The feeling arrived sometime on Sunday evening. The stakes seemed a little higher. The burden of responsibility weighed a little heavier.
Corey Avery cooled down inside the Kansas locker room, and a handful of upperclassmen were already offering some early warnings:
“I can’t play like a freshman now,” Avery said Thursday, recalling the conversations. “I got to lose the high school mind-set.”
Those words came Sunday, just a few hours after senior running back Brandon Bourbon tore his ACL during an intrasquad scrimmage. That was less than 24 hours before senior running back Taylor Cox tore his Achilles’ tendon on Monday, further decimating the Jayhawks’ backfield.
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“It hit me Sunday when Brandon went down,” Avery said, “… after Brandon went down, I knew I was going to have to pick it up.”
In a sense, Avery, a true freshman running back from Dallas, had always planned on instant playing time. It was part of the reason, he says, that a three-star recruit with interest from schools such as Texas, Baylor and Nebraska and who once committed to Ohio State would end up at Kansas.
Back home, Avery says, friends gave him trouble about his college choice. But he relished the idea of going somewhere different.
“Anybody can pick a route to go to a school that’s already good,” Avery said. “But it takes someone that wants to be different to go somewhere that’s not doing so good and help out the program.”
Still, Avery had no idea that Kansas’ top two running backs would be lost for the season, leaving juco transfer De’Andre Mann as his main competition for the starting job. A true freshman listed at 5 feet 10 and 195 pounds, Avery is about to be thrust into the maw, starting with the Jayhawks’ opener against Southeast Missouri State on Sept. 6.
“Anywhere that I would have gone,” Avery says, “I was going to try to compete to be on the field.”
For Avery, this is not his first rebuilding project. The story begins at Carter High School, a former Texas power in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Carter has produced a bushel of NFL stalwarts over the years — linebacker Jessie Armstead, receiver Michael Crabtree and former Chiefs running back Greg Hill immediately come to mind. But when Avery arrived as a freshman, the school had fallen on hard times. Three years later, the explosive Avery was a leading man in a Carter resurgence.
His hi-top fade haircut, colored with some reddish highlights, also makes him easy to spot in a locker room. But while the Lone Star powers showed interest, Avery credits KU running-backs coach Reggie Mitchell for forging a tight bond during the recruiting process. After visiting Kansas with his mother, he was comfortable saying no to a slew of traditional football schools and taking the path less traveled.
Now it’s on to the next step. Early playing time. More carries. More pressure. But even before the injuries to Bourbon and Cox, Avery was pushing his way up the depth chart.
“He makes people miss,” KU coach Charlie Weis said last week. “That excites me. I know we can run plays. It’s the people that make (defenses) miss.”
Based on pure athleticism and explosiveness, Avery appears ready to carry a substantial load. But he’s also ready to answer the first question you might have. He is still a true freshman, still growing into his frame, and durability is certainly a question. But …
“I’m pretty sure and confident in myself,” Avery said, “that I will be able to pick up a third and 1.”
Dineen ready to play running back
Joe Dineen was a college safety for about two weeks. Then the KU backfield was decimated by injuries, and Weis came to him with an offer: He could stay at safety, where he would have little chance of playing as a freshman, or he could move to running back, where he could provide instant depth after injuries to Bourbon and Cox.
“It was my choice to try it out,” said Dineen, a Lawrence Free State graduate.
It was an easy decision. Dineen, who is listed at 6 feet 2 and 208 pounds, is now scrambling to learn the offensive playbook as fall camp continues. While he is behind Avery and Mann on the depth chart, he could provide a big body in short-yardage situations and some extra pass protection in the passing game. Dineen played some running back in high school, but was primarily a quarterback during his senior year at Free State.
So the obvious question: Has he pass-blocked before?
“No,” Dineen said, “but the way they teach it here, you just got to throw your hands at them. It’s different, but I think I’ll be able to do it.”