The NFL didn’t really have much of a knock against Rhamondre Stevenson.
By all accounts, his failed drug test ahead of the 2019 College Football Playoff was more of a one-off, and such things don’t really cause much concern in the NFL anymore. He’s not a tailback in a fullback’s body; his OU tape and his pro day performance showed he’s athletic, nimble, a good receiver and an all-around football player. And coaches and teammates think the world of him.
That’s why Stevenson was picked on Saturday by the New England Patriots, the No. 120 overall pick in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
“I think you've gotta look at the overall player,” said OU running backs coach DeMarco Murray, “and what he's done.”
Murray knows a thing or two about being a running back in the NFL. He only coached Stevenson for just under a year, and only for six actual games. But Murray and Stevenson struck up a powerful relationship in their short time together, and Murray came away impressed by Stevenson’s skills and drive to be great.
With the NCAA’s Super Senior rule this year, Stevenson had the option of coming back in 2021. But after two years in junior college and two more in Division I — even with the relatively low number of carries — his best option was to turn pro.
“When he did come back, he was the best running back in the Big 12 … and a top running back in the nation,” Murray said. “I think sometimes you've gotta strike while the iron's hot. And for him, I think he did that with his family. We obviously gave him some information to help make his decision easier.”
Head coach Lincoln Riley is glad to have Murray on staff as that invaluable resource for Sooner running backs.
“A guy that’s been through that experience so successfully as coach Murray was, I think it’s been good for Rhamondre and for all of our running backs to have that perspective,” Riley said. “And I think that’s our job as coaches — in a lot of ways maybe this year more than most.
“Yeah, DeMarco has been great for our guys. You just can’t replace having that guy that’s been through it and understands it and can kind of share with you what that journey looks like.”
Only one person in OU history carried the football more than Murray (759), and that was Steve Owens (958). In Stevenson’s case, the Patriots liked the fact that Stevenson comes into the league with fresh legs.
“I didn’t have many carries,” Stevenson said. “Enough to show what I can do and enough that people can like me. I think I have a lot of tread on my tires still. I’m not a worn-down back. I didn’t have 500 carries in college. I think that also plays to my advantage.”
Riley said Stevenson's lack of total playing time didn't really hinder his development.
"Rhamondre had a short career here in a lot of ways, but he did really make the most of his time," Riley said. "He broke so many tackles. I think that's probably the biggest thing that stands out for him — he's always had the ability to break tackles to get around guys, to run through guys. He has a very low center of gravity and just not much to tackle. He really improved his body, his conditioning level and his understanding of our offense, which allowed him to have a really strong back half of the season for us this past year."
Stevenson also said he was upfront with scouts about his suspension, and didn’t think it affected his draft status. That was clear as the Patriots selected both of the Sooners in the draft who were suspended last year.
“They know what I can bring to the table for a team and how I can help their organization,” Stevenson said. “I don’t think it makes that much of a difference.”
Stevenson’s junior college coach, Dean Grosfeld, told SI Sooners last fall that he worried the drug test and suspension might be a red flag with NFL teams.
But Grosfeld offered assurance that that one misstep shouldn’t define Stevenson. In fact, it became just another character-builder on his way to the NFL.
“Is it out of character when a kid tries something? No,” Grosfeld said. “But is he some full-fledged drug addict? In no way, shape or form. Does he own this? Yes. Is he embarrassed? Yes. I think embarrassment shows you sometimes a human emotion. He was embarrassed. He was embarrassed as all get out. He didn’t blame anybody else. But he was embarrassed, and that shows you what kind of human he is. He’s an incredible human being.”
Grosfeld said he’s been impressed by Stevenson since the day he first heard about him — first as a football player, then as a man.
“I want to say I watched two clips. I was like, ‘Good God,’ ” Grosfeld said. “It was against the best competition in Nevada, and he did things in those two clips that you just can’t do. You can’t coach it.
“Then I talked to him on the phone and after I talked to him, it was just a slam dunk deal.
“He’s just awesome. I love the kid to death.”