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Offseason Overview: The race for RB reps

4 min read
Returning standouts Devin Neal and Daniel Hishaw Jr. will get plenty of carries for the Kansas offense this fall. But there's a battle for work behind them, too. [Matt Tait photo]

We’ll learn a lot more about the Kansas football program and its outlook for the 2023 season in a couple of months, when preseason camp is in full swing and the Jayhawks really begin preparing for the encore performance to last year’s Liberty Bowl appearance.

For now, though, let’s set the stage for how things look heading into camp.

What’s important? What’s known? Key question marks and players in need of a breakthrough performance for the Jayhawks to take that next step all will be covered in our Offseason Overview series.

Next up: The race for RB reps

It’s no secret that Devin Neal is the lead dog at the running back position for the Jayhawks and Daniel Hishaw, when he’s healthy, is right there with him.

Hishaw is expected to be back this fall after missing the final nine games of the 2022 season with a serious hip injury, and Neal, believe it or not, is bigger, stronger and healthier himself after being worn to the bone during KU’s 13-game 2022 season.

While those two are in line to get the lion’s share of the work in the backfield, there’s no doubt others will factor in, as well, if for no other reason than to keep those two as fresh as possible during games and throughout the season.

Enter newcomer Dylan McDuffie and returners Sevion Morrison and Torry Locklin. Those three are the best-known commodities behind KU’s two workhorse backs, with a handful of other backs fighting for spots, as well.

Most notable among them is Class of 2023 signee Johnny Thompson Jr., of Canoga Park, California, who was initially committed to USC before decommitting and signing with Kansas.

It remains to be seen how quickly Thompson will develop, but McDuffie, Morrison and Locklin are proven players with years of experience and production to their names.

McDuffie might be playing at Kansas for the first time, but the 6-foot, 220-pound running back is no stranger to the KU coaching staff.

Having spent three seasons with Lance Leipold and his staff at Buffalo from 2018-2020, McDuffie elected to rejoin the old gang after transferring from Georgia Tech, where he played the 2022 season.

A native of Buffalo, McDuffie stuck around his hometown for the 2021 season after Leipold left for Kansas, eclipsing 1,000 yards for the first time in his career that season.

After leaving for Georgia Tech following the season, he played in eight games for the Yellow Jackets, racking up just 45 yards on 22 carries.

Leipold said throughout the spring that McDuffie looked very good in crimson and blue, and he’s a hard runner, who runs with purpose and confidence. He’s also been around the college game long enough to have a few tricks up his sleeve for how to fall forward, gain an extra yard or two or avoid getting creamed.

All of those traits are critical for any No. 3 back, and McDuffie likely will be competing with Morrison for that role with the Jayhawks.

Morrison, the former Nebraska transfer, appeared in 12 games for the Jayhawks last season, carrying 23 times for 165 yards and a touchdown, and catching three passes for 26 yards, as well.

Always ready, always willing, the 6-foot, 210-pound Morrison battled with Neal, Hishaw and Ky Thomas for snaps a season ago. So playing in a crowded house won’t be anything new for him.

It remains to be seen whether his experience at Kansas in 2022 or McDuffie’s time with the staff at Buffalo will put one of these two guys ahead of the other when Week 1 rolls around.

Either way, KU OC Andy Kotelnicki will be the first to tell you that you can never have too many running backs. And while it might be tough to work them all into the game plan if they all stay healthy, Leipold and Kotelnicki have shown a willingness to rotate backs and play the hot hand if that’s what gives Kansas the best chance to win in any particular game.

McDuffie didn’t come to KU expecting big numbers or lots of carries. He came because of his connection to the coaching staff and the chance to win. And he’ll play whatever role they ask him to play to help make that happen as often as possible this fall.

He has the potential to do everything from carrying the load for a half on the fly to taking a couple of spot carries every other quarter and everything in between. Adding him to the running back room, alongside four veterans with similar mindsets to his own, should put KU in great shape in terms of depth, versatility and flexibility at the position.

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Here's a look at the other entries in our KU football Offseason Overview series:

• What depth & talent bring to KU's QB room

• The race for running back reps

• Examining the D Tackle position

• The value of the old men of the O-Line

• How many tight ends will KU utilize in 2023?

• Major upgrades for KU's kicking game

• Getting more explosive at linebacker