NORMAN — Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley likens star running back Rodney Anderson’s absence for the remainder of the 2018 season to Anderson’s relative absence at the start of the 2017 season.
Essentially, the Sooners’ backfield will be a committee of runners, and whoever is having the most success will stay on the field.
That’s how Anderson ascended to the top of the depth chart last season. Maybe someone will elevate his own game and become the man like Anderson did last year.
Anderson was lost to a knee injury in Saturday’s 49-21 victory over UCLA.
“It’ll be very similar to the beginning of last year where we felt like we had good players (and) we just kept feeding them the ball,” Riley said on Monday at his weekly news conference as the Sooners prepare to open Big 12 Conference play this week at Iowa State. “Guys had different big games. I think we had three guys rush for 140-plus in a game. So we’ve got guys that are really capable. They’ve got a good offensive line blocking for them, and we don’t expect any drop-off.”
Riley said he’s confident Anderson will return to form next year, but also acknowledged that Anderson and his family will have a decision to make: will that return be at OU, or will it be in the NFL?
It may take a leap of faith for an NFL team to invest in Anderson after three season-ending injuries — a broken leg, a fractured neck vertebra and now a severe knee ligament injury — but Riley said it shouldn’t.
“I talked to him last night, and thinking about it for a while, the injuries that’s he had have been isolated,” Riley said. “It’s not like the guy’s gone out there and had four or five knee injuries on the same one. The way this kid can rehab and the physical specimen that he is, I don’t think this is gonna have any impact on the rest of his career in football other than it will delay it for a few months. He’s so mentally tough and physically gifted that’s he’ll probably come back better. I would be shocked if he doesn’t, no matter who he is playing for.”
As for the 2018 Oklahoma football team, though, it will be virtually impossible to replace Anderson’s variety of game-changing skills. He runs with great power, speed and elusiveness, and he is a lethal receiver in the passing game. The reason he emerged so decisively from a crowded backfield at midseason last year is because he’s that good. He is easily one of the top five running backs in all of college football, and his wild athletic ability (check out social media videos of his box jumps or his leap out of the pool) put him in elite company.
So, more carries for thunderous sophomore Trey Sermon, yes. And that’s a good thing. Sermon averaged 6.1 yards per carry last season and was the Sooners’ starter and leading rusher in three games before Anderson exploded on the scene at midseason. But Riley also promised an increased workload for senior Marcelias Sutton, redshirt freshman Kennedy Brooks and true freshman T.J. Pledger.
“We feel good about those four,” Riley said. “It’s gonna be good for T.J. Pledger and Kennedy Brooks to get more reps, not only game reps but just throughout the week of practice. That’ll be very big for their development.”
In OU’s two blowouts so far this season, Pledger has been elusive and powerful, averaging 5.9 yards per carry, while Brooks has shown good burst, including a 41-yard TD run. Sutton, who’s averaging 7.9 yards per carry, hits the hole hard and finishes strong after one cut.
But of those four, only Sermon has been a reliable pass catcher. He has just a 2-yard reception this season after grabbing 16 passes for 139 yards and two TDs last season, including a big one at Ohio State. Sutton had three catches for 32 yards last season, and neither Brooks nor Pledger has a reception yet this season. That’s something at which Anderson excelled, evidenced by his performance against TCU: five catches, 139 yards and two TDs.
Like Riley, quarterback Kyler Murray doesn’t expect a statistical drop-off, even if it’s just Sermon who emerges as the Sooners’ go-to ball carrier. In addition to this three starts and his 744 yards rushing as a true freshman last season, Sermon also became known as the Oklahoma closer.
“I think he just kind of got in the game and his athleticism took over,” Murray said. “Ohio State, Baylor, everybody called him the fourth quarter finisher or whatever it was. This is the University of Oklahoma. We’ve had a lot of great running backs come through here, and he’s one of them. He’s just ready to grow on it. I think this will be a big year for him in the end.”
Both Murray and Riley said Anderson’s leadership — both physical and inspirational — won’t need to be replaced.
“I don’t really think you can,” Murray said. “But I don’t think we will have to. It’s tough for Rodney, going down. You never want to see a guy like that go out, what he’s meant to the team. But I think he’ll be there every step of the way for us. I know the type of guy he is. He doesn’t want to be away from us. We’ll have him, I believe so. We’ve just gotta have guys step up.”
“You know, it’s just the next man up,” said left guard Ben Powers. “And I think we’ll be just fine with Trey Sermon, and Marcelias, and T.J. and Kennedy and all those guys. That running back room is pretty talented.
“It hurts because you love that guy (Anderson) and to see him, being this is his third time he’s had a career injury, man, it sucks. It does. It’s tough.”
“It’s not like in the NFL where we cut a guy or traded a guy, he’s still here. He’s still alive,” Riley said. “He’s going to be around our guys a bunch. He’s going to be around the team. He’s going to travel with us. The only thing he won’t do is run out on the field with them.”
Remember, coming out of last year’s game against Iowa State — the fifth game of the season — Anderson had all of 12 carries and had gained just 34 yards. Abdul Adams opened the year as the starting running back, and after some ball security issues, he was replaced by Sermon. Anderson, still getting back to game speed after losing the previous two seasons to injury, was third string.
Anderson got 10 carries for 48 yards in Week 6 against Texas, then rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns over the final eight games, including 147 against Kansas State, 181 against Texas Tech, 151 against TCU, 118 against West Virginia and 201 against Georgia.
Riley hopes someone — Sermon, Sutton, Brooks or Pledger — can emerge like that this year. If not, well, he has a plan for that, too.
“As the backs here go forward,” Riley said, “it’s just gonna be based on performance, kind of like we were last year for a large part of the season. If all those guys are performing well but nobody’s really just totally outplaying the other, then I’m sure we’ll play a bunch of those guys. If we get a get a guy that gets hot or really starts playing at a high level, we’ll certainly feed him more reps and with that, more opportunity.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.