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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Can Running Back U Reload?

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Oklahoma has been churning out some of the nation’s best running backs for years. Will 2017 be more of the same?

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Last month I posted about the big decision awaiting Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Would they take the money and run, or come back for one last shot at the title?

Though I was optimistic that one would return, their decisions are not surprising. Perine was already the program’s all-time leading rusher, Mixon’s life in Norman just got a lot more complicated and both were coming off back-to-back conference titles. They had climbed the mountain. But where does that leave OU’s running back situation?

Well, as far as guys already on the roster, the Sooners return Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson, who was being touted as an impact guy before a season-ending neck injury in the preseason. Adams racked up 283 yards on 51 carries in 2016, but most OU fans probably remember him most for losing carries to fullback Dimitri Flowers against Iowa State. Still, Adams is a home run threat, and those two guys will provide a solid foundation.

It’s the newcomers that could make the position truly interesting, though. Marcelias Sutton, out of Lackawanna Community College (just like Kapri Doucet, Emmanuel Beal and Ashton Julious), is supposedly a very versatile back who can help everywhere from the backfield to the return game to the slot. It sounds like he could help ease Mixon’s departure next year—he’s certainly not that kind of athlete, but Lincoln Riley can use him in a similar way.

Then there’s Georgia four-star Trey Sermon, a strong, bruising rusher who resembles Perine more than anyone else in this class. Sermon, like Sutton, is an early enrollee this semester and hopefully one of the “straight dogs” Baker Mayfield referred to in his tweet the other day.

And, of course, the class rounds out with four-star Kennedy Brooks out of Mansfield. Eric Bailey called him a “dynamic running back with big-play capability” in his Tuesday position preview while naming Brooks the running back to watch in fall camp.

Obviously, things don’t come that easily in D1 college ball. But the highlight gives you an idea of the vision, speed and high school success Brooks enjoyed in the hyper-competitive world of DFW football. He’s a big get for the Sooners, and probably my pick to carry the load for this class two or three years down the line.

Oklahoma also had minor contributions from walk-ons Devin Montgomery and Najee Bissoon (who, as I was reminded during a Google search, will be remembered far more for his campus activism than his play) in 2016, but it looks like next season’s carries will be shared between those five solid backs: Anderson, Adams, Brooks, Sermon and Sutton. A talented but inexperienced unit, to be sure. Certainly a dropoff from the wealth of riches OU had with Mixon and Perine on the field. But after looking over the unit, my panic level about losing those guys has definitely gone down.

If I were to guess, I’d say that Anderson and Adams will take a majority of the snaps next year, with Sutton seeing more catches than carries and maybe Sermon working his way into the rotation as a change-of-pace back by the end of the year. Brooks can certainly break in with a standout fall camp, though the coaching staff will be far more comfortable with Sermon and Sutton after working with them all spring.

It’s possible that Anderson will break through and turn into the unquestioned star of the unit (after all, Dede Westbrook was just another receiver when 2016 began), but right now we’re looking at a rusher-by-committee approach. That’s a manageable thing for an offense as talented as OU’s, especially one with so many returning offensive linemen.

The Sooners have been through this before. Yeah, it’s tough to lose two amazing backfield talents in your Heisman-caliber quarterback’s final season, but I’m done betting against Lincoln Riley to do amazing things with the pieces he’s handed.