LAWRENCE — Three years ago, James Sims couldnt sleep. He would stay up late, maybe catching four or five hours of shut-eye, maybe dining on a few hundred calories of junk food in the wee hours of the morning.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
He was a Division I running back, and a decent one at that, but he was also a college student. He did little that would be considered conducive to being an All-Big 12 running back. So if it was impressive that he rushed for 742 yards as a true freshman in 2010, it might have been even more amazing that Sims did it all while not being in particularly good shape.
Saturday, Sims sat at a table on the track inside Memorial Stadium, scribbling his autograph on poster after poster. It was Fan Appreciation Day KU, and Sims was a wanted man. One year after rushing for 1,013 yards in nine games as a junior, Sims is entering his senior campaign with designs on being the most complete running back in the Big 12.
And when asked his secret how he went from being a slightly flabby freshman to 1,000-yard rusher, Sims offered an answer that probably sounds good to anyone thats ever attempted to work on an empty tank.
Rest, Sims said. Gotta sleep.
Its eight or nine hours now, Sims says, and maybe its maturity. When he arrived on campus four years ago, he was a Mark Mangino recruit who had committed to Kansas then kept his promise when Mangino was sacked for Turner Gill. Growing up in Irving, Texas, Sims had known then-KU assistant David Beaty for years, and Beaty always told Sims that hed coach him in college someday.
He was a like a father figure to me, Sims said.
Beaty, who left for Rice in 2010, never got the chance, but Sims headed for Lawrence anyway. He rushed for more than 700 yards in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but the program went into a sharp decline, winning just five games over his first two years.
Sims was a perfectly adequate running back in a perfectly bad program. But his junior year would serve as a turning point. First came the hiring of Charlie Weis in December 2011, and then came an arrest for driving under the influence in April. Sims had never been in trouble before, and the disappointment from the mistake served as motivation for the rest of the summer. Eat healthier. Go to bed earlier. Keep life and football in a productive order.
If you look at a picture of him from his freshman year to now, hes totally different, KU running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said. And even the end of last season to now, he looks better.
In a program that still has more question marks than answers, Sims is as close to a sure thing as there is. After rushing for 1,000 yards last year, Weis and Mitchell say Sims is perhaps playing better than ever before.
Its one reason why Weis felt comfortable moving junior Tony Pierson into a hybrid receiver/running back role. And despite the return of former four-star running back Darrian Miller and the presence of senior Taylor Cox, Sims has continued to evolve into the Jayhawks leading back during fall camp.
The best thing I like about James Sims is, with all of these running backs, he is still clearly No. 1, Weis said. Hes tough, he has good vision (and) its important to him.
Last year, Sims would often exit the huddle and see the opposing defense stacking the line. It was a weekly reminder that Kansas couldnt move the ball through the air and the opponents knew Sims was about to get the ball.
We were coming in week in and week out, knowing the defenses were going to try to stop the run, Sims said. And we just still ran the ball.
This year, the hope is that KUs passing game will improve, and Sims will have more lanes to run. On Saturday, in KUs open scrimmage, Sims broke free for a 63-yard touchdown in the opening minutes. It was an impressive display of speed and stamina the kind of run that Sims would have struggled to complete as a freshman. As a senior, he appears plenty rested.
Its just kept me humble, Sims said. Its just another step to just get better. Obviously, theres other talent out there. And youve just got to work on the little things. The little things will separate you being in the pack.
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.