Oklahoma football: Sermon’s departure disappointing, but OU remains strong at RB

NORMAN, OK - NOVEMBER 10: Running back Kennedy Brooks #26 of the Oklahoma Sooners breaks away against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State 48-47. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - NOVEMBER 10: Running back Kennedy Brooks #26 of the Oklahoma Sooners breaks away against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma defeated Oklahoma State 48-47. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images) /

The combination of Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon in the Oklahoma football backfield provided the Sooners with one of the best, if not the best, running back duo in college football.

Two seasons ago, when Brooks was a redshirt freshman and Sermon a sophomore, the dynamic combined for over 2,000 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. The production by the pair dropped off significantly last season, largely because Sermon touched the ball over 100 fewer times than the year before and missed the final four games of the season with a knee injury.

Brooks became the lead running back early in the 2019 season and reached the 1,000-yard level rushing for a second straight season. He was an All-Big 12 Second Team selection.

With Sermon relegated to No. 2 status (although head coach Lincoln Riley kept insisting that Sermon and Brooks were considered equals), and the likelihood that situation would stay the same in 2020, especially with the uncertainty of how Sermon would come back from his injury, the former four-star prospect from Marietta, Georgia, has elected to take his skills elsewhere for his final season of eligibility and enter the transfer portal.

The bottom line is Sermon wants to be a starter and get more playing time that he would likely get if he remained at Oklahoma, and you can’t fault him for that. The 6-foot, 226-pound running back will have already graduated and thus will be able to play immediately as a graduate transfer.

Brooks and Sermon were the main cogs in a rushing offense that was the 14th best among FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams last season and enabled the Sooners to produce the nation’s third best offense (537.6 yards per game).

Sermon’s departure naturally begs the question: How will Oklahoma make up for the loss of his offensive production in the coming season — assuming, of course, there is a 2020 season, not knowing what the future will hold with the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak?

Sermon’s value extended beyond his running ability. He was also a threat catching the ball as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught 12 passes for 181 yards, an average of 15.1 yards per catch, in 14 games in 2018, and made eight receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown in nine games last season.

While it certainly would be an added-plus to have the depth at running back that a player of Sermon’s talent and ability provides, the Sooners should still be strong in the run game next season without Sermon. Brooks will be back for his redshirt junior season. Junior-college transfer Rhamondre Stevenson returns for his senior season, although he will miss the first five games while serving out an NCAA suspension.

Stevenson was the most productive Oklahoma running back last season, averaging 8.0 yards per carry, and was third in rushing yards with 515 along with six rushing TDs. In Stevenson’s absence, the Sooners will have former four-star prospect and U.S. Army All-American T.J. Pledger. who will be a junior in the 2020 season and might be the fastest of all the OU running backs.

Pledger was injured for four games last season, but has patiently been waiting his time to show what he can do. He was used primarily on kick returns last season, but he did carry the ball 10 times for 65 rushing yards.

The Sooners also have redshirt freshman Marcus Major, who was injured most of last season, and Seth McGowan, a four-star prospect in OU’s top-10 2020 recruiting class, who will be competing for a place in the running back rotation.

And don’t rule out the possibility that Riley might use the transfer portal to bring in an additional running back to add depth with Sermon gone and Stevenson out for the first five games in 2020.

Something else to keep in mind regarding the OU running back situation next season is the strength of the offensive line. All five offensive line starters are back in 2020, and as any running back will tell you, you are only as good as the guys up front blocking for you. Under offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, the Sooners have been blessed with outstanding talent on the O-line.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts was Oklahoma’s leading rusher last season (1,298 yards). That won’t happen with expected QB starter Spencer Rattler, although he is more than capable of gaining yards with his legs, his strength is as a passer and he is extremely accurate when he does so.

By definition, OU’s Air Raid offense is considered to be heavily pass-oriented. But the Sooners are atypical in that Riley likes to run the ball more than the conventional Air Raid system, and he has the talent and depth to do so.  Most offensive game plans want to establish the run to set up their passing game. The Sooners’ approach, formerly under Bob Stoops and now under Riley, is more the opposite: throw the ball to open up the running game.

The Sooners have a wealth of offensive talent at all of the offensive skill positions to weather Sermon’s loss. Except in the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to national champion LSU, Oklahoma did all right without Sermon’s availability.

There’s no reason to think the offense won’t continue to thrive in 2020 under the leadership of Riley, one of the best offensive minds in the college game