Chris Klieman excited about more Kansas State running backs than just Deuce Vaughn

Kellis Robinett
The Wichita Eagle (TNS)
Kansas State running back Jacardia Wright, left, will look to make an impact on the rushing attack this year after falling down the depth chart behind freshman All-American Deuce Vaughn.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Strange as it may now seem, there was a time not so long ago when Kansas State football fans viewed a pair of young running backs other than Deuce Vaughn as the future of the Wildcats' ground game.

Their names were Joe Ervin and Jacardia Wright. Remember them?

You should. They both showed worlds of promise while playing in just four games as true freshmen in 2019. They looked so good, in fact, that they both seemed in line for more carries than Vaughn heading into last season.

But then the coronavirus pandemic happened. Ervin, a 5-foot-8 and 178-pound shifty runner from Rock Hill, S.C., opted out of the 2020 season and spent several months away from the team before returning for spring practices. Wright, a 6-foot and 226-pound bruising rusher, tumbled down the depth chart and rarely played while Vaughn burst onto the scene as a freshman All-American.

Many fans wondered what happened to Ervin and Wright last season, especially while the Wildcats struggled to find quality running backs to play alongside Vaughn. It seems like those questions may disappear this year.

K-State football coach Chris Klieman is confident the Wildcats will have a much deeper and more versatile backfield when games resume in September.

"Jacardia had a really good 2019 and then a lot of things just transpired in 2020," Klieman said. "But he's grown and he's matured. I am excited for Jacardia. I think he is going to be a really good player and make a big impact for us."

"Getting Joe Ervin back is also critical. He is a really talented running back and I think he's going to carry the ball an awful lot. He's going to catch the ball an awful lot. He's one of the best blockers we have. I feel comfortable in the fact that we have some good depth and some competition there at that position."

If preseason hype can be trusted, Klieman will be much more comfortable with K-State's rotation of running backs this season than he was during a disappointing 2020 campaign.

Anyone who watched Klieman coach at North Dakota State knows that he much prefers a committee of three or four running backs to a single featured runner. Maybe he will lean on Vaughn a tad more than usual this season, given the eye-popping production (642 yards and seven touchdowns as a rusher, 434 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver) he delivered as a true freshman. But there's no doubt he would also like to get Ervin and Wright more involved, so they can all stay fresh throughout games.

When K-State won eight games during Klieman's debut season, the Wildcats rotated between James Gilbert, Jordon Brown and Harry Trotter.

Wright seems like an ideal change-of-pace runner who could help the Wildcats gain hard-fought yards between the tackles. Ervin and Vaughn are both short, shifty runners who do most of their damage in space. But Wright has the size and power to move the chains in traffic.

He flashed his potential during the final regular-season game of 2019 when he rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown against Iowa State. Fans have been begging for an encore since. They never got one last season, as he only saw six carries as a redshirt freshman. Perhaps things will be different now that he's a sophomore.

"He's heading in the right direction," K-State running backs coach Brian Anderson said during spring practices. "He's worked hard this offseason. He continues to grow as a football player as he understands what we're doing offensively. Again, it's just a process and sometimes guys are ready to go early and sometimes guys need time. He's progressing in the right direction."

K-State running backs joked with Ervin that he was returning from vacation when he rejoined the team in January, but there was nothing to laugh about when he got back in at practice.

Ervin was arguably K-State's most promising freshman running back in 2019, when he rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown in four games. Klieman said they would have played him had they not agreed to preserve his redshirt season by using him in just four games.

Losing him entirely in 2020 was a significant blow to K-State's offense, but Klieman thought it showed a lot of character for him to stay in shape and return with the right attitude a year later.

Vaughn stole the show while he was away, but the Wildcats will find ways to get Ervin, and Wright, on the field now that's back.

"It's awesome, because they complement each other very well even though they're on the smaller side," Anderson said. "Joe has a lot of punch behind his frame, and he has speed behind his frame, so having those two guys in the backfield at the same time along having Jacardia's size and the other guys in the room, it's been great."