NORMAN, OK – NOVEMBER 23: Running back T.J. Pledger #22 of the Oklahoma Sooners returns a kickoff for 29 yards against the TCU Horned Frogs in the third quarter on November 23, 2019 at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. OU held on to win 28-24. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
The Sooners return only 20.4 percent of its rushing yardage from last season and only 18.4 percent of its rushing touchdowns.
Senior Rhamondre Stevenson is the most experienced of the OU running backs who are back in 2020, but he will miss up to five games to begin the season as a result of a six-game suspension handed down right before last season’s College Football Playoff. Stevenson compiled 515 rushing yards and six touchdowns and averaged 8.0 yards per carry, tops in the nation among players with at least 50 rushing attempts.
Without Stevenson and junior Kennedy Brooks, who was second on the team in 2019 with 1,011 rushing yards but elected to opt out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, the Sooners will enter the new season with plenty of remaining talent but without a lot of game experience at the running back position.
Two other primary ball carriers, quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Trey Sermon, are also missing from last year’s College Football Playoff team.
Hurts, an Alabama transfer, ended his college eligibility, and Sermon entered the transfer portal and is now at Ohio State. Hurts led the Sooners a year ago with 1,298 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns. In three seasons at Oklahoma, Sermon gained 2.076 yards on the ground along with 22 touchdowns.
Despite the marked dearth of experience at running back to start the 2020 season — none of the available running backs on the roster had more than 10 carries last season — Riley does not appear concerned about the Sooners’ ability to run the football.
When the Sooner offense takes the field for its first possession in the season opening game on Saturday against Missouri State, junior T.J. Pledger will be the lead running back. Pledger was used mainly as a kick returner and reserve running back in 2019.
Pledger did appear in 10 games, but carried the ball just 10 times for 65 yards. A former four-star prospect and U.S. Army All-American, the California native does have talent. He just hasn’t been able to get on the field because of OU’s loaded arsenal ahead of him on the depth chart the past two seasons.
“He’s been our most consistent player,” Riley said in his weekly press conference a week ago. “I think he’s in the best shape that he’s been in here. Healthy, just really, really doing some nice things.”
After Pledger, two other young OU running backs who will get the opportunity to step up as long as Stevenson is sidelined are redshirt freshman Marcus Major and true freshman Seth McGowan. Major, who was a high school star in nearby Oklahoma City, was injured most of last season, but did see action in three games and gained 28 yards on 10 rushing attempts.
McGowan was the only running back signed in the Sooners’ 2020 recruiting class. Looking to the future, Riley and running backs coach DeMarco Murray are making a serious effort at landing five-star Texas prospect Camar Wheaton, who is rated by several services as the No, 1 running back in the 2021 class.
Oklahoma’s success in the run game is a prime reason the Sooners lead the nation in multiple offensive categories in the five years since Riley joined the OU coaching staff. The “next man up” concept will be in full force and on full display this season in Norman.
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