LAWRENCE — The Kansas Jayhawks worked out in front of hundreds of their supporters Sunday night at KU's Fan Appreciation Day but certainly did not treat the hour-long practice as a showcase of what's to come on Sept. 4 against North Dakota State.
Players were not wearing pads and appeared only to be practicing lining up and getting their assignments right. No forward passes were thrown. This did not make for a riveting exhibition, but you couldn't blame the KU staff for holding back.
At this point, less than two weeks before the opener, any real attempt at playing football has to feel like a risk to first-year coach Turner Gill.
On Sunday, Gill announced that running back Rell Lewis will not play this season because of a knee injury the latest setback for the KU roster during a fall camp that has been defined by its attrition at some key positions.
"It's a sad day for us, and we feel sad for him, too," Gill said. "Obviously, he was a guy who was in the hunt as far as battling or a starting job."
Lewis, a junior from Muskogee, Okla., was listed as a second-team running back along with redshirt freshman Deshaun Sands behind projected starter Angus Quigley, a sixth-year senior, on a depth chart released Thursday. But Gill has said the pecking order at that position is still not set in stone.
Now, the Jayhawks have just four running backs on scholarship — Quigley, Sands and true freshmen Brandon Bourbon and James Sims.
Last week, Gill announced that sophomore Toben Opurum, who led the Jayhawks in rushing last season with 533 yards and nine touchdowns, would be moving from running back to linebacker. Gill said that Opurum was outplayed by the other backs and said Sunday that Opurum will not move back to running back to make up for the loss of Lewis.
"Toben is set at linebacker at this point in time," Gill said. "We think he can help us in that situation as time continues on. Obviously, he's not prepared to play, but we think by the time game time starts he'll have an opportunity to help us."
Thing is, the Jayhawks need Opurum just as badly at linebacker. KU sophomore linebacker Huldon Tharp, who made seven starts last season as a true freshman, is out for the year with a foot injury. Redshirt freshman linebacker Jacoby Thomas, in the mix for playing time after Tharp's injury, has left the team due to academic reasons.
KU is left with three dependable starting linebackers — Justin Springer, Drew Dudley and Steven Johnson — and a group of unproven backups. Walk-ons Brian Blackwell and Steve Mestan are listed as second-stringers.
The Jayhawks' personnel woes don't stop there. Before fall camp, they lost Jeff Spikes, a two-year starter at offensive tackle, for the season due to a lower-leg injury. Defensive tackle Jamal Greene and linebacker Vernon Brooks were dismissed from the team due to arrests. Defensive end Travis Stephens was dismissed because of academic reasons.
At running back, the Jayhawks will now need Bourbon, a four-star recruit by Rivals.com out of Potosi, Mo., and Sims, a three-star recruit out of Irving, Texas, to make an impact this season.
"They're in the mix," Gill said, "whether Rell Lewis is there or not."
Foster may play both ways — Gill said that junior Steven Foster, listed as KU's starting fullback, will also practice with the defense as a defensive end.