STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) After finishing 114th out of 128 Division I schools in rushing offense last season, No. 21 Oklahoma State is hoping for an improved ground attack this year.
Barry J. Sanders, a transfer from Stanford and the son of former Oklahoma State Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, joins three returning running backs, as well as highly touted freshman Justice Hill, to give the Cowboys a deep group that will compete for playing time.
As the Cowboys prepare for their season opener against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 3, it seems that a running back-by-committee approach will prevail, as none of the five has separated themselves from the herd.
''Right now, it's a group that will share time,'' coach Mike Gundy said. ''We're hoping that the addition of Justice, and then Junior (Sanders), working with what we had last year, will give us a good 75-80 plays a game.''
Senior Chris Carson led Oklahoma State in rushing last year with 517 yards on 131 carries (a 3.9-yard average), along with four touchdowns, while recording 17 receptions for 170 yards.
Senior Rennie Childs gained 281 yards and two touchdowns on 72 rushes (a 3.9-yard average), while sophomore Chris Carr also compiled a 3.9-yard average with 142 yards rushing and one TD on 36 carries.
At Stanford, Sanders picked up 315 yards and four touchdowns on 51 rushes (a 6.2-yard average).
With the addition of Hill, a true freshman from Tulsa who has turned heads with his play in camp, any of the running backs is likely to see the field at some point - Gundy is just not sure who will get the most snaps.
''A lot of times, it's just by feel,'' Gundy said of dividing up the playing time. ''A guy gets hot, you leave him in, a guy gets tired, you've got to get him out and put somebody else in. We may not know what to do at that position until the third or fourth game of the year.''
Despite averaging just 126.8 yards per game rushing last season, the Cowboys' offense still amassed 480 yards per game overall, ranking 22nd in the nation, en route to a 10-3 record, thanks to a potent aerial attack led by quarterback Mason Rudolph.
It appears that the inclusion of Sanders, as well as Hill, to the group has sparked improvements in the holdovers from last season.
''One thing that I have enjoyed watching is that Chris Carson's work ethic and approach, and Rennie's work ethic, has been really good,'' Gundy said. ''Whether it has been (because of) Junior or just them wanting to improve an area on our team that we need to help improve the overall picture has been good.''
Carson agreed that the infusion of new talent has provided additional motivation for the returning running backs to upgrade their game.
''With (Sanders) coming in, it's just going to make everybody else better,'' Carson said. ''The run game as a unit will be a lot better. Of course it's going to make me work harder, it's going to make Rennie work harder, everybody else in the running backs work harder. With him coming in, that's a great addition for us as a team because I feel like we are just one step away from that Big 12 (championship).''
Carr, who also returned kickoffs as a freshman last year, averaging 21.5 yards on 29 returns, believes there has been an increase in competitiveness in practice, as each player tries to stake his claim to a spot in the rotation.
''Everyone's competing at a high level and thinks they can be the guy,'' Carr said. ''Everyone feels like they can help the team.''