For many athletes, a coaching change is an opportunity.
It’s a clean slate, a chance to impress a new staff with - ostensibly - no preconceptions about them as players. Temporarily, at least, it levels the playing field.
That’s why Brandon Bourbon won’t deny being a little frustrated by his situation following the hiring of Charlie Weis at the University of Kansas in late 2011.
The native of Potosi, Mo. showed flashes of brilliance last season as a freshman, as part of a talented stable of running backs - a bright spot in what was otherwise an extremely disappointing year. The highlight came Oct. 1 in Lawrence, Kan. during a tilt with the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Kansas uncharacteristically raced out to a big lead, and the bruising tailback played a big role. Shaking loose from a defender near the home sideline during the first quarter, he turned on the jets that allowed him to run a 10.4-second 100-meter dash in high school and sprinted 51 yards to paydirt. He would finish the game with 101 yards on 10 carries.
Bourbon missed most of the spring of 2010 with an injury, and the performance felt like a true coming out party - his first chance to prove to the coaches, his teammates, the fans and himself of just how much he is capable when given the chance.
Viewed through the lens of hindsight, it could be argued the Texas Tech game was the moment the season officially derailed for the Jayhawks. They surrendered that big lead and, in the second half, surrendered the game. And for Bourbon it represented the apex of his freshman year - a campaign which ended a month later when he suffered a leg injury versus Iowa State.
It was that same injury for which he was on the road to recovery when Weis was hired, and limited him during spring football once again. So while he was optimistic and energized by the change, he was also frustrated by not being able to make the most of the opportunity.
“I did get that feeling (of excitement) but at the same time it was kind of tough since I was injured and held out of a lot of stuff,” Bourbon said. “So at the same time I’m kind of not doing everything and you want to just get in and impress the coaches and show them what you can do, and I had to sit around and wait for a little while.”
Fortunately, he’s making up for lost time now. Despite the loss of Darrian Miller, the depth of talent in the Kansas backfield remains the same, thanks to the addition of stud JUCO running back Taylor Cox. Bourbon, Cox, super-speedster Tony Pierson and junior James Sims - whom Weis called the most complete back on the team - comprise what should be a formidable unit for the season ahead.
Each back brings a little something different to the table. Pierson is undersized but has limitless afterburners. Sims, slimmed down to 195 pounds, is quicker and faster than ever before, with his excellent patience and vision (though he is suspended for the first three games of the season). At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, Cox appears to posses many of those same skills but has the body type of a power back.
Bourbon, however, may be the most unique of all. At almost 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, he’s easily the biggest of the tailbacks most likely to make an impact this season, having added 10 pounds under the guidance of strength coach Scott Holsopple during the summer. But next to Pierson, he’s also likely the fastest back on the team.
It’s a potent combination. And both Weis and running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said Bourbon is showing no ill effects from the injury that ended his 2011 and hampered him throughout the spring.
Mitchell acknowledged he possessed a rare blend of speed and power.
“He’s a big guy, he’s fast,” Mitchell said. “The thing that he has to do is be more consistent. I think for him the more reps he gets the better he’ll get. The hard thing is we’ve got a bunch of guys who need reps, so he’s got to make an impact on the five or six carries he may get in practice.”
Rather than be intimidated by the intense competition, Bourbon said the running backs have embraced it.
“It’s a classic case of competition bringing out the best in everyone,” he noted. “Because Taylor, he came in and started picking up things very quickly, I was impressed with that. He’s been doing a really good job, he’s a good player. Tony and James - James is going to be sitting out but he’s still doing great things in practice when he gets a chance, and Marquis as well.”
But it’s fair to say Bourbon has more reason for motivation than his brethren. A new coaching staff, the euphoric feeling of being injury-free for the first time in a long time, and the ever-present excitement associated with a new season have combined to bring his anticipation to a fever pitch.
“I’m twice as hungry as I probably should be,” he said. “One, because it’s the first game of the season and I’ve been sitting out not playing football since November of last year, and secondly we have a new coaching staff so I have to go out and prove myself early - especially with James being down. That’s my opportunity.”