Since Lincoln Riley took over the Oklahoma Sooners offense in 2015, we’ve seen primarily two backs carry the load of the running game, but with no definitive lead back coming into the fall we may see a change. While it hasn’t been a common thing at Oklahoma, it’s possible to see a very distributed load across three, four or even five running backs this upcoming season.
Lately we’ve seen the potent combination of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine at running back. It was nothing new in Norman, but it made every handoff more exciting than the last. This offseason, we saw Bob Stoops step down as the head of the program, letting the young Lincoln Riley take his place. While Big Game Bob will be missed sorely, there is no need to worry with Lincoln Riley. After working his way up the ladder as a student assistant to now his first head coaching gig, Lincoln has shown that he’s wise beyond his years in his time as an offensive coordinator at East Carolina and Oklahoma. His dynamic style will be accepted graciously in Norman, but how he handles running backs from this moment on could potentially differ from what we’re accustomed to.
Riley first ran an offense at East Carolina, where he worked under Ruffin McNeil as an offensive coordinator. In his five seasons, ECU only had a running back hit the 1000-yard mark twice (Vintavious Cooper both times). The highest to not hit the 1K mark were Breon Allen (907) and Jon Williams (883). The run-pass ratio at the time is partially responsible for this, but there were also 15 other players who tallied 200+ yards in a season during that time. Granted, Riley didn’t have blue-chip running backs to work with in Greenville, but dispersing the load is clearly something he’s comfortable with.
Oklahoma has five scholarship running backs in 2017 — all of whom bring a unique set of skills to the table. One could set himself apart this coming season, but why not share the wealth and hit defenses with different looks?
Currently, the Sooners have no clear-cut number one running back. Abdul Adams could contend for the starting spot this season, but he was limited and hidden behind Mixon and Perine last season and is still unproven. The 5'10", 208-pounder — who is noted for his speed and athleticism — was OU’s No. 3 back as a freshman and didn’t disappoint when handed the football, going for 91 yards against both Louisiana-Monroe and Kansas. He also has great potential as pass-catcher, so it’s easy OU making an effort to get him the ball in the open field.
Rodney Anderson is another player that looks like a potential leading back. Injuries have robbed him (and us) of his last two season, but his ceiling is seemingly infinite. If there’s one back who has the potential to be the alpha of the backfield, it’s safe to say that it’s Anderson. In an interview with the The Norman Transcript, Riley had this to say:
“He's a freak,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “He's at the top or near the top of every test we have. He's strong, fast, smart. Every quality you would put down for a great running back or just a great football player, he checks a lot of the boxes. We're thrilled about how far he's come.”
Obviously, this is great to hear. After a broken leg and a freak neck injury, it has been a long road for Anderson to make his way back. However, his injury history has kept him limited in spring and summer sessions. And while he still wears the non-contact jersey, it’s said to simply be a precaution. C&C Machine writer Graham Dudley actually wrote a great piece on Anderson back in March. You can read it and see more about Anderson here.
Marcelias Sutton, a JUCO transfer, could be a bit of a wildcard when it comes to what to expect this season. He’s a bit on the shorter side, but in 9 games played with Lackawanna College he averaged 6.3 yards per carry. Yeah, I know, JUCO football is nowhere near the same level as FBS, but he has shown he has talent and could definitely be a very serviceable backup.
Trey Sermon, one of the incoming freshmen, is a tank of a human. At 6-0 and 222 pounds, he was the 9th best RB according to ESPN. He’s not too far off of the size of Perine (5’11” 236 lbs.), and averaged 7.4 yards per carry in high school. He ran for 1,227 yards as a senior and was nothing short of impressive throughout his HS career — so impressive that he had offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, and Auburn. The report on him is limited as of now, but we could see more of him in the next few months.
Kennedy Brooks is another freshman that we could see more of in the future. After getting offers from Michigan, Missouri, OK State, and Wisconsin, he decided to call Oklahoma home. Brooks tallied 2,679 yards in his senior season, averaging 267.9 per game. There’s no denying that talent, it’s just a matter of doing that on the highest level of college ball. Sermon and Brooks may not be quite as game-ready as the other three backs, but they may be too talented to not get carries as freshman in 2017.
The spread for running backs can go any way. While some may seem like the obvious choice, Riley said at Big 12 Media Day that it isn’t as easy as it seems.
We're going to have an open mind about it. It's as wide open as it can be. We'll play the best guy whether it's one guy getting most of the carries, two guys like last year, or even as much as three or four.”
Since assuming the position of head coach, and saying that he will continue to call plays on offense, Riley will be tasked with filling the hole of running back as best he can. Judging by the quote above, one would think that it could be a committee.
At ECU we saw the run game become dispersed among several backs, but it wasn’t due to injuries - it was an effort to give equal touches and opportunities to everyone and to keep guys fresh. Yes, there were seasons in which one player outweighed the other in yards by a long shot, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a large, systematic rotation behind the top back. Riley may default to what he was comfortable with before he had Mixon and Perine - and that’s a method of going with whoever has the best feel for the day, or whoever fits the play-call best.
The chances of seeing this in 2017 are decent, but not definite. As much as I like to connect the dots on theories like this, it’s still up in the air when it comes to how the Sooners will attack the run game. However, there is no denying that running a revolving door of running backs is a potential outcome in 2017.
We’re just going to have to wait and see how things will turn out come September 2nd.