Oklahoma football: Running back competition a training camp headliner

AMES, IA - NOVEMBER 3: Running back Abdul Adams
AMES, IA - NOVEMBER 3: Running back Abdul Adams /

One of the burning questions surrounding the Oklahoma football prospects counting down to the kickoff of the 2017 college season is how the Sooners will replace the  enormous offensive production provided the last two seasons at the running back position.

If you believe quarterback Baker Mayfield — and why shouldn’t we — there is no problem. Only one created by the media and those who really don’t know much about Oklahoma football.

“If people don’t realize we reload here, then that is their own fault,” the Sooner fifth-year senior said to Joey Helmer of 247Sports this week. Mayfield was speaking about the wide-receiver corps, but you can be assured he had the same sentiment insofar as the running backs.

The truth is, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, both now departed to the NFL, accounted for 84 percent of the Sooners’ rushing yards a year ago and 30 percent of the team’s 571 total points, which were the third most in the nation last season. What made the “thunder” (Perine) and “lightning” boys doubly dangerous was their ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

But Oklahoma has seen quality running backs come and go throughout its history. And if there is one thing that has remained fairly consistent in Sooner football as far back as one can remember it is producing outstanding running backs.

Perine heads the list of career rushing leaders at OU, but there were many others before him. Names like Billy Sims, Joe Washington, Greg Pruitt, Steve Owens, even Marcus Dupree, who Barry Switzer once called the most talented running back he ever recruited.

More recently, there has been Quentin Griffin, Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray.

When Adrian Peterson left after the 2006 season, the running back questions were the same at Oklahoma as they have been this offseason. If not him, then who? Up stepped a relative unknown named Allen Patrick who ran the football for more than 1,000 yards, and a newcomer named DeMarco Murray added another 764 yards on the ground.  Concern obliterated.

Then after Murray moved on after the 2010 season, along came a JUCO transfer named Dominique Whaley, who along with Brennan Clay and another junior-college running back, Damien Williams, helped Sooner fans move on from Murray, et al. When those guys were gone, it was Perine who hit the ground running, and a year after that along came Joe Mixon, who teamed up with Perine to form the best running-back tandem in college football.

So with history being a prelude to the future, Oklahoma should be in good hands this season — or should we say, good legs.

“He has a lot of qualities that remind you a lot of Samaje (Perine).” –Head coach Lincoln Riley talking about RB Tre Sermon

And here’s why: The Sooners come into the new season five-deep at running back, and the competition in training camp has been one of the best. “They’re working hard,” said running backs coach Jay Boulware the second week of training camp. “Each and every day we have guys getting better.

“They’re making plays at practice, which is what I want to see, and (displaying) an overall understanding of what we’re doing, not just offensively in terms of schematics, but situational.”

Running one and two at this stage are a pair of sophomores. Redshirt sophomore Rodney Anderson is in his third season, but because of injuries he has carried the ball only once for five yards. He broke his leg in the Tennessee game two seasons ago and suffered a neck injury in preseason a year ago that kept him on the sidelines the entire season.

Anderson was a four-star recruit out of Katy, Texas, and he has all the tools to be a playmaker if he can stay healthy.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

Adams saw action in seven games last season as a freshman. He had 53 rushing attempts, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and in two separate games he totaled 91 rushing yards.

“Abdul has really accelerated his development the last year,” Boulware said. “All areas — as a receiver, as a runner, every single aspect of his game has improved. He’s probably our most improved player on our football team from his first year to his second.”

Adams was asked by the OU athletic department communications staff about the competition going on among the running back group:

“We love competing against each other,” he said. “We love making each other better. We push each other and keep each guy accountable.”

The Sooners top-10 2017 recruiting class included a talented trio of running backs, and all three have made a good impression in training camp.

JUCO transfer Marcelias Sutton comes to Oklahoma as a junior college All-American and the No. 19 overall JUCO recruit in the country, according to Rivals. His speed and agility make him very dangerous in the open field. Sooner coaches also have indicated that they might use Sutton on special teams returning kicks.

Sutton was one of 11 early enrollees from the Sooners 2017 recruiting class. He went through spring practice sessions and played in the annual Red-White spring game, where he had 63 rushing yards, including a touchdown.

The other two running backs likely to see some action during the season are true freshmen Tre Sermon and Kennedy Brooks. Both were rated as four-star recruits out of high school: Sermon out of Marietta, Georgia, and Brooks from Mansfield, Texas.

Sermon was an early enrollee and was available to participate in spring practice.. He had an impressive showing in the OU spring game, with 13 carries for 73 yards. He was a highly touted recruit and also had offers from such college powers as Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State. Boulware and the Sooner coaches believe he has high potential.

“He has a lot of qualities that remind you a lot of Samaje (Perine),” head coach Lincoln Riley told Eric Bailey of the Tulsa World, speaking about Sermon. “I’m not saying he’s Samaje, but his consistency and his attitude and mentality don’t fluctuate, which is rare for a guy as young as he (Sermon) is.”

At Big 12 Media Days last month Mayfield was quoted as saying this is the best group of running backs Oklahoma has had in some time. This week, he told Oklahoma Daily, “The one thing I’ll say about all these guys is it takes more than just one guy to bring them down.”

I’d say that image bodes well for the Sooner running game in 2017.