If Oklahoma run game wasn't exactly humming along before out of nowhere walk-on Dominique Whaley went down with a season ending injury, it's certainly fair to say that things did not get much better without him. Now maybe that is the defense one could use when discussing then first year OC Josh Heupel and his seeming propensity to favor the pass over the run, but if he/we learned nothing from the nightmare that was Bedlam 2011 it was that dropping back to pass 50+ times isn't always the greatest strategy.
Many within Sooner Nation are anxiously anticipating the second year of the Heupel offense to see if he learned from some of his and the team's struggles last year. Most OU fans were always under the impression that Bob Stoops seemed to prefer a more balanced attack and yet the Oklahoma offense has appeared to drift away from that in recent years. The Sooners will have no shortage of quality options at running back this coming season and are returning an offensive line that should be one of the best they've had since 2008.
So will Heupel feature the running game more in 2012? Well, my friends, that's the $64,000 question.
Matt: With the obvious questions at wide receiver I think it is even more imperative that Oklahoma's running backs carry the offense (no pun intended) early and often this season. However, that does raise two immediate questions. First, will Josh Heupel keep the offense balanced as we saw in the Insight Bowl or will he go back to the pass happy offense we saw in the Bedlam game? The second question is who gets the bulk of the carries for Oklahoma?
I think Heupel learned a valuable lesson in last season's Bedlam game. I also believe there was a meeting among the coaches where offensive philosophy was discussed (that's just a personal opinion with no solid evidence to back it up). However, we do know that the offensive philosophy in the bowl game was much different than what we had seen down the stretch from this football team, so I'm inclined to think that the offense attack will be balanced in 2012.
As for who gets the bulk of the carries I think that is very much up for debate. I'm of the opinion, that if you're performing at a high level, you don't lose your starting job due to injury. Therefore I believe Dominique Whaley should be the starting running back in 2012. However, Roy Finch matched Whaley's yard per carry average last season and certainly has earned the right to touch the ball often. Then there's Damien Williams who I don't believe is coming to Oklahoma to serve as a backup. He's a bigger and stronger type back to them both Whaley and Finch and could certainly prove to be a good change of pace for the Sooner offense.
Now I guess the biggest debate here, is who carries the ball? Is it possible that a three headed monster at running back to work for Oklahoma? It certainly worked for TCU last year and there's no doubt that the Sooner rushing attack is in need of a revival of sorts. Is three backs too many though?
Jordan: At this point, I simply do not share your optimism with respect to Heupel and a balanced offense. Mind you, I think with the offensive line that Oklahoma is returning (which, in my opinion, will be their best since 2007-08 and the aforementioned issues at wide receiver, there would never be a better time to lean on the run game. But if we're using the sample size of one game (the Insight Bowl) from last year as our/your hope for this coming season, well then what about the previous 12 games? So Bedlam, as incredibly atrocious as it was, was reason enough alone for Heupel to change essentially everything he'd done as a play caller all season?
I think that Heupel thinks he has to throw it in this league to win because there are so many other teams with explosive offenses. I don't think anyone was confusing that Iowa offense for explosive and I can't help but feel that, along with some of the personnel limitations OU was dealing with that night, played a pretty significant role in his game plan.
Now, maybe you can argue that the Big 12 changes some this year with OSU's losses of Weeden/Blackmon and RGIII's departure from Baylor, but it's still very likely to be a conference known for its offense prowess.
I very much agree with you that after what he showed last year, Dom Whaley will be given every chance to win his starting job back. I think Cale Gundy really likes what he brings as a player (assuming 100% health of course) he clearly trusts him after starting him as a walk-on, and I think that last part is REALLY big for these coaches (the primary reason in my opinion why Brennan Clay still gets regular carries). All that said, his injury was gruesome to say the least. There has been very little detail made available about his recovery, which given Stoops' history certainly isn't surprising, other than the token generalities that "he's doing well." While Whaley's injury might not have been quite as severe, we all saw Adrian Taylor's attempt to comeback and how even a year after he still wasn't quite the same. So while I'd bet my Sooner Nation fan card there isn't an OU fan rooting their you know what for him to make it back, realistically you simply have to prepare yourself for the possibility of it not happening (or at least him not being 100% for UTEP).
I've never understood how these coaches could not find a role for Roy Finch in this offense. He's easily one of the most explosive skill position players on the team and yet last year, they continued to ask a guy 5'8" 165 lbs (on a good day) to run between the tackles. Get him the ball in space!!! It can't possibly be that difficult.
Look, ever since his commitment I've made no secret of my unofficial position as president of the Damien Williams fan club. The guy will be playing on Sundays, whether it's one year from now (if he were to leave early) or two, it's happening. The guy was severely underrated by the recruiting services in my own humble opinion and barring him being an absolute bust in pass protection, he'll play from Day 1 in my opinion. Contrary to wide receiver, running back is much easier of a position to pick up and learn the offense so his late-ish summer arrival should not have the same type of potentially negative impact as say a guy like Courtney Gardner perhaps. He has a potentially special combination of size and speed and if my man hits the seam, bye-bye y'all.
I absolutely think it's possible for a "three headed monster at running back" can work for Oklahoma, however in my mind the perfect scenario would be: Whaley comes back 100%, D.Williams is everything I've billed him to be, Finch is used as a change of pace guy (mixing in Danzel Williams as well), Clay is going to get carries so however they choose to use him barring taking away any significant time from the previously mentioned three guys. In a perfect world, David Smith and Alex Ross would redshirt (Ross being the only one I see a legit chance of playing this year, though that would be a complete waste on the part of the OU coaches).
I definitely do not think three backs is too many, not at all. Obviously it would require Gundy using all three (or more) in the most efficient way possible, taking into account both effectiveness and keeping all of them relatively happy, but he's done it before so no reason to believe he cannot do it again.
So, above, I've given you my 'what could happen' scenario, which admittedly is optimistic to be sure, but what do we think will actually happen?
Matt: I agree that the sampling size is small when it comes to gauging what the offense will be like in 2012. However, there are some significant similarities between the Insight Bowl and the start of this season. Oklahoma was hurting at receiver going into that bowl game and I would even challenge that they are potentially worse off now than they were then. I get that Metoyer and Gardner have big-time potential but let's look at the reality of the situation for just a minute. With the suspensions in place Kenny Stills is the only receiver on this team who has caught a pass at the major college football level. As bad as things were in the bowl game the receiver position wasn't this dire, especially when you consider the previously mentioned stacked includes tight ends as well.
Heupel will have to include the receivers within the offense in these early games because they desperately need experience and because I am a firm believer that you cannot win the Big XII if you can't spread the field and throw the football. However, I just don't see how this offense can be successful with only one tested option (Kenny Stills) at receiver. I looked for Oklahoma to use the air raid attack quite extensively against both UTEP and Florida A&M just for the sole purpose of giving the receivers and tight ends experience. Beyond that I still think that the lesson was learned in last year's Bedlam game that you have to run the football and run it effectively so I do expect a stronger rushing attack the season for those reasons.
Jordan: I think most of us who'd like to think we know a little something about college football, and more specifically this Oklahoma program, agree with just about everything you said. So my question regarding the running game for you is multi-faceted.
- Of the known options at running back, is there one in particular you believe needs to rise above the rest in order to provide OU with the best chance of winning games?
- In a perfect world, how would you see the carries being split amongst all the options?
- Barring the obvious ("everyone gets hurt"), what do you see as being the worst case scenario with respect to the running back position?
Matt: I don't believe that any one running back needs to rise above the others as much as they all three need to perform equally well. There is no Adrian Peterson in this group but there certainly is a DeMarco Murray/Chris Brown type of dynamic. My opinion is that when you are averaging 5.5 yards per carry the issue of productivity is not necessarily the running backs performance but rather the number of carries the running back is receiving.
This is actually a difficult question and I think it depends largely on game situation. If Oklahoma is in a game where they need to grind out yards and chew up the clock then I think Williams is a natural fit for that. He provides Oklahoma with delight they currently do not have any big bruising running back. Finch and Whaley are both speed guys and home run threats every time they touch the ball. I guess in a perfect world you would see two of them lined up in the backfield and one going in motion from the slot way wing position giving the Sooners three legitimate run/pass options from the backs on every snap. Obviously you would ride the hot hand so to speak on a game to game basis.
To me the worst case scenario would be poor run blocking. I think one name that has been left out of this conversation is Trey Millard who is one of the, if not the, best blocking fullbacks in the conference. Miller also averaged 7 yards per carry last season and has deceptive speed for a big guy. The coaching staff has to get him on the field and some form as a blocker and a thread as a ball carrier. Beyond that the offensive line has to do their share in creating holes for the backs to run through. I personally don't have a problem with Roy Finch running between the tackles (I think he could be lethal on draw plays) but do have a problem sending him up the middle when there's no hole to run through.
If the running game falters in 2012 it will be due to poor line play more so than poor back play. Considering that Oklahoma should have one of the better lines in the Big XII it just makes sense to me that they run the ball at least 40% of the time.
Jordan: If only Demarco Murray/Chris Brown! That would absolutely be the best case scenario in my mind and one I'd be ecstatic to see if it could happen. The only potential combo that I could envision being that type of duo is Williams & Whaley. No disrespect to Finch as I am a big time fan and have been frustrated (though not nearly as much as himself I'm sure) with the seemingly difficult time the coaches have had in finding a consistent role for him in this offense.
I actually think, if healthy, both Whaley and Williams could actually be more productive if this offensive line can be as good as I think they can and if Heupel gives them the carries. I think both can pound out those tough yards (which both Murray & Brown could do as well) while both can also take it to the house (which really only Murray could do) when they get to that second level of the defense. I'm not saying you are, but don't sleep on Williams' speed just because he's 200+ pounds.
Honestly, if this team needs a "bigger" back to grind out short yardage I can think of no possible reason why that back shouldn't be Trey Millard.
And I couldn't agree more with you that the success, or lack there of, of this running game is heavily dependent on the offensive line.