On late Friday night, the eve of his first Kansas football game, Ke’aun Kinner couldn’t sleep. This was not unusual, Kinner says. He never has been a particularly sound sleeper. But the problem compounds itself on the night before games. From his days at Little Elm High School in Little Elm, Texas, to his days at Navarro Junior College, Kinner has tossed and turned while thinking of football. Thus, the problem surfaced again on Friday as Kinner, a junior running back, prepared for his first game at KU.
“That always happens,” Kinner says. “I just can’t wait to play.”
Kinner presumably slept much better on Saturday night, after he logged 27 carries for 157 yards in the Jayhawks’ 41-38 loss to South Dakota State. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and two touchdowns while leading a strong debut from the KU offense, which rolled up 576 yards after a slow start.
“He’s a special guy,” quarterback Montell Cozart said. “We knew that he was going to come in and ball.”
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On the whole, it was a disappointing opener for Kansas and first-year head coach David Beaty. The Jayhawks squandered an opportunity for a victory in Beaty’s debut, and the schedule does not soften with Memphis on the docket on Saturday. But the emergence of Kinner will ease any concerns about the KU backfield after the offseason departure of leading rusher Corey Avery, who was dismissed from the program in June for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Avery, who led the Jayhawks with 631 yards as a true freshman, appeared to be a recruiting coup, a talented back with a bright future ahead. But the Jayhawks may have unearthed an upgrade in Kinner, who chose Kansas after rushing for 1,696 yards at Navarro in 2014.
It was a fortuitous confluence of events that brought Kinner and Kansas together. Kinner never visited the KU campus before saying yes to Beaty and KU running backs coach Reggie Mitchell. But he had reason to feel comfortable with Kansas. Former KU safety Patrick Resby, who started on the 2007 Orange Bowl team, is an assistant coach at Navarro and he helped sell Kinner on KU — and the KU staff on Kinner.
“We knew he was a talented guy,” Beaty said on Saturday. “The one thing I wasn’t quite sure of was his top-end speed. But he showed some things today that I thought were pretty good.”
Kinner broke free for a 26-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and he also proved durable. Listed at 5 feet 9 and 186 pounds, Kinner survived a day with 27 touches, a heavy workload that could continue as the season progresses. With senior Taylor Cox still returning to full health from an Achilles’ injury, the Jayhawks’ running back rotation on Saturday consisted of just three players: Kinner; senior De’Andre Mann; and walk-on Ryan Schadler.
“We feel like he’s got to touch it,” Beaty said. “I’m not sure we’re going to put a number on it, but we feel like he’s got to touch it.”
An hour after his first game, Kinner sat inside KU’s Anderson Family Football Complex. The Kansas offense had run 90 plays, but Kinner believed the unit could still play faster. He felt content with his performance, he said, but he wasn’t surprised by it. Kinner’s 157 rushing yards were the fifth most in the country. Kinner believes he can do more.
“I’m not really that into my personal stats,” Kinner said. “I just try to do as much as I can to help my team get the win. I didn’t do enough.”
Three numbers to watch
10 … Kansas had 10 different players catch passes on Saturday.
22 … The Jayhawks had 22 players making their Kansas debut.
8 … True freshman cornerback Tyrone Miller, Jr. led the Jayhawks with eight tackles.
One play to remember: Ryan Schadler introduces himself
Schadler, a Hesston, Kan. native and a former Wichita State track athlete, marked his first college game with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
One bold prediction
After burning Ryan Willis’ redshirt Saturday, Kansas will find a way to get the true freshman quarterback more snaps — even if starter Montell Cozart continues to play well.