Many across the college football landscape are expecting the Oklahoma Sooners to be national championship contenders this season, but the storm of hype in Norman has overlooked some key question marks going into 2014.
The running back position has been a question mark long before the allegations against incoming freshman Joe Mixon surfaced. Before this season, the Sooners had never had a running back group without an upperclassman under coach Bob Stoops. While the senior running backs last year weren't superstars, they provided a veteran presence this new group can't match.
Also, the Sooners are losing 79.3 percent of last year's rushing yards and 80.5 percent of the carries from 2014. That includes Blake Bell's move from quarterback to tight end.
This year's running back group of Samaje Perine, Alex Ross, David Smith, Keith Ford and Daniel Brooks (and possibly Mixon) makes up an exciting and intriguing collection of players that are big on power, but short on experience.
“The group is strong,” Stoops said at the team's media day. “You've got three big guys with Alex Ross, Keith Ford and David Smith. They're really powerful and strong, and they've got good speed. Daniel Brooks has exceptional speed. He has a little different style, but he's doing well and working hard. All of them together so far are doing a really nice job."
Teammates and coaches had raved about Mixon's work ethic and physique, making the allegations against him all the more disappointing for the team and fans. It's still unclear whether or not Mixon will play this year—or ever—for Oklahoma, but if he does, the Sooners will be getting one of the best running backs to come through Norman in some time.
“He's done a great job,” quarterback Trevor Knight said about Mixon at Big 12 Media Days in July. “He's really stepped in and he's like a veteran. He's adapted to workouts really well and stepped up as kind of a leader in that group in route sessions and stuff like that. Athletically, he catches the ball really well and moves really well. I'm excited for the way he is going to contribute this year.”
While Mixon gained most of the attention through the recruiting process, it's been fellow freshman Perine who has taken over the spotlight while Mixon has been withheld from team activities in light of the ongoing investigation. Perine, a native of Pflugerville, Texas is a rock at 5-foot-11, 243 pounds and has some strength to go with it.
“A guy like Samaje comes in and is benching 275 like 20 times or something crazy like that,” Knight said. “He's just a man amongst boys in that regard.”
Sophomores Ross and Ford have a little bit of game experience from a year ago, mostly Ford, who had 134 yards on 23 carries a year ago. Most impressive is that in those 23 carries, none went for negative yards.
However, it doesn't matter how talented the running backs are if there isn't a solid offensive line blocking for them. The Sooners definitely have that this year, as three starters and 11 total linemen return with game experience.
“Without an offensive line, it doesn't matter if you have Adrian Peterson in the backfield, if you don't have an offensive line that can block for him, it's going to be a long day,” offensive tackle Tyrus Thompson said. “I think these running backs are really talented. We have some of the best running backs in the nation and I'm ready to see these guys hit the field as well.”
The experience of the offensive line will be key as the running backs learn the gaps, timing and other intricacies that go overlooked in the ground game. Chemistry between a running back and his offensive line is something that takes time to develop, but taking care of each other's role makes that process easier.
“I think that's really important; it just makes it easier on them,” offensive tackle Daryl Williams said. “If we do our job and do what we're supposed to do, it just makes it easier on them and they'll start to feel more comfortable.”
There's plenty of talent but that doesn't mean production is a natural thing. Last year's bunch of backs didn't look the part, but all the Sooners did a year ago was have the highest per game rushing average of Bob Stoops' tenure in Norman.
It's likely pundits look back and see questioning the Sooners' ability to field another successful rushing attack was wrong, but until the hype of these young back turns into results, there's every reason to wonder.