NORMAN, Okla. — A collective gasp surged through Oklahoma’s Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on April 14. The festive mood that accompanied Oklahoma’s spring game departed as running back Trey Sermon writhed in pain, clutching his right knee.
It looked like the Sooners’ running back depth chart thinned in one play. Watching the aftermath of freshman safety Patrick Fields’ tackle of Sermon felt like that moment where a season stars to unravel.
Fans weren’t the only ones who felt that scare.
“Pretty scary,” Oklahoma running backs coach Jay Boulware said. “I don’t wanna lose anybody. I certainly don’t want to lose a guy that has the playing experience that Trey has for us, but you know, God worked everything out for him and his family and obviously us, but the kid first and foremost. He’ll be OK.”
It took a couple days before Oklahoma’s fan base finally exhaled. If you saw the injury, it’s hard to believe.
But Sermon emerged relatively unscathed. The Sooners’ running back depth chart enters the summer as the deepest in the Big 12 and arguably one of the deepest in the country. If you have players the caliber of Rodney Anderson and Sermon, you have more than a one-two punch. You have a combination of haymakers.
Anderson rushed for 1,161 yards last season. But Sermon added 744 on just 121 carries. He also scored 7 total touchdowns, earning honorable mention among the Big 12’s coaches for Offensive Freshman of the Year.
Anderson’s 6.2 yard-per-carry average led the Big 12. But Sermon was just behind at 6.1 to rank second in the Big 12.
Oklahoma’s closer role fits Trey Sermon
Since 2015, Oklahoma has used one of its running backs as a closer. The up-tempo offense that runs wild in the first half transitions into this primal form of offensive football. Take the most powerful running back, repeatedly feed him the ball and watch a defense slowly crumble as the game extends.
Samaje Perine filled that role up until 2016. Sermon quickly jumped into those shoes as a freshman.
Remember the Baylor game? Sermon rushed for 148 yards — in the fourth quarter.
Think back to the Bedlam game. Sermon rushed for 84 yards on just 10 carries. He even sealed the victory with a 53-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds to go.
Sermon’s role as closer dissipated last season through no fault of his own. There were reasons for that beyond his control. Oklahoma’s last three regular-season games were all blowouts — TCU, Kansas and West Virginia. The rematch with TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game followed the same script.
Much like there’s little use for a relief specialist in baseball with a wide margin, there’s no point in feeding the big running back when the lead is insurmountable.
It’s unlikely Sermon will have to wait for the fourth quarter of tight games to get the brunt of his carries this season.
Trey Sermon wants to be a back for all occasions
A critical part of playing running back at Oklahoma is receiving ability. Only those who can run routes and make catches become every-down backs.
He had 2 touchdown receptions last season. The nifty grab in traffic early in the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game displayed Sermon’s potential. He wants more of those opportunities and believes he’s ready for them.
“I’ve grown a lot just mentally and during the offseason, I’m getting a better understanding of the game,” Sermon said.
Players experience the most growth after their freshman season. They understand what’s expected. They’ve had a full year in the strength program. The body and mind usually reshape for the better.
“He’s dropped his speed. His speed has gone down, meaning he’s gotten better from last year,” Boulware said. “From this time last year in January to where he tested last year, I think it was three-tenths of a second gone down. He’s a faster player than he was last season. He’s in better condition and he’s strong.”
Barring an injury, Anderson will be the Sooners’ No. 1 running back this season. He’s earned that spot after rushing for a team-leading 1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns. But Sermon is No. 2 with a chance to ascend to No. 1A.
That’s why Oklahoma gulped when Sermon went down, and exhaled when the news emerged a few hours later that he was OK.
Sermon is a special back who has only scratched the surface on what he can do.