Pierson a major weapon in KU arsenal

Pierson a major weapon in KU arsenal

How many times during the past two seasons did Kansas fans sit in the stands at Memorial Stadium, their eyes glazing over slightly as they stared at the scoreboard, and try to wrap their heads around the concept of speed? More specifically, its seemingly unfair distribution. Why did every opponent the Jayhawks faced seem to have so much more of it?

It's a frustrating problem, because "scheme" can only account for so much. At some point, enjoying a dynamic athleticism advantage at virtually every position is going to become a problem far too difficult to overcome. The Kansas defense learned that lesson the hard way many, many times last season.

If Saturday's spring game is any indication, the gap is starting to close, slowly but surely, thanks to the presence of athletes such as Bradley McDougald, Michael Reynolds, Toben Opurum and the always-dynamic Daymond Patterson. The signing Class of 2012 should help things even further.

But Anthony Pierson is special. When the sophomore running back from St. Louis jogs onto the field, an electric current of expectation runs through the crowd. Because he's not just "fast…for Kansas." He's fast period, one of the most explosive athletes in the entire conference.

Flashes of that ability shone through last season, as he rushed for 396 yards on 71 attempts, with three touchdowns to his name. But one often got the sense the previous coaching staff wasn't quite sure what to do with him.

It made sense, to a degree. For one, Pierson's size was - and continues to be - a rather large red flag. At just 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he's not built to take the pounding received by the average every-down back.

For another, the Jayhawks seemed to be fairly well stacked at running back last season, and between Pierson, James Sims, Darrian Miller and Brandon Bourbon there were only so many carries to go around.

But Pierson is unique in his ability to melt field turf beneath his feet, and Saturday's spring game proved to be an excellent stage upon which to show case that ability.

Operating as the starting running back for the Blue team - the squad loaded with first-string players - he rushed for 141 yards on just seven carries, including an 88-yard touchdown run during which he resembled nothing so much as a Madden NFL Football player with the turbo button permanently mashed down.

Humble and soft-spoken, not yet comfortable in front of the media, Pierson described the play simply during the post-game press conference.

"When I hit the hole I just saw the green," he said. "So I ran toward the goal post. That's all."

"I told him when the hole is that big he'd better be able to score a touchdown," added Head Coach Charlie Weis said. "But I also told him there aren't that many guys who can run 88 yards. I think that Tony is dangerous in space."

Indeed he is, as Pierson is proving to possess not just excellent straight-line speed and acceleration, but also lateral agility and quickness that helps offset his lack of size. Saturday, Weis showed signs of utilizing him outside of the running game as well, by calling his number in the passing game on a couple of different occasions - one of which he caught for a 17-yard gain.

With two-year starter James Sims suspended for the first three games of the 2012 season as the result of a disciplinary measure enacted this spring, Pierson's workload is set to increase. But the truth is it was going to anyway. He's too dangerous to keep off the field.

The trick is finding the right balance. Weis is familiar with this concept, having handled another undersized burner in Kansas City back in 2010, in the form of Jamaal Charles. Last season as the offensive coordinator at Florida, tailback Chris Rainey fit into that same mold.

Ideally, Weis explained, they'd like to get the ball into his hands fewer than 20 times a game with great effectiveness.

"Everyone wants him to touch the ball 20 times, but that's not good coaching overall," he said. "Because I think if he carries the ball seven times for 141 yards, I'll take that. And if I come in and you call me dumb after a game, I'll say 'Okay, I'm dumb then.' I'll take those numbers."

Saturday was, overall, a great first step for the reconstruction of Kansas football. Beautiful weather, a great turnout and an offense that hummed. Dayne Crist looked as good as advertised and Jake Heaps provided some excitement of his own with a 48-yard completion on a flea-flicker to Kale Pick immediately after he entered the game for the first time.

But it was Pierson's star who shone the brightest. He knows the expectations for him to make plays and help change the game will be high. He knows his workload is going to expand.

And he's ready for the challenge.

"It's going to be my first time experiencing probably over 10 carries a game," Pierson said, smiling. "It's a challenge for me to step up to, and I'm ready for it."

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