Watching the Oklahoma Sooners in 2017 felt like you were witnessing the apotheosis of offense in college football. They did everything well with quarterback Baker Mayfield at the helm. They could attack defenses however they wanted – by land or by air, short or deep, uptempo or at a snail’s pace.
OU was supposed to take a step back on O last year with Mayfield gone. Instead, the Sooners became even more potent by replacing him with Kyler Murray, probably the most dangerous player to take snap in college football since Cam Newton. Murray was every bit Mayfield’s equal throwing the ball, processing information and improvising in the pocket. Murray’s speed and athleticism took the offense to another level, though.
OU’s offense appears as dominant as ever four games into the 2019 season. But it’s also different. Coach Lincoln Riley has the luxury of building around what appears to be a historically great running game, and the attack has developed a new identity behind quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The raw statistics through four games are stunning. OU is knocking out an average of eight yards every time it rushes the ball. A quick look at the numbers on cfbstats.com shows that would represent the highest rate in the last decade by almost a full yard if OU can maintain it.
The Sooners have run the ball a total of 147 times this year, which works out to an average of about 37 rushes per game. Forty-four of those attempts, or roughly 30%, have gone for 10 yards or more. Only three teams in the country have at least as many runs of 10-plus yards as the Sooners – all have played five games, and none has run the ball fewer than 202 times on the season.
Of course, OU has enjoyed a light schedule up to this point. Given that those numbers should shrink as the competition picks up, so I checked in with ESPN’s Bill Connelly to see what his efficiency metrics had to say.
In other words, even when you adjust for weak opponents, OU’s ground game is still functioning at an absurdly high level.
For comparison’s sake, take a look at the same metrics for last year’s team:
The Sooners have improved this year across every facet of a rushing attack that already ranked No. 1 overall last season.
You wouldn’t expect a team that just lost four offensive linemen to the NFL to improve its ground game the following year, especially considering that injuries have forced offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh to do some shuffling of the lineup through four games. The Sooners actually have had occasional issues with miscommunication and mental errors up front this year.
Despite those hurdles with the line, OU’s ground game is thriving because Riley has helped turn Hurts into arguably the most effective runner in the country, regardless of position. Net out 24 yards lost on three sacks this season, and Hurts has carried the ball 44 times for 467 yards in four games, reflecting an average in excess of 10 yards per attempt.
A decent chunk of Hurts’ yards have come from scrambling off of dropbacks. However, Riley is also giving his QB opportunities to make things happen on read plays and designed runs. Hurts has turned into a devastating short-yardage option as well, which hasn’t always been OU’s forte.
Importantly, OU can use Hurts as a runner without telegraphing its intentions. In the clip above, for example, the Sooners line up in 11 personnel (one running back and one H-back) with four receivers split wide, a typical passing formation.
But Hurts’ role in the running game raises a key question for the remainder of the season: Can he handle the workload?
At this point, Hurts is running the ball about 12 times per game, meaning he’s on pace for more than 140 carries in 12 games in the regular season. On its face, that sounds like a lot for a quarterback, and keep in mind that rate could climb as the Sooners start to face the meat of their competition in the coming weeks.
A year ago, Murray ran the ball about 10 times per game. Adding about 25 carries to his total certainly would have taken a toll on Murray’s body, and that’s even after you account for his ability to slide and protect himself. Hurts is far more likely to seek out contact when he’s on the move.
On the other hand, in addition to being a workout warrior, Hurts is probably carrying 25 more pounds on his frame than his predecessor. We also know what his track record looks like from his time at Alabama.
As a freshman in 2016, Hurts ran the ball 191 times in 15 games, which works out to nearly 13 attempts per contest. The following season saw his per-game carries curtailed down to 11, although it’s not clear if that was intentional or a function of a shift in the offensive scheme. Either way, Hurts handled that kind of punishment in the course of a season against physical opponents in the SEC such as LSU and Auburn. It stands to reason he can hold up for a year in a league like the Big 12, where defenses aren’t known for laying the lumber.
The eight remaining opponents on OU’s schedule will find it nearly impossible to keep up if the Sooners’ ground game keeps plowing ahead at its current pace. Pulling that off will weigh heavily on Hurts’ legs.