Sharp's return sparks Kansas running attack

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

The bumps and bruises that Jake Sharp has experienced the last two Sunday mornings haven't been frustrating.

Even as he's stumbled out of bed, the junior Kansas tailback has almost reveled in his soreness. It was a sign he was back in the lineup, finally contributing to his team.

"I haven't minded it too much," Sharp said. "It feels like I'm back playing football again."

After being relegated to the bench for most of the early part of the season, Sharp has emerged as the Jayhawks' primary rushing threat heading into Saturday's key game at No. 4 Oklahoma.

The 190-pound Sharp rushed for 118 yards on a career-high 31 carries -- the first Kansas back to top 100 yards this season -- to help power the Jayhawks' victory over Colorado last week. In the process, he appears to have won the job as the featured back in the Jayhawks' offense.

After rushing for 821 yards last season as a backup behind Brandon McAnderson, Sharp was expected to challenge for a starting position this year.

But earlier in the season he found himself in a logjam for playing time with Angus Quigley and heralded junior-college transfer Jocques Crawford.

Kansas coach Mark Mangino initially didn't think that Sharp could be an every-down back, preferring to use him as a spot player depending on game situations.

"He was the kind of guy we thought could be a complimentary back," Mangino said. "Maybe use him for 10 carries a game, a couple of receptions, that kind of stuff."

It's understandable why Mangino wavered before finding his starter where he always was. The 230-pouund Crawford arrived heavy on hype and fueled expectations when he talked about rushing for 2,000 yards before the season started. He remains 1,885 yards away from that goal halfway through the season.

The 222-pound Quigley was intriguing to Mangino because he was a tough inside rusher just like previous Kansas standouts Jon Cornish and McAnderson. After Quigley led the team in rushing in each of the first four games, he was thought to be the best choice.

Sharp rushed for only 62 yards on 21 carries in the first three games. And his only appearance in the Jayhawks' fourth game against Sam Houston State came on the final possession of the game when backups were present to run out the clock.

But after the Jayhawks fell into a 20-0 halftime hole against Iowa State, Mangino turned to Sharp almost in desperation. The Jayhawks had produced only 34 yards rushing as a team in the first half.

"Me and Jake talk a lot," Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier told the Kansas City Star. "He just kept telling me he wanted a shot. Just one little shot."

And when that opportunity came, Sharp made the most out of it.

Sharp rebounded to rush for 70 yards in the second half and produced all of his 107 receiving yards -- the most in history by a Kansas back in one game -- to key a dramatic 35-33 comeback victory over the Cyclones.

"We realized we couldn't play any worse," Sharp said. "Our coaches have trained us to fight through adversity. Nobody freaked out. We just made adjustments and started to play. We showed that when everybody is on the same page, we're a pretty hard team to beat."

Sharp built on that strong outing by producing his game last week. Those two strong performances have helped the 5-1 Jayhawks into undisputed possession of first place in the North Division heading into their game Saturday against the Sooners.

Some of Sharp's success is because he is more comfortable after having several carries to get used to the flow of the game. Before, he had little time to become acclimated before he was back on the bench.

"I'm a guy who's like a jitterbug when I got out there," Sharp said. "Before I had more adrenalin than what I knew what to do with. But as the more carries I get, the more the game slows down for me."

And Mangino has tweaked his running philosophy to accommodate Sharp's talents that helped him score 63 touchdowns as a senior at Salina (Kan.) High School.

Instead of a move-the-pile strategy heavily predicated on inside runs, Mangino has implemented a strategy more suited to Sharp. There now are more sweeps and option-based opportunities to use Sharp's best attribute, his 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash.

"I'm just trying to run with more maturity," Sharp said. "I've started waiting on blocks and trying to be more patient when I'm out there."

The development hasn't been surprising to Mangino, who has been pleased with Sharp's return.

"We've always thought he could help us," Mangino said. "We would like him to be a complimentary back. But I think that Jake has more than proven he can carry the load.

"He's confident and we feel like he's showing no signs of wearing down. He was strong and running hard and blocking and carrying the ball at the end of the game. We have faith he'll do whatever we ask of him."