Darrian Miller probably knew it was coming.
It was early last year, just a short while after Miller had been tossed off the KU football team, and Blue Springs football coach Kelly Donohoe thought his former star running back could use some honest and blunt guidance.
Miller had messed up. And that was on him. But he still had time to make it right.
“I was very disappointed in some things that took place over the last couple years,” Donohoe says. “But we’ve always known that he was an enormous talent, and we just wanted to see him dedicate himself in every facet to being the best person he could be.”
In early 2012, just months after arriving at Kansas, coach Charlie Weis made Miller the most high-profile casualty in a programwide purge. The official word was that Weis had dismissed Miller for undisclosed off-the-field issues, and his exit made one thing clear: Weis was intent on cleaning up the KU program, and he wasn’t afraid to run off a four-star talent.
“I basically said, ‘You need to go get your life straightened out,’” Weis remembers saying. “‘Here’s the things you need to do.’ And like a dad would, you try to give them some advice on how to do things.”
But if Weis and Donohoe were disappointed and frustrated with Miller last year, they’ve been equally encouraged by a year of transformation. After Miller spent the last year rebuilding his reputation as a redshirt at Butler Community College, Weis welcomed Miller back to KU in late May. His return could be one of the more intriguing story lines when the Jayhawks report for preseason camp Wednesday.
Miller, who will be eligible this fall as a redshirt sophomore, is a potential difference-maker in the backfield, the sort of talent that is rare at a place like Kansas. Three years ago, he was the No. 1 recruit in Missouri, setting the state’s career big-class rushing record his senior year. As a freshman at KU in 2011, he rushed for 559 yards and four touchdowns.
Now he is back in the KU backfield, the same position group that features senior James Sims, a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago.
“I think Darrian, what he should be anticipating is trying to beat everybody out,” Weis said. “He’s been there before, right? For him, I wouldn’t be content coming in and being anyone’s backup. I’d be trying to beat them out.”
In addition to Sims, the Jayhawks also return senior Taylor Cox, junior Brandon Bourbon and junior speed-back Tony Pierson, who is expected to become a fixture in the KU passing attack.
“For me, I’m playing the best guy,” Weis says. “So right now, James Sims is the best guy. But James Sims knows … the competition just got tougher.”
The fact that Miller even has an opportunity for redemption suggests a larger theme about Weis and his plan to remake the KU program. In his first season, Weis dismissed nearly 30 players for various academic and off-the-field transgressions. But in year two, after a 1-11 season, Weis has also shown that he’s not shy about awarding second chances. Miller is one of four reclamation projects, of various degrees, that Weis brought on this offseason.
Defensive back Dexter McDonald, a former Rockhurst High standout, also returned to the program after being dismissed last year. Former Miami (Ohio) receiver Nick Harwell transferred to KU after being dismissed from his school. And defensive end Chris Martin had a noticeably checkered past before arriving this past spring as the cornerstone of a strong junior-college recruiting class.
One of those second chances blew up in Weis’ face when Martin was arrested and charged in connection with an armed robbery in Lawrence in late May. (Martin is facing a trial in November.)
“I really wanted it to work, but it didn’t,” Weis says of Martin.” And personally, it saddens me. Professionally, it doesn’t sadden me at all, because you have a set of rules and people have to follow the rules.”
Weis, though, still appears to believe in the power of second chances.
“Lookit, these are 18- to 23-year-old kids,” Weis says. “Remember how many mistakes you made? We all did. So you have to factor that in there and say: Can we recover from those things? Can we help a young man grow? Can we help him when he leaves school and gets a degree and walks into a job?”