LAWRENCE, Kansas — Ben Heeney may know better than anybody the challenge that faces Kansas after losing its top two running backs to season-ending injuries just one day apart.
The senior linebacker has had to tackle Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox in practice, and he's close friends with both of them. Bourbon is his roommate.
"James Sims was the guy around here for four years," Heeney said Tuesday. "For them both to kind of be the ones that were going to carry the load this year, and then both of them had heart-breaking injuries — it hurts the whole team."
Bourbon tore his ACL during a scrimmage on Sunday, and Cox tore an Achilles tendon in a non-contact drill on Monday. Jayhawks coach Charlie Weis announced the injuries in a statement Tuesday, but did not take questions Wednesday when he was due to speak to the media.
Instead, three of the Jayhawks' leaders were asked to discuss the impact of the injuries.
"We feel that we have guys to fill in their spot have put in the work and are ready to play," wide receiver Nick Harwell said. "We're very confident in them."
The top two candidates to step into the leading role are junior college transfer De'Andre Mann and freshman Corey Avery, while freshman safety Joe Dineen Jr. has moved to running back — after playing quarterback in high school — to help fill the void.
"The one thing about Joe that stuck out to me was that he's very coachable," safety Cassius Sendish said. "He's one who is going to take whatever the coach tells him to do and do everything he can and put it all into it. I don't think the transition from playing defensive back to running back will be bumpy at all."
Mann arrives this season from Hartnell College in California, where he was ranked as the one of the top junior college running backs in the country. He ran for 16 touchdowns as a freshman, and had more than 1,700 yards rushing and 27 scores as a sophomore.
Meanwhile, Avery was a highly-sought prospect from powerhouse Carter High School in Dallas. His senior year, he ran 158 times for 1,667 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also showing the kind of hands that could make him a versatile pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
"Corey and De'Andre, they both had amazing camps," Heeney said. "They are both exceptional players and they're going to do very good."
They had better be good.
The Jayhawks, who open the season Sept. 6 against Southeast Missouri State, are entering what could be a make-or-break year for Weis. They won just one game his first year and three games last year, and it's unclear whether he'll be around for the last two years of his contract if Kansas is unable to put up more victories.
The biggest reason for their struggles the past couple of seasons has been the offense, which struggled to effectively run the pro-style system that Weis favors. Weis decided this offseason to bring in John Reagan as offensive coordinator, and he's implementing a spread offense that should help to create matchups in space for guys such as wide receiver Tony Pierson.
Without much depth at running back, that task just got harder.
In fact, one far-fetched option at running back could be to use Heeney, who has developed into one of the nation's top linebackers. He played running back in high school, gaining more than 2,000 yards his senior season.
"I would love to play both," Heeney said. "That would be awesome. I always thought I was going to play running back in college instead of defense. If they need me, I'm on call."