Oct 3, 2020; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Kansas Jayhawks running back Velton Gardner (0) runs against Oklahoma State Cowboys defensive end Tyren Irby (91) during the second half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Two weeks ago, it would have been hard to imagine the Kansas offense being in a worse situation than it already was considering how much the unit struggled during the team’s first four games.
But, the situation did get worse early last week when star tailback Pooka Williams announced his decision to opt-out of the remainder of the season in order to be closer to home and his mother, who is battling health issues.
Suddenly, a Kansas team that ranks last in the conference in scoring offense and total offense, plus ninth in rushing offense, was without its best, most experienced and most dynamic playmaker. Williams had been one of the few bright spots for the Jayhawks over the previous two seasons in which he rushed for more than 2,000 yards combined, but this year started with a thud as he recorded just 196 yards and two touchdowns on 51 carries in the team’s first four games.
Losing Williams made last Saturday’s performance in a 55-14 loss to Kansas State in which the Jayhawks ran for just 113 yards on 39 carries, a 2.9 yards per carry average, somewhat predictable. Sophomore Velton Gardner stepped in to carry the load for the rushing attack by tallying 72 yards on 16 attempts.
While one would think losing a player with Williams’ career accolades would severely alter the Jayhawks’ plan of attack, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell says he does not see much of a difference in the Jayhawks with Pooka and post-Pooka ahead of Saturday’s game between the Cyclones and Jayhawks in Lawrence (11 a.m. on FS1).
“I’ll be honest with you, they were moving Pooka around a lot prior to (his leaving the program),” Campbell said on Tuesday. “From a tailback standpoint, really impressed with (Gardner and true freshman Daniel Hishaw). They were doing a really good job of getting all of those guys on the field at the same time. I don’t know from a running game standpoint if it has a great impact in terms of how they do what they do.”
Garnder has been the team’s most consistent rusher so far this season compiling 297 yards and two touchdowns on 63 carries to this point. Meanwhile, Hishaw has seen his playing time increase steadily, including making his first career start against the Wildcats, as he’s carried the ball 14 times for 67 yards during the team’s first five games.
To this point, neither player has shown the dynamic ability that Williams did very early on in his career as a Jayhawk, but Campbell has still seen enough to be impressed by the tandem as they look to fill Pooka’s big shoes.
“I think these two young guys coming on has been really impressive and really that’s been from the start of the season really on,” Campbell said. “I think, obviously, we know Pooka’s a great player, but I think they’ve got great faith in these two young guys because they’ve been playing from week one and have been playing really good football.”