OU football: Oklahoma running backs fueled by experience, versatility

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

OU's Trey Sermon talks to the media, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, during OU Media Day at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

NORMAN, Okla. — Jay Boulware’s offseason goal for his running backs was simple.

“They know my expectation level with the room, and we’ve got to be better,” said the Oklahoma assistant coach in April. “We’ve got to be better than the year before. That’s the challenge right now.”

The running backs are one of the more experienced groups on OU’s 2019 team, especially with its 2018 leading rushers — junior Trey Sermon and sophomore Kennedy Brooks — still around.

Part of Boulware’s challenge, however, is finding a player or two to replace former Sooner quarterback Kyler Murray’s production, which included 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground last season. The other is jelling with a virtually new offensive line.

The Sooners are fortunate to return their primary 2018 tailbacks and add a few intriguing newcomers. But in the trenches, the Sooners are searching for four new starters.

OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh gave an update on Friday regarding his group’s progress.

The Sooners have a healthy Creed Humphrey, who started 12 of 14 games last season but missed spring practices with an injury.

Despite the offensive line’s inexperience, Bedenbaugh seemed pleased with his group’s reloading process a week into fall camp.

“I feel good about where we are but we’re kind of like anyone else in the country,” Bedenbaugh said. “We have a long way to go. Even the group we had last year, as good as they were, it’s just about constant improvement.”

OU’s offensive line will play a crucial role in boosting the team’s running game. Although, the Sooner tailbacks are taking self-improvement serious themselves.

Sermon, who describes his rushing style as patient and elusive, gained 744 rushing yards as a true freshman in 2017 and 947 yards last season.

He says his focus this offseason has been improving his running ability, acceleration, picking up blitzes and route running. But he knows he must learn how to be a leader as well.

Sermon shared carries with Rodney Anderson, who’s now with the Cincinnati Bengals, during his rookie year in Norman.

The two were supposed to be OU’s go-to running backs in 2018. But a season-ending injury curtailed Anderson’s final college season during OU’s Week 2 clash against UCLA.

For the first time in his career, Sermon’s now OU’s veteran alongside Brooks, who redshirted in 2017, in fall camp.

“I'm used to being in a room where there's guys older than me,” Sermon said, “and now I'm the oldest in the room. So, I’m just trying to take on the leadership role, and just got to set the tone.”

He'll have assistance from Brooks, who led OU with 1,056 rushing yards last season and earned USA Today Freshman All-America honors.

OU’s also looking for a bigger year from sophomore T.J. Pledger. The Pacoima, California, native carried the ball 30 times for 179 yards in 2018.

“I think T.J. Pledger has made some really nice gains physically,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “He's quite a bit better than what he's been.”

OU added depth to its running back room with four-star junior college prospect Rhamondre Stevenson and former Millwood High School standout Marcus Major entering their debut OU seasons.

“We have a lot of potential,” Sermon said. “Every single guy we got in the room is unique. And I feel like they can contribute in many different ways. I feel like we kind of run a lot different from each other. But when we get on the field, I've seen them all make plays.”

OU football 2019 schedule

• Sept. 1: vs. Houston (6:30 p.m., ABC)

• Sept. 7: vs. South Dakota (6 p.m., TBA)

• Sept. 14: at UCLA, 7 p.m. (FOX)

• Sept. 28: vs. Texas Tech (TBA)

• Oct. 5: at Kansas (TBA)

• Oct. 12: vs. Texas in Dallas (11 a.m., FOX)

• Oct. 19: vs. West Virginia (TBA)

• Oct. 26: at Kansas State (TBA)

• Nov. 9: vs. Iowa State (TBA)

• Nov. 16: at Baylor (TBA)

• Nov. 23: vs. TCU (TBA)

• Nov. 30 at Oklahoma State (TBA)