jayhawks enter Saturday’s clash with Louisiana Tech with the nation’s 113th-ranked passing offense, averaging 140 yards. Quarterback Jake Heaps has completed 23 of 48 pass attempts for 267 yards, 127 by Pierson.
“I haven’t been sleeping very well since Saturday night,” Weis said. “And you know, Bourbon and Tony and a couple of those guys, (they) will have expanded roles.”
For his part, Pierson is still adjusting to his new hybrid role. Part of that, he admits, is learning how to be physical and use his body while running routes.
“It’s kind of tough,” Pierson said. “But I never use my strength like that. I like to finesse people. That’s how I look at it. But if it comes down to it, I’ll do it.
“Speed kills,” he adds. “That’s what I rely on all the time, my speed.”
For a moment against Rice, when Pierson burst down the sideline for a 77-yard haymaker, it certainly dealt Rice a pummeling headshot. As Pierson sprinted, it looked as if Rice’s defenders had the angles to chase him down. And then, seconds later, he was gone.
“I don’t know if they take the wrong angles, or — not to toot my own horn — but I’m just that fast,” Pierson said. “I don’t know.”