LAWRENCE — One of the lasting images from last year's Border War was Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing being tossed into the end zone for a safety that eventually led to a 41-39 Missouri victory. Reesing, unquestionably the player of the game, had thrown for 498 yards. Only it didn't matter.
The moment didn't say much about the Tigers' defense. But it said everything about who the Jayhawks were as an offense as the seconds slowly slipped away from their disastrous 2009 season.
Leading 39-36 with 2 minutes, 59 seconds left, KU started its drive pinned on its own 3. Instead of forcing Missouri to use its final timeout and trying to drain the rest of the clock by running the ball, three pass plays were called — resulting in two incompletions and a safety that took a total of 14 seconds off the clock.
The Jayhawks did this because they had no faith in being able to pick up a first down running it, and they did not want to risk giving it back to Missouri. So they threw it under ridiculous circumstances.
At that point, the outcome was just loss No. 7, the end of a season that felt as if it would never end. A new season has arrived, and new KU coach, Turner Gill does not want his team to be put in that position again. He said at Monday's KU media day that, ideally, his teams will run more than Mark Mangino's final KU teams.
Gill also spelled out his preference to have a feature back in his offense.
"No doubt," Gill said. "If I had to say exactly what I'd like to have, it'd be having someone that can carry the ball 20 to 25 times."
When looking back at the Reesing years, it's easy to remember the Jayhawks as bunch of pass-happy hooligans. But truly, that's only what they became by the end of it. During the 2007-08 run to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl victory, KU ran it 52 percent of the time, and Brandon McAnderson rushed for 1,125 yards and 16 touchdowns. Jake Sharp helped out with 556 yards and five scores.
In 2008, KU ran it 47 percent and dropped off to an 8-5 record and an Insight Bowl win. In '09, the Jayhawks ran it 43 percent and devolved into a team that couldn't get tough yards.
All of that, of course, is in the past — or at least Gill hopes it is. The Jayhawks have an offensive line that returns all five starters and a group of tailbacks that spans all shapes, sizes and ages. Angus Quigley, who gained a sixth year of eligibility after playing linebacker during his fifth year, topped the depth chart coming out of spring practice, but sophomore Toben Opurum was not at full health in the spring after recovering from an ankle injury suffered last season.
"I expect to see my name at the top of any depth chart," Opurum said.
Opurum, a highly recruited runner out of Plano, Texas, led the Jayhawks in rushing as a true freshman last season with 133 carries for 554 yards and nine touchdowns. In the spring, Gill was largely quiet about Opurum while praising Quigley, but Gill was not able to see Opurum at full speed.
"It was real frustrating," Opurum said. "I was in a bad situation with the new staff coming in, coming fresh off my ankle (injury). At the same time, I can't really use that as an excuse of why I wasn't performing up to my expectations."
Also competing for carries are junior Rell Lewis — whom Gill said will miss the next two to three weeks because of a knee injury — and redshirt freshman Deshaun Sands. While Quigley (6-foot-1, 231 pounds) and Opurum (6-1, 240) are big and bruising runners, Lewis (5-9, 205) and Sands (5-7, 190) offer opponents a more elusive target. The incentive for all four backs is the chance being offered by Gill and offensive coordinator Chuck Long to be the man.
"There's a misconception out there about running backs," Long said, "that if they can run, just give them the ball, that it doesn't matter whether it's one time or 25 times. That's not really true. They need a rhythm just like a quarterback needs rhythm. That's why you want a guy to get 20 or 25. Some of your best production are carries 15 through 25."
Long said if one back doesn't emerge, KU won't hesitate to enter the season with a committee approach and see which backs excel in the games. But certainly, Long is trying to get it figured out in fall camp. He said the Jayhawks ran the ball 50 times during a 70-play scrimmage on Sunday.
The running backs have taken notice.
"Of course you like to hear your coach say we're gonna run the ball," Quigley said. "What we have to do as a unit is step up to that challenge. Years past, we didn't run the ball like that. The mind-set has to change."