Oklahoma state running back Vernand Morency has raised eyebrows in Stillwater this fall with more than just his stellar play. After the 5'10", 215-pound junior ran for 261 yards and two touchdowns in a season-opening win over UCLA, Oklahoma State's school newspaper reported the curious fact that he had slept in his cleats the night before the game. Morency, who leads the nation in rushing with 173.8 yards per game, insists he wasn't being superstitious, just eager. "I lay down on the bed for a minute before I took them off," he says. "I just wanted to try them on and break them in."
The story, though, has stuck with him. "I don't understand, but I'm all for it if it works," says running backs coach Larry Porter. "It's his way of getting ready."
Although Morency didn't sleep in his shoes last Friday night, he still played with a touch of magic on Saturday at Colorado, rushing for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a convincing 42-14 victory. His first score came on his second carry of the day, a nifty scamper over left tackle in which he sidestepped a defender in the backfield, skipped outside and sprinted 58 yards to the end zone. "VMo's got great balance," says Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Gundy. "Inside five yards, you better wrap him up. He does a great job making the first tackler miss, and when he gets outside, he's so bouncy."
Three years ago Morency couldn't have been further away from big-time college football. A two-sport star at Miami's Northwestern High, he gave up a football scholarship to Miami and signed a contract with the Colorado Rockies, who selected him in the 14th round of the 1998 major league draft. As a speedy centerfielder for the Rockies' rookie league team in 1999, he hit .294 and stole six bases in a game. But he hit a wall, never batting higher than .230 in two subsequent seasons and topping out in Class A. "I felt I had a lot of upside in baseball," Morency says. "I still feel it's my best sport. But every year schools were calling me to see if I was interested in coming back to football."
One of Morency's minor league teammates was Matt Holliday, a former Oklahoma State recruit and the son of Cowboys baseball coach Tom Holliday. Matt hooked Morency up with football coach Les Miles, and Morency became a 22-year-old freshman at Oklahoma State in 2002. Though a sprained right ankle hampered him the first year, he broke out last season while backing up All-Big 12 tailback Tatum Bell. Morency rushed for 918 yards, including 269 against Kansas and 227 against Baylor. Bell's departure after last season, as well as the loss of quarterback Josh Fields and AllAmerica receiver Rashaun Woods, left Morency as the Cowboys' lone offensive threat this year.
"We rolled the dice and basically designed our offense around him. So far, it's worked," says Gundy of a rushing attack that ranks fourth in the nation (285.2 yards per game). "He gives us a lot of versatility in the plays we call because of his ability to make the first guy miss."
Despite being 5-0 and ranked No. 16, Oklahoma State and Morency have been overshadowed by intrastate rival Oklahoma and its sensational freshman running back Adrian Peterson. Morency isn't worried, however, about being an afterthought in the Sooner State. "I feel like I'm the best back in America," he says. "Week in and week out, I'm going to prove that."