University of Kansas

Jayhawks get Sims back for N. Illinois

Forgive Charlie Weis if he’s wasted a few minutes on the practice field this season. This is generally a cardinal sin in Weis’ world, where practices are structured to the second; where every drill is detailed and regimented.

But there have been a few moments, he says — moments when he just felt compelled to stop and gaze wistfully at the Kansas Jayhawks’ scout team.

“We might have the best show team in America,” Weis says.

Weis would see quarterback Jake Heaps, a junior transfer from BYU, under center. And receiver Justin McCay, a transfer from Oklahoma, would be lined up at wideout. He’d also look at KU’s would-be starting running back, junior James Sims, who has been serving a suspension.

“Sometimes, I look over there,” Weis says. “and I wanna go watch the show team."

This week, Weis will have one less reason to spend any thoughts on his show team. After serving a three-week suspension as punishment for a violation of team rules in the spring — Sims was cited for operating a vehicle under the influence in Lawrence — the junior will make his season debut this Saturday against Northern Illinois.

It’s a welcome spark for a Kansas offense that has struggled to score points this season. But it also adds an intriguing wrinkle. While the Kansas passing game has mostly been grounded — averaging just 205.3 yards per game in three games — the Jayhawks’ running game has been a clear building block for a program that has begun the season 1-2.

Sophomore Tony Pierson has rushed for 279 yards on 48 carries — 5.8 yards per touch — while junior-college transfer Taylor Cox has averaged 5.9 yards per carry on 42 rushing attempts. Weis casts the crowded backfield as a positive, a good problem to have. The Jayhawks’ leading rusher in 2011 is back. Why complain?

But it does lead to the question: If Sims is going to get his carries — as Weis suggests he will — where will they come from?

“He’s seen those other two guys play pretty well,” Weis says of Sims. “And he knows for him to get snaps, he’s gonna have to earn them. A lot of times, when a player leaves, he figures, ‘Well, they need me, they need me.’

“Well, he’s sitting in the stands those first games, watching those guys run the ball pretty well. And then he’s starting to question: ‘Well, I wonder if they need me. I wonder if they need me.’ So, I think he’s very hungry.”

By all accounts, Sims has been a model practice player since his setback, beginning with the Kansas spring game, where Sims was relegated to play alongside backups. Sims still stood out, running for tough yards against the Jayhawks’ starting defense.

“He’s matured a lot,” senior center Trevor Marrongelli says. “He’s just ready to play now.”

The comeback steps continued during summer workouts. According to teammates and coaches, Sims, who has not been made available to the media this season, was busy slimming down and becoming stronger and faster during the Jayhawks’ summer strength and conditioning program.

“He’s even improved his ability to make people miss,” says Reggie Mitchell, the KU running backs coach. “So I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in a game.”

Sims rushed for 727 yards while averaging 4.1 yards per carry during his freshman year before leading KU with 742 rushing yards last season. In the first weeks of practice, Weis would give Sims a few reps with the first team before sending him over to the scout-team — a move to keep him up-to-date on the Jayhawks’ offense. The scout-team reps didn’t hurt, either. Day after day, Sims was taking on the Jayhawks’ first-team defense.

“I think he’s got some great opportunity to go ahead and refine his skills and get beat up a little bit in the process,” Weis says of the scout-team work. “That’s two good things.”

On Saturday, the Jayhawks will take on a Northern Illinois team that surrendered 486 yards rushing to Army’s vaunted option attack in a 41-40 victory last week. Kansas, of course, won’t rush the ball 86 times as Army did. But with Sims unleashed, the Jayhawks’ backfield will finally be complete.

“I expect him ready to go,” Weis said. “I don’t expect there to be any rust.”