Oklahoma’s running back picture in 2020 comes down to two important questions:
1, Can Kennedy Brooks carry the load by himself?
2, If not, who will be his wingman?
We know Jalen Hurts won’t be adding his 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground like he did last year. He’s a Philadelphia Eagle now.
And we know Trey Sermon won’t be contributing his 2,500 career scrimmage yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s an Ohio State Buckeye now.
What we don’t know is if Rhamondre Stevenson will be available for the first five games of the season, or if he’s not, which of the Sooners’ backups will step up in his absence.
As the primary third option last year behind Brooks and Sermon (and Hurts), Stevenson (6-foot, 229 pounds) ran for 515 yards and six touchdowns in his first year out of junior college. He averaged 8.0 yards per carry as he showed plenty of power and speed — and made some observers and fans believe he is the Sooners’ most gifted running back.
But Stevenson is currently scheduled to miss five games because of an NCAA suspension for a positive drug test ahead of the Peach Bowl. That infraction carries a six-game punishment that carries over into this year. But coach Lincoln Riley has maintained that OU’s appeal is still on the legislative conveyor belt, although the coach acknowledges that belt, in the midst of a pandemic, has slowed to a virtual halt.
“There’s just other priorities that are obviously a lot higher right now for the people that make those decisions,” Riley said.
So, for five games, at least, either Brooks gets help from T.J. Pledger (a 5-foot-9, 198-pound junior with 40 career rushing attempts fo 244 yards), Marcus Major (a 5-11, 220-pound redshirt freshman who played in three games last year before getting injured) or Seth McGowan (a 5-11, 216-pound true freshman from Mesquite, TX, who ran for more than 3,700 yards and 45 TDs in high school) …
Or, the talented Mr. Brooks could shoulder a larger share of carries.
Brooks is a two-time 1,000-yard runner, but not because he gets the football a lot. In 2018, he ran for 1,056 yards on just 119 carries (his 8.9 yard average led the nation most of the year but wound up third), and in 2019, he picked up 1,011 yards on just 155 carries (good for 6.5 yards per carry).
Of the 56 players who ran for more than 1,000 yards in 2019, the fewest carries was 154 — one less than Brooks. The year before, when 63 FBS players ran for 1,000 yards, Brooks’ 119 carries was by far the fewest.
Still, Brooks is easily the Sooners’ most experienced running back. His smooth, easy running style, combined with excellent vision, a deceptive elusiveness and above average speed make him Oklahoma’s first option in the ground game.
Can he take on 225 carries? Or 250? Those numbers would put him on or near the Sooners’ single-season top 10 (Billy Sims’ 248 in 1979 ranks No. 8, Samaje Perine’s 226 in 2015 ranks No. 10).
Brooks is 5-11, 214 pounds and seems physically capable of handling a bigger load — at least until Stevenson gets back after the Texas game.
It’s a good bet those additional carries won’t come from the quarterback position. Hurts was as skilled and powerful as a typical FBS starting running back, while this year’s QB candidates — Tanner Mordecai and Spencer Rattler — are not. Riley will want to keep his quarterback in the pocket more and allow him to distribute.
What this all does to Riley’s offense will be interesting to watch.
In the five years he’s called plays for the Sooners — two as offensive coordinator and three as head coach — Riley’s offenses have never averaged less than 218 rushing yards per game, and have never finished lower than 27th nationally in rushing offense. The last two years, OU has averaged 247 and 240 yards per game, which ranked 11th and 14th nationally.
To maintain that kind of productivity, the Sooners will need either more carries out of Brooks or a bigger role from a career reserve until Stevenson gets back.
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