NORMAN, Okla. — The question has come up many times, but Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield uses humor and a stock answer as a retort.
When the topic of how the Sooners are going to replace the production void left behind by former running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Mayfield goes for a mere quip.
“You could run behind our offensive line,” he said several times at Big 12 Media Days.
Perhaps that is the case. Several have pegged the Sooners’ offensive line as the best in college football.
OU averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 10.8 yards per pass attempt. It allowed 21 sacks in 13 games. The number was low considering Mayfield’s penchant for scrambling.
All those offensive linemen return. The Sooners are going to open holes.
At running back, however, it’s different. Mixon and Perine accounted for 76.5 percent of the Sooners 3,078 rushing yards in 2016. They scored 22 of OU’s 30 rushing touchdowns.
More importantly, the Sooners lost only nine fumbles last season. The running backs held onto the ball.
So who is next up at the position?
The Sooners feel like they have the absences covered by a committee. They’re going to rely heavily on redshirt sophomore Rodney Anderson.
Coaches and teammates held him in the same esteem as Mixon and Perine because they’ve been able to see him on the practice field. But when it comes to games, Anderson remains a mystery.
He’s played in just two career games. Anderson’s initial season ended with a leg injury midway through the Sooners’ second game. A preseason neck injury derailed Anderson’s 2016 campaign.
Despite having just one career carry, the Oklahoma coaching took every precaution with Anderson during the spring. He didn’t participate in full-contact drills or scrimmages.
“Rodney’s at that age, he’s been with me for two years, he’s gone through two spring practices. I don’t know how much he would’ve been knocking heads and getting tackled anyway,” Oklahoma running backs coach Jay Boulware said. “I know what Rodney is. I’m just looking forward to seeing him, where he is in terms of his overall development … (and), if he’s up and ready to go.”
The Sooners’ leading returning rusher, sophomore Abdul Adams, spent his freshman season backing up Mixon and Perine. He did average 5.3 yards per tote, but was limited by injuries late in the season.
Junior college transfer Marcelias Sutton arrived in January and showed flashes of what he can do in the open field.
Trey Sermon came to Norman in January. Kennedy Brooks arrived in June. Physically, Sermon looks the part. The 6-foot, 220-pound four-star recruit has the size to be a power back like Perine.
The mystery is freshman Kennedy Brooks. He put up incredible numbers in high school, rushing for 6,375 yards in his final two seasons at Mansfield (Texas) High School.
“You pop on the tape of those guys, and you see what we’ve seen physically. You see some hints they may be,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’re going to have an open mind about it. It’s as wide-open as it can be. We’ll play the best guy whether it’s one guy getting most of the carries, two guys like last year, or even as much as three or four.”
As of late, freshmen running backs have experienced success for the Sooners. Perine rushed for more than 1,700 yards his first season, en route to becoming Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher.
Mixon didn’t play in 2015 due to a season-long suspension in 2014. He rushed for 753 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in his first season on the field.
The group’s depth will likely prevent that kind of immediate production. But the Sooners believe they have the talent to fill Mixon’s and Perine’s shoes.