NORMAN — There is a prevailing thought out there that it really doesn’t matter who Baker Mayfield turns and hands the football to this football season.
Oklahoma’s offensive line is so good, so experienced, so physical, this theory goes, that literally anybody can take handoffs in 2017 and have success moving the football.
Mayfield, the Sooners’ dashing quarterback, said he could gain 1,000 yards as a running back behind this offensive line. Orlando Brown, OU’s punishing left tackle, says he and his mates up front could pave the way for offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh to run for 1,000 yards.
“You go back to Iowa State, we had a fullback who had never carried the ball before in college and he rushed for over 100 yards,” said Dimitri Flowers, the fullback who had never carried the ball before in college but hit the Cyclones for over 100 yards last year. “That speaks volumes about the offensive line. I firmly believe we have the best offensive line in the country.
“And when you have those five guys up front and you put some guys back there with some skill, it’s scary.”
The reality is that Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine rushed for 2,234 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and are now in the NFL, because it does matter who carries the football.
“Oh, it matters,” said first-year head coach Lincoln Riley. “It matters. You’re never gonna block it up perfect every time. I don’t care how good you are up front. And we do have a chance — a chance — to be good. But it absolutely matters.”
So who, then, will it be?
There are probably no Joe Mixons or Samaje Perines in this group, no Demarco Murrays or Adrian Petersons.
But there certainly are some Allen Patricks.
Patrick, a converted junior college safety and special teams standout, gained 1,009 yards subbing for an injured Peterson the second half of the 2007 season. He did it by taking care of the football and running hard and being tough.
“There’s a lot of guys for us in the backfield right now that are doing a bunch of great things,” Flowers said. “Right now we’re just seeing who can take care of the ball first and foremost. That’s the most important thing, and then it’s who knows what to do when put in certain situations. I think they’re handling everything well.”
The candidates are Abdul Adams (5-11, 205), who carried 53 times for 283 yards backing up Mixon and Perine last year, and Rodney Anderson (6-2, 218), who broke a bone in his leg two years ago and broke a bone in his neck last year and has played in just two games, and junior college transfer Marcelias Sutton (5-8, 192), who ran 10 times for 63 yards and a touchdown in last spring’s Red/White Game, and freshman Trey Sermon (6-0, 222), who carried 13 times for 73 yards in the spring game. There’s also freshman Kennedy Brooks (5-10, 206), who just arrived but brings eye-popping high school accomplishments.
The competition has been good for each player.
Anderson, for example, is healthier than ever and looks strong, fast and powerful.
Adams, Mayfield said, has “progressed the most out of all of them,” Mayfield said, because he “couldn’t catch a cold when he first got here, but he’s catching the ball really well.”
And Sermon, Riley said, “has made some really big leaps since spring, specifically on his body. … He’s always been just kind of a big, thick kid, and he looks a little bit different. He was a little bit — his body was a little bit soft coming into the spring. With coach Schmidt and those guys through the summer, that’s not the case any more. He’s quicker, he’s faster, he’s a little bit more explosive.”
Said Flowers, “They all share very similar qualities in that they’re great with the ball in their hands. They run strong. They run tough. And they have great vision.”
Brown was helpful enough to break down each contender’s individual qualities.
“Trey’s game is really, really different,” Brown said. “Just his body frame and his ability to balance and things like that, I mean, he understands cuts, too, and timing, and who we’re blocking, our blocking assignments. In the open field, he’s dangerous. He can run through you, he can spin around you, he can juke, he can stiff-arm, whatever it may be. He’s a guy that’s really good at everything.
“Marcelius, man, probably one of the most explosive people I’ve ever seen with the football. The things he’s able to do from an explosion standpoint, as far as jump-cutting, as an o-lineman, those things are important. Because that’s how you get bodies in the ground. That’s how we’re gonna be able to get those pancakes and those finishes that you guys all see and go, ‘Oh, wow!’
“Abdul is really fundamentally sound. His timing is always perfect. His vision may not be the best, but his timing is perfect which, at the end of the day, is really important just because of the way that we’re gonna be able to block things, he’s gonna be able to hit it with just perfect timing. And he’s got some of the best open-field moves, from a finesse standpoint, that I’ve ever seen.
“Rodney, man, really good all-around back. All of these guys have great hands, but Rodney’s ability to probably, in the future, go out there and run those routes that they’re gonna ask him to do is gonna be pretty spectacular.”
Said Mayfield, “The one thing I will say about all those guys, it takes more than one guy to bring them down. I can say that about Trey Sermon, definitely Rodney Anderson, Marcelius Sutton, obviously Abdul, and then you bring in young guys like Kennedy, they’re all very, very talented. So it’s exciting to see the different things they do well.
“Rodney and Trey Sermon bring in that pass game, the element of the running backs in our pass game. They add a good thing to that. Marcelius is so explosive, I think he can just take it to the house any time he touches the ball.
“It’s a deep running back room. I think the competition in that room is unlike any other we have on this team right now, so it’s exciting to see.”
Riley said it’ll be important to have backs that can contribute in the passing game, both as a receiver and as a blocker. In his offense, with all its tempo and versatility, the back who can do that may have an advantage.
But, Riley said, he’s also going to need a pure running back, someone who can take the ball from Mayfield and knows exactly what his role is during the next few seconds.
“You’ve got to have guys, if you want to run the football well, that can still make things happen when it’s not blocked up right,” Riley said. “We tell our backs that all the time. If it’s not blocked up well, you’ve got to be a guy that can get us a tough, dirty, 2- or 3- or 4- or 5-yard run. If it’s blocked up great, you need to be a guy that’s gonna house it. You need to be a guy that’s gonna take it the distance because you don’t get that perfect call and that perfect execution and all that right all that often. The chances of it aren’t very good. And so you’ve got the guys that can capitalize when you do.
“And I would say that our backs have been one of the really bright spots in camp so far. That competition is alive and well with those guys. I don’t see one guy that hasn’t stepped up their game from where they were in the spring. And I’m confident in the guys we’re gonna have running the football.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. 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. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.