Oklahoma football: Running back depletion will only sharpen Riley’s creativity

FORT WORTH, TX - OCTOBER 20: Kennedy Brooks #26 of the Oklahoma Sooners carries the ball against the TCU Horned Frogs defense in the first half at Amon G. Carter Stadium on October 20, 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
FORT WORTH, TX - OCTOBER 20: Kennedy Brooks #26 of the Oklahoma Sooners carries the ball against the TCU Horned Frogs defense in the first half at Amon G. Carter Stadium on October 20, 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

The ground game has been an integral component of the explosive Oklahoma football offense under head coach Lincoln Riley.

Most college football offenses typically  employ a running game to set up opportunities through the air. The Sooners, on the other hand, like to utilize their Air Raid offensive plan, which includes incorporating receivers out of the backfield, to add to their ability and desire the run the football.

Make no mistake, though, it’s because of the success Oklahoma has had in the running game in recent seasons that, one, has created balance in the overall offensive plan and kept the defense guessing at what the Sooners are going to do and, two, has made the offense so explosive and one of the very best in all of college football.

With junior running back Kennedy Brooks opting out of the 2020 season, Oklahoma now is faced with having to enter the 2020 season without its top four rushing leaders from last season.

Jalen Hurts was a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2020 NFL Draft; Brooks, who was second on the team with 1,011 rushing yards last season, has probably played his last game in a Sooner uniform; senior Rhamondre Stevenson logged over 500 rushing yards and averaged a team-high 8.0 yards per carry, but he will miss up to five games in 2020 serving out a suspension handed down late last season.

Trey Sermon, rushed for over 1,600 combined yards in his first two seasons, but he wasn’t used as much in the run game in 2019 and delivered just 345 yards on the ground. After the season, he elected to enter the transfer portal and is now at Ohio State.

Overall, the Sooners are loosing 451 out of 52 rushing carries from last season. No question that will be a huge challenge to overcome.

That kind of a depletion would cripple most college teams and their ability to effectively run the football, but Oklahoma is not like most college teams. The Sooners have five scholarship players on the roster at the running back position. Aside from Stevenson and perhaps junior T.J. Pledger, the group lacks experience, but Riley really likes the composite talent that is available there.

It’s reload, not rebuild for Oklahoma football at running back in 2020.

Another reason to be optimism about the Sooners’ ability to rise above the curve ball they’ve been thrown with the running back situation this season is they return all five starters on an offensive line believed to be one of the best in college football. A great O-line can make a huge difference in the ability to effectively gain yards on the ground

New running backs coach DeMarco Murray, one of the great Sooner running backs of the recent past, couldn’t have returned to Norman at a more demanding time. He is definitely going to have his hands full in his first season as an OU assistant.

The situation presents a giant opportunity for the next man to step up. That opportunity appears to belong to Pledger initially.

Pledger has had just 40 carries for 244 total yards and one touchdown in two seasons at Oklahoma. He was a highly-touted running back and a top-100 prospect nationally in the 2018 class, but he is a small back at just 5-foot, 9 inches, 198 pounds and he has been limited by the OU depth at running back.

Riley told reporters last week, including Jason Kersey of The Athletic, that he likes what he has seen from Pledger in training camp. “He’s played well. He’s in shape. He’s confident. He knows what we’re doing,” the Sooner head coach said.

The Oklahoma coaches are also high on Marcus Major. The redshirt freshman from nearby Oklahoma City played well in several early games, but he injured his shoulder after just three games and missed the remainder of the 2019 season. “Incredibly gifted,” was the way Riley described Major when he signed with OU as a member of the 2019 recruiting class.

When he trained with former Oklahoma fullback J.D. Runnels while at Millwood High School in Oklahoma City, Runnels compared Major to another sensational Oklahoma running back, Adrian Peterson, when he played at OU. If Major comes anywhere close to what “AD” accomplished as a Sooner, there isn’t any question that Oklahoma will be well off.

Like Pledger, true freshman Seth McGowan comes to Norman as a four-star prospect with plenty of promise. The Dallas, Texas, native was highly recruited but chose to go with the Sooners over such other major programs as Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and LSU. He was ranked the No. 13 running back nationally in the 2020 class by Rivals and No. 16 by both ESPN and 247Sports.

McGowan will get some playing time in 2020, just how much will depend on how fast he can acclimate to the college game and Riley’s offensive system and the kind of production he is able to deliver.

Although first-year starter at quarterback, Spencer Rattler, will primarily be looked to to make smart decisions with the ball and deliver accurate throws downfield to a talented receiving corps, he is a dual threat and has the skills and the ability to pick up yards with his feet as well as with his arm.

And don’t discount Lincoln Riley’s creative genius. Recognized as one of the more creative offensive masterminds in college football, you know Riley will come up with a design to best utilize the strengths of the available Sooner running backs, both as ball carriers and receivers.

The running back situation will be strengthened when Stevenson is allowed to return to service after serving his suspension.

Mount Rushmore of all-time Oklahoma running backs. dark. Next

Looking ahead to the 2021 season, Pledger and McGowan will have a year of game experience under the belt, and the Sooners are working hard to land the country’s No. 1 running back recruit, Camar Wheaton, a five-star prospect out of Garland, Texas.