If there’s one position where Oklahoma fans are never worried about in recruiting, it’s definitely running back.
It’s the case now, it has been the case in the past, and it certainly was the case back for the 2014 class as the calendar year turned to 2014.
The Sooners already had the commitment of Samaje Perine, but it was clear OU wanted to take one more running back.
The favorite was obvious. The Sooners were going to do whatever was necessary to land Oakley (Calif.) Freedom five-star back Joe Mixon. He had taken an official visit to Norman in October 2013, and no doubt the Sooners were in the hunt.
The backup choice, though, came out of left field. While Mixon was tearing it up year after year and was about as high profile a back as you can find, OU was looking within the state to a relative unknown at Lawton (Okla.) High named Michael Warren.
One year at running back was all Warren needed to make a splash on the field and on the recruiting trail. He rushed for 2,512 yards and 25 touchdowns, averaging more than nine yards per carry.
The afternoon of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl arrived, and Mixon seemed to be down to OU and UCLA. Recruiting experts divided heading into the week, the momentum for the crimson and cream started to build in the morning hours.
It was justified when Mixon put on the OU hat as the last recruit to make his announcement at the game. Mixon was coming to OU. Warren would have to find another home.
“We thought he was a great player and really liked him,” OU head coach Bob Stoops said. “Actually, we were in a situation where Samaje was already committed. And if Joe, if that wasn’t going to work out, he was our next guy.”
“He is a great player. Speed, tough, excellent cuts. All of it. We were very close. But once those two were solid, then Mike did something else. He may not have come anyway.”
The last part is interesting because Warren didn’t dream about being a Sooner. Originally from Hawaii, Warren moved to Lawton for his high school years because his family was in the military.
He admitted he had no idea about OU football until he arrived in the Sooner State. But he definitely had made his mark. To have come “that close” toward getting an OU offer, it has to bother him, right? Think again.
“I’m not really down about it or anything,” Warren said. “It’s a business and they have to do what’s best for their program. I don’t have any hard feelings toward it.”
Warren found his home in Ames, Iowa, with Iowa State. There were whispers of his potential and talent last year when he was on scout team. Those whispers are long gone as everybody is talking about the redshirt freshman.
With good reason, too. Warren had nine carries for 28 yards in the first two games. Since starting in the third game, he has racked up 928 yards and is averaging 154 per contest.
Not bad for a one-time defensive end as a junior in high school.
“We knew he had a lot of potential,” Lawton coach Randy Breeze said. “About halfway through his junior year, I think he realized he had a chance to be really, really good.
“We had a good running back at the time so we couldn’t help him find the football. We had him at defensive end. But he had a great summer after his junior year and came on strong. There was no doubt he was going to be our running back.
“I haven’t been able to watch a full game yet, but we’re in the offices preparing for our game and always got coaches saying you have to see what he did this week. We’re real proud of him.”
Warren’s stats stand alone at 153 carries for 954 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. But they pop out even more when you realize the next closest rusher on Iowa State has a mere 205 yards.
Nobody in Norman is complaining right now, either, with the way things have worked out with Mixon. After being suspended for last season because of an off the field incident where he punched a female student in the face, Mixon has been making noise on the field and not off of it.
A different player than Warren and in a different situation in terms of the offensive workload, it still feels like the best is yet to come for the former five-star prospect.
“When you get as many reps as he’s had, the game is going to start to slow down for you,” running backs coach Jay Boulware said. “You’ll be better, but he’s not there yet. He’s doing a good job, but he’s like a true freshman.”
Mixon has 431 yards on 70 carries, also averaging 6.2 yards per carry and also with four rushing touchdowns like Warren. However, Mixon has become a major target in the passing game as well with 20 catches for 302 yards and four more scores.
“You can see things are starting to click for him more,” Boulware said. “I’ve coached running backs for a long time and coached players all over and you start seeing how they react to things in practice vs. a game. He’s understanding how to process the information and doing a great job.”
Add in Samaje Perine to the mix, and there’s a real debate as to who will be the best running back on the field when the Cyclones come to Norman on Saturday night.
For Warren, it’s an opportunity not necessarily to exact revenge as it’s clear that’s not really his mindset. But coming back home to play in front of family and friends and delivering another big-time performance sure wouldn’t hurt and would add to an already magical season.
“I’m definitely surprised,” Warren said. “Being that this is my first season on the field, I didn’t expect to do any of this.
“It’s exciting coming back and playing the team from the state I graduated from. Just getting a chance to come back home to play in front of friends and family – it’s going to be really fun.”