By: Kory Warren
Year after year, season after season, most NFL teams take the field with largely the same
group of core players. Once they obtain a talented group of players to build around, whether it be
through the draft, through free agency, or both, they do whatever they can to keep that group in
tact while simply adding and removing players around them in hopes of achieving the right mix
of “core players” and “role players”, hopefully allowing them to function at a very high level.
In college football, especially in the modern era, most teams rarely get to enjoy the luxury
of having the same dominant and talented core in which to lean on for more than a season. There
are exceptions to the rule over the years, but for the most part you are forced to find and replace
at least a few of your program's key pieces from year to year. In this series titled “Next Man Up”
we look at some of the key positions or position groups on each 2017 Big 12 team where one or
more players will be expected to step in, step up, and produce successful results so the team can
live out its goal of a successful season.
Depending on how the staff has handled player eligibility, injuries, and
recruiting consistency a team may face the “Next Man Up” paradigm in a minor way
and only need to replace a few role players. That said, a staff could have done
everything to the best of their abilities and still be forced to replace several key
pieces of the team. All that said even a minor replacement of key pieces in terms of
numbers can lead to struggles and a lot of sleepless nights for the staff. In this article,
the first of the series, we will dive into exactly that conundrum, because it is
happening to the two-time Big 12 Champion Oklahoma Sooners and must be addressed
this spring, summer, and ultimately this fall.
For the last couple of seasons the Oklahoma Sooners have had a few
certainties when it comes to playmakers and key performers. One of the most
comforting was its two-headed monster at running back, made up of superstars Samaje
Perine and Joe Mixon. The dynamic duo proved to be too much to handle by itself for
a lot of defenses. That said, when you add in the passing attack at the Sooners
disposal and the relentless nature of the play calling by the Sooners O.C. when they
were rolling, you have an unstoppable force out of the backfield that soon had
opponents saying “no mas” and waving the white flag.
The 2015 and 2016 seasons that Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine spent together at Oklahoma were so productive that many national analysts dubbed them the best running-back duo in America, and many stated that when you added QB Baker Mayfield into the mix, you had the best backfield in America period! The numbers produced by these 2 in the ’15 and 16’ seasons were pretty impressive, especially when you consider injuries, a one game suspension (Mixon 2016 @ ISU), and the fact that for much of ’15 they shared the backfield in spurts with a couple more RB’s. Over those 2 seasons the duo amassed 4,436 yards rushing and 45 touchdowns while averaging 6.2 yards per carry with a total of 722 carries. As impressive as all that may seem, the gifted duo also added pass catching to its repertoire and over the course of 2 seasons they amassed 1,107 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns via a total of 90 catches! Most of this damage was done by Mixon who, by the time he had committed to the Sooners, was highly regarded for his receiving ability by recruiting experts.
While it is great to look back at these numbers, as impressive as they may be to study, they simply tell us what anybody with 2 eyes, and a relatively mediocre level of football intelligence, already knew going into the 2017 spring, summer, and season, and that is the fact that you don’t simply replace these 2 amazing athletes, you hope you can find a way to match their output via a bevy of options at running back and receiver. Now let’s examine a few of the names that will likely be charged with replacing the bulk of the duo’s contribution to the offense, which came on the ground.
The first name on our list, will probably not be a surprise to Sooners fans in the know, or your basic recruiting junkie, #24 Rodney Anderson from Katy,Texas. If this name doesn’t ring a bell for you or maybe it rings a faint one, then allow me to explain why a lot of fans may not recognize this choice. Rodney has essentially missed the entire first 2 seasons of his Sooners career. In 2015, fresh off a lot of hype as a ballyhooed recruit, Anderson injured his leg in the second game of the season against the “Vol’s” while returning a kickoff. He would miss the remaining games that season, including the Sooners first appearance in the newly formed college football playoff. He would finish 2015 with 5 yards rushing on 1 carry. After rehabbing the whole season and subsequent off-season, Anderson returned ready to hit the ground running in the Sooners “fall camp” of 2016 just prior to the start of the season. It was not meant to be as he suffered an undisclosed neck injury in fall camp, which required surgery and rehab, ultimately costing him his second season in Norman.
At this point I imagine you are asking yourself “Why all the optimism and faith in a player with this injury track record, to be able to replace such outstanding RB’s?”. Let me be the first to say “I completely understand that line of thinking, and it is a completely fair question.” That said, I point to what else we know about Anderson. First off he is well put together at roughly 6’ and 210lbs and no real track record of being injured prior to playing at OU. These injuries seem to have been the exception not the rule, and he has the size to handle to positon. Next we must look at what we knew him to be prior to his injuries.
his High School career. The upside is that his career was tremendous as he performed against some of the best competition in the country. This led to him being a consensus 4 star recruit and one of the top three RB’s in the country. Rodney would finish with 5,493 career rushing yards on 603 carries averaging a ridiculous 9.1 yards per carry and amassing
85 rushing TD’s. You add these statistics to watching his explosion and speed on film, with the fact that he is expected to be healthy for 2017 and you get the optimism.
The next guy on our list is a name fans should recognize unless you spent the
2016 season in a coma or you just paid zero attention. That is 2016 freshman
Abdul Adams. Adams had a few bright spots in 2016, but for the most part looked
like a true freshman that was thrust into a role for which he was not prepared to fulfill. Adams finished with 283 yards on 53 carries, resulting in an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Based on these stats and factoring in natural maturation, he looks to have a promising future.
The final stop on our list of RB’s that I feel will have a serious shot at being
major contributors to the Sooners 2017 rushing attack is not merely one name but
instead a trio of new and exciting names fresh from the 2017 recruiting class. This
class brought the Sooners backfield some real dangerous playmakers, physical
runners, and one with blazing speed. The first of this trio is 6’1” 215lbs 4-star prospect
Trey Sermon, out of Marietta, GA. Sermon was considered by most to be one of the
10 best RB’s in the ’17 class. He is a well-rounded back with great balance and a powerful running style. He features a nasty stiff arm, good hands out of the backfield, and while he doesn’t feature the fastest of top end speeds, he’s plenty fast enough to hurt you in the open field. Trey is already on campus in Norman giving him a great chance to make an impact early on in 2017.
The second freshman RB from the ’17 class is 6’ 200lbs 4-star prospect from
Mansfield, TX, Kennedy Brooks. Brooks is considered by many to be one of the 15
best RB’s in the country. The thing to know about Brooks is that he is a physical runner
and demonstrates consistency. On top of all of that he put up crazy numbers
against Texas 6A competition, which is some of the toughest in the country. In two
seasons as the feature back as a junior and senior, as well as his sophomore year
where he split carries, he finished with 7,646 rushing yards and 96 touchdowns on
885 carries. Brooks is a workhorse who will battle inside and get tough yards as well
as having a nose for the end zone. This should allow him to be useful early on this
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Finally, we look at the speed demon of the class, 5’10” 190lbs ATH Marcelius
Sutton, a JUCO transfer from Lackawanna College. He is listed as the #2
athlete in the JUCO rankings but played RB and did a little of everything for the
Falcons. His RB numbers weren’t eye popping because of how they used him all over
the field, but what we do know is he runs a sub 4.4 40yd dash and reportedly has
over a 40” vertical. It’s not 100% clear how OU will use him, but my guess is they will
try him in a multitude of ways. He can be so dangerous because he can take it to the
house with just a little bit of room. That is why he could be part of the formula
that will try to replace the production that walked out the door with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
I feel like you will see most, if not all, of these guys listed as Lincoln Riley
tries to find the right combination of backs and receivers in the passing game. I would look for him to get super creative and maybe even use the H-Back Flowers in the run game when
needed. Flowers had never carried it before last season, but we all saw what he can do
versus Iowa State. All in all I fully expect Lincoln Riley to push the right buttons and get this
offense back to the machine it has been for the past two seasons.
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