The art of college football recruiting can be a strange endeavor. Sometimes you recruit a local kid for four years, tracking his every move, utilizing every resource, and in the end, the kid shrugs his shoulders and picks another school. And then there times, as Kansas running backs coach Reggie Mitchell puts it, where you end up “buying a car that you’ve never driven or never seen.”
In this instance, the car in question is junior running back Ke’aun Kinner, a junior-college transfer who picked KU last December after having never visited the Jayhawks’ campus. Mitchell and KU coach David Beaty had only seen his film. Kinner had never seen either man in the flesh. And now, nine months later, Kinner projects as the Jayhawks’ starting running back in a new up-tempo spread scheme.
“That normally doesn’t happen,” Mitchell said.
In this case, Mitchell and Beaty are happy they took the gamble. Kinner, who is listed at 5 feet 9, was an All-American last season at Navarro Junior College after rushing for 1,696 yards and 22 touchdowns in 253 carries. That came after a productive high school stint at Little Elm High School in Little Elm, Texas — a season that included a 332-yard performance in 55 carries.
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“And then the next week I had 57 (carries),” Kinner said. “ … our quarterback went down, and then I had to step up, I guess. I got the ball every play.”
In the Kansas system, it’s highly unlikely Kinner will ever approach that type of workload. But Kinner could be a needed featured back after the departure of leading rusher Corey Avery during the offseason. The Jayhawks also return seniors De’Andre Mann and Taylor Cox — who was granted a sixth year of eligibility — and Mitchell is bullish on redshirt freshman Ryan Schadler, a transfer who began his college career as a sprinter at Wichita State. For now, though, the coaching staff is clear: In an up-tempo offense that will seek optimum velocity, the Jayhawks will likely need a stable of ball-carriers.
Kinner, though, appears to be the most well-rounded. Mitchell compares Kinner to a hybrid of two former Jayhawks — James Sims and Tony Pierson. Sims was a 1,000-yard rusher who punished teams with power, vision and consistency. Pierson was a straight burner. Mitchell believes Kinner can do both.
“For the first time, we have a guy in Ke’aun Kinner who is a combination of James and Tony,” Mitchell said. “He’s not as big as James or as physical, but he has Tony’s speed. He has pretty good ball skills. So he’s a guy that could be an every-down back and you don’t have to worry about getting a change of pace guy in there.”
Kinner appears ready for the opportunity. After arriving at Kansas last January and going through spring practice, Kinner could sense he needed to bolster his frame for the rigors of Big 12 football. So when school got out in the spring, Kinner spent three weeks working out with his uncle in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The workouts came at EXOS, a training center in Frisco, Texas, and Kinner supplemented the routine with a diet of protein shakes and carb-heavy meals of lasagna. When he reported back to Lawrence last summer, he had put on eight pounds and weighed in at 189.
“I came back pretty heavy,” Kinner said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kinner walked into the Anderson Family Football Complex carrying even more weight — a heavy ice-pack wrapped around his left shoulder. After six practices, Kinner was already feeling the burden of being a featured back. But he’s clear about one thing, too: Eight months ago, he was still looking for a place to play college football. He had a visit lined up to Iowa and the junior college signing day was looming. In the end, he visited Iowa, then picked Kansas anyway. He’s sure he made the right decision.
“The thing that happened — he was probably under-recruited,” Mitchell said. “We got on him late. It was a situation where, just to tell you the type of kid he is, he had promised Iowa that visit. So he said: ‘I told them I was going to do this, so that’s what I’m going to do.’
“So we’re fortunate that things didn’t work out.”