LAWRENCE — Pooka Williams has taken the lion’s share of headlines, highlights and crowd chants through the first two games of his college football career.
When it comes to the budding Kansas running game, though, fourth-year coach David Beaty stressed a simple point Monday.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Beaty said on the Big 12 coaches teleconference, “(it’s) not just Pooka, but the entire stable of backs that we have.”
“Pookamania” may be running wild, but Beaty has a point.
Williams has gained 283 yards and scored three touchdowns on just 32 carries across the Jayhawks’ back-to-back wins. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound true freshman is Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded running back through three weeks, notching a 52-yard touchdown and five first-down runs and forcing six missed tackles in a 158-yard rushing performance in Saturday’s 55-14 victory over Rutgers.
As Beaty indicated, though, the revival of the KU running game hasn’t been a one-man feat.
Junior Khalil Herbert has gained 154 yards on 23 carries and has a 291-yard performance on his résumé, accomplished last year against West Virginia. Sophomore Dom Williams and senior Deron Thompson have also both eclipsed 100 rushing yards on the season, with the fourth-string option Thompson posting a 55-yard scoring burst against the Scarlet Knights.
KU (2-1) amassed 400 rushing yards against Rutgers and sits at 224 yards per contest. It’s a sharp improvement from the 102.6-yard average in 2017, an effort that ranked 125th nationally.
So what’s been the difference for the Jayhawks? Recruiting, Beaty said, is beginning to pay off.
“We’ve really put a big premium on trying to find guys throughout the country who can take it to the house and finish runs,” Beaty said. “One of the things that we look for is guys on tape that finish long runs. All of our dudes did that on tape and all of them so far have shown they’re capable of taking it to the house.”
Herbert also housed a long touchdown run Saturday, scoring on a 59-yard dash on his first touch late in the second quarter. It kick-started a finish that saw KU score the game’s final 31 points.
“When we can move the ball on the ground,” Beaty said, “it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback and really a lot of pressure off that O-line when it comes to passing situations and being able to throw it when it comes to passing situations and being able to throw it when you want to, and now when you have to. I think that’s really, really key for us.”
While KU may have a four-headed beast in its backfield, Beaty didn’t downplay Pooka Williams’ importance in the dynamic.
“It is very difficult to score points in college football. It is very difficult. I don’t care who you are; it’s just hard. You don’t want to snap it again if you don’t have to,” Beaty said. “That’s why those home run hitters are big, and Pooka is the next one in line. He does have a gear that’s been extremely impressive.”
Williams has 34 total touches on offense across his first two contests -- 15 against Central Michigan and 19 against Rutgers. The KU coaching staff will be cognizant of the former four-star recruit’s workload going forward -- “You can ruin ‘em that first year,” Beaty said.
Beaty cited the management of past college football freshman sensations Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) and Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) as templates.
“We’re going to be very careful, because we think he’s got a great career ahead of him,” Beaty said. “But we still can get all the production we need out of him if we just follow the model of some of the best ones we’ve ever seen in the country to do it.
“We’re going to really be smart about how we use him, because we think if we do that we might have us a special guy there.”
All three of Williams’ touchdowns this season have gone for 20-plus yards, a number he will look to add to when the Jayhawks travel to Baylor (2-1) for a 2:30 p.m. Saturday contest at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas.
“We know that this is a whole different animal right now going into Big 12 play, and it’s a battle every week. It’s like playing a bowl game every week,” Beaty said. “So many talented teams. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but the big part, the majority of the work starts (Monday) in practice, and we’ll be ready to go.”