NORMAN — The question was asked during the preseason, would it be more likely that Oklahoma has two 1,000-yard rushers this season, or zero?
One-third of the way through 2017, it’s starting to look like the former.
Two Saturdays hence in Waco, Texas, Abdul Adams and Trey Sermon combined for 312 rushing yards — 164 for Adams, 148 for Sermon — and now both are on pace to surpass or at least approach 1,000 yards.
Seems common sense to think dueling superstars would be needed to pull off such a feat. Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine did it last season. But those two came with four- and five-star accolades, set numerous and significant records in their time in Norman and now are being paid NFL dollars.
In Adams and Sermon, there was a certain degree of anonymity — as major college running backs go, anyway. Same with the Sooners’ second-level runners, Marcelias Sutton and Rodney Anderson. All four received four-star rankings as high schoolers, though none was seen as a major recruiting victory. Sermon came in with the best recruiting credentials, but he was the youngest of the bunch. Sutton was an honorable mention All-American in junior college, Adams was third-string behind Mixon and Perine, and Anderson’s OU career had lots of promise but also devastating injuries.
Four games into the season, no one has become “The Man.” But all four have value. And defenses are unable to key on the skill set of either player.
“I think it’s great for us, having a little mixup here and there,” said OU quarterback Baker Mayfield. “I think we have the explosive guys and we also have the power runners as well, so we kind of have it all in that room right now.”
Adams took a handoff 99 yards in the Sooners’ 49-41 victory at Baylor. But it was Sermon who finished the game with an OU record 148 fourth-quarter yards.
Confused? Think of it this way: Abdul comes first (Adam, Adams, get it?), but Trey is a Sermonator (he just keeps coming at you).
“You get a guy that’s hot, you feed him the ball and you see what it does for us (like) Abdul in the first half, and even Marcelias, too, was running it well,” Mayfield said, “and then you put Trey in the second half and you see what can happen when you give a guy a chance and let him run with it.”
Through four games, Adams leads the Sooners with 330 rushing yards, and thanks his end-to-end TD at Baylor, he’s averaging an astounding 10.3 yards per carry. Sermon leads the team with 43 rushes and isn’t far behind with 283 yards. If OU plays 13 games, that puts Adams on pace for 1,072 yards while Sermon is on pace for 920. Add in the Big 12 championship game and both figure to surpass 1,000.
Coach Lincoln Riley said Adams and Sermon have separated from Sutton and Anderson because of their versatility (the foursome also has combined for 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns). It’s that versatility, keyed by Riley’s unpredictability and Mayfield’s spontaneity, that makes defenses so unprepared for who can do what.
“It’s nice to have everything working, but you don’t want to get too specific,” Riley said. “(Defenses) know when this guy goes into the game, they’re going to do this or that. So that’s where you try to find a balance there, that sort of thing. We continue to stress to these guys offensively that if you’re great at a few things, that’s fine and we’ll use it some, but the more things you can do well, the more we’re going to play you.
“Those specialty guys are tough. Again, you can get guys able to zero in on you, and that’s the last thing you ever want. We want to be teeing off on people, we don’t want them teeing off on us.”
Riley said Adams has grown as a pass blocker, and his development as a receiver has been “remarkable.” So far, Adams has four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown.
“His hands were a major question mark coming in,” Riley said. “We liked everything else about him. And he has worked his tail off on it. He spends as much time on the jugs (ball machine) and catching tennis balls and all the different things we do with our receivers, he spends as much or more time as any receiver would have on it. It’s not a secret why he’s improved so quickly.”
Sermon also has shown he can be an effective receiver so far, catching three passes for 23 yards, including the game-turning touchdown at Ohio State.
On handoffs, their styles are opposites.
Adams (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) hits the hole quickly and at full speed. That’s a fearlessness and a trust in the play call and in the offensive line that isn’t entirely common. It served him well at Baylor, getting him into the opening so he could make a cut at the goal line before the defender could react. His finishing speed got him to the end zone.
On the other hand, Sermon (6-foot, 222), takes a more patient and measured approach. He waits, giving his blockers time to create running lanes, or searching for them as they develop within the defense. And then he pounds ahead like a hammer, finishing each run with a powerful forward lean.
Fullback Dimitri Flowers has been impressed by both. In Adams, Flowers likes “his work ethic. He’s one of the hardest workers I know. Abdul, he’s, in the offseason in summer workouts, you can tell he wanted to make this year different. He’s proven that.”
And as for Sermon’s ability to take over a game in the fourth quarter?
“I said it a few weeks ago and I’ll say it again: He doesn’t play like a true freshman,” Flowers said. “That’s something that we’re gonna need in this offense if we want to continue to be successful.”
“I have multiple go-to guys,” Mayfield said. “It’s just not one against everybody else. We have more depth. I have a bunch of guys that I trust. Although we don’t an established starter at running back, it’s been a joke in our locker room that it’s this person ‘or,’ ‘or,’ ‘or’ on the roster. It’s funny to us because we have so many guys that are so talented.
“I expected that. I said that before the season, that it’s going to be more spread out, it’s going to be more balanced, which is exactly true.”
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.