LAWRENCE — If Khalil Herbert has indeed played his final snap with Kansas football, it won’t be for a lack of trying to convince him otherwise on the head coach’s part.
Herbert, the Jayhawks’ senior running back and leading rusher through five contests, didn’t play in the team’s most recent outing, a 51-14 drubbing suffered last Saturday at TCU. The 5-foot-9, 205-pounder would be eligible to go elsewhere as a graduate transfer in the offseason — a recent NCAA rule change allows players to appear in up to four contests and still receive their first redshirt.
Les Miles on Monday refused to reveal whether Herbert intends to take that route, though the first-year Jayhawk coach did say Herbert will be unavailable for the “foreseeable future.”
“I spent some time on this. This is not something that did not go (without) effort from the head coach,” Miles said. “Everybody has a different path.”
Averaging 8.9 yards per attempt this season, Herbert piled up 187 yards and a touchdown on just 11 totes in the Jayhawks’ 48-24 upset victory at Boston College in Week 3. He’s averaged 5.4 yards per carry across his career, which also includes a 291-yard outburst against West Virginia during his sophomore campaign.
KU (2-3, 0-2 Big 12) coaches made no formal pregame announcement to players Saturday regarding Herbert’s status, and Miles indicated he’d be disappointed if the situation had affected his team’s psyche in the blowout loss — “I have no idea (if it did). I hope not,” he said.
Senior captains Hakeem Adeniji and Bryce Torneden also addressed Herbert’s absence.
Adeniji, who said Herbert is “kind of like a brother,” said the two discussed the situation Friday. The left tackle and preseason All-Big 12 selection didn’t assign blame to anyone involved.
“Just that I think everything kind of didn’t go down like how it was planned to,” Adeniji said of Herbert’s message in their conversation. “Obviously it’s a bad little situation, but I don’t think anyone really intended for it to go down how it did.”
Torneden labeled Herbert “a great friend” and said regardless of what happens he’s going to be there for the running back moving forward. In the wake of the situation, the safety said both he and Adeniji have an important role to play in the days leading up to the Jayhawks’ next contest, an 11 a.m. Saturday clash with No. 6 Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0).
“I think both of us, a lot of the leaders on the team, I think we kind of have to take that step and make sure everyone’s really focused on the goal, which is winning games and playing to the best of our ability,” Torneden said. “So whatever the outside noise may be, we’ve got to make sure we’re tuned in and focused on winning games.”
KU was also without junior running back Dom Williams against the Horned Frogs, with Miles declining to elaborate on why — “Again, it’s Dom’s information, not mine. He’ll be at practice today and we’re gonna go on from there,” Miles said.
As a result of the attrition, true freshman running back Velton Gardner saw significant action for the first time. The 5-9, 185-pound former three-star recruit carried the ball four times for 61 yards against TCU, accounting for the Jayhawks’ first touchdown on a 45-yard scoring scamper in the fourth quarter.
Miles said Gardner will have “a long and very capable career," and Adeniji concurred.
“Velton, he’s been really good ever since he got here. Fiery young little kid,” Adeniji said. “He’s from the Dallas area too so I’ve been kind of (getting) onto him since he’s gotten here. He works hard and he’s going to be a really special player, I think.”
If Herbert indeed intends to redshirt and transfer, he would be KU’s first significant loss since the NCAA implemented the amended policy last year. Attempting to turn around a program that is at the moment behind on scholarships to give, Miles gave his general thoughts on the player-focused rule change.
“Any team that's in this building (process) looks at attrition in the same way. That's not something you want,” Miles said. “You want your guys that, you want them to stay with you. You want to give them the opportunity to have great success and have all the dreams they want fulfilled right here.”
Given the speculation on Herbert’s future, Adeniji and Torneden were both asked why they’ve opted to finish out their final collegiate seasons with KU.
Torneden, a Lawrence native, said it “means the world” to potentially play the last football of his life with a group of teammates he’s built special bonds with across the last four years. Adeniji cited the importance he places on his role as a team leader.
“I guess it’s a different situation, but you know, I have my motivations and aspirations, and I feel like all of that’s right here,” Adeniji said. “And so I’ve gotta lead these guys and kind of accept that and keep fighting for what we want to accomplish.”