NORMAN, Okla. — Heading into spring practice there is not another position that fans will look forward to watching more than running back.
Since the graduation of Quentin Griffin, the Sooners have been searching for a franchise player to take his place. A year ago, senior Renaldo Works and sophomore KeJuan Jones shared the position, but neither came close to matching the skills of Griffin, who took his talents to the Denver Broncos in the NFL.
After battling injuries all of last season, Works has graduated and now is trying to grab the attention of the NFL. Jones returns and would appear to be the Sooners best running back going into the spring. Jones wasn't super a year, but solid in rushing for 866 yards, at 4.2 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns. He had the lone touchdown against Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game and he rushed for 59 yards and was running hard in the fourth quarter as the Sooners tried to rally in the Sugar Bowl against LSU.
However, Jones is only 5-foot-9, 187 pounds, and doesn't possess the breakaway speed or the open field moves of a franchise running back. You know that you will get great effort from Jones on each and every carry, but whether he can give you 200 yards per game is another question, and it is that question that opens up the running back position for the spring.
"I think we always leave it at running back that you have to go into spring ball and prove yourself," said running back coach Cale Gundy. "It doesn't matter if you have been a starter for three years or one year, we like to have our players compete. Going into spring ball we are going to see who plays the best, and whoever plays the best will be the guy who is leading the position going into the fall. KeJuan has had more reps than anybody on our team. The thing about KeJuan is that he is such a competitor"
Donta Hickson is now a junior and he is still looking for an opportunity to prove that he can be the main man in the offense. He will get more of a chance this spring, but it is a great crop of young running backs that has the OU coaches so excited about the spring.
"We have some guys who are coming back that we feel have a great deal of talent," said Gundy. "KeJuan Jones has had more reps than anybody. He is a guy who wants to play, wants to compete, and he will never shy away from anything. Donta is a guy who has shown at times that he can be a very good player, and he will probably make a great push this spring."
"Then you have the young guys who will get a shot this spring," Gundy continued. "Tashard Choice is a 6-foot, 210-pound running back who is strong, physical, and who can be a pretty good all-around back for us. I think Tashard has a chance to be a pretty good football player for us. He is a 4.5-runner with great hands and a very physical runner, who can make you miss. He is a very powerful running back who I think will be a good pass blocker for us. I think he is somebody that you can leave in the backfield for every situation. I am looking forward to seeing how much better he gets this spring."
Choice appears to have the early edge on fellow redshirt freshmen Jacob Gutierrez and Courtney Tennial. Choice worked out with the varsity all last year just in case he was needed, while Gutierrez and Tennial were on the scout team for the entire season. However, Gutierrez and Tennial will both finally get a chance to show the OU coaches that they are ready for the prime-time action of the varsity.
Then you throw in the fantastic talents of D.J. Wolfe, who graduated from Lawton Eisenhower early because he felt he could get into the mix at running back, and the running back position all of a sudden gets very crowded."
"Jacob is a guy who is more like Quentin Griffin," he said. "He has great speed and quickness, but we think he can run inside the tackles as well. Courtney Tennial has been bothered by some shoulder problems, so we will wait and see how well he can compete in the spring. I would like to see Courtney completely healthy because he is a 220- to 225-pound running back who is a very powerful runner, but he does have some quickness to him. He is not a Quentin Griffin, but he is able to run downhill and he can make you miss. He is able to break through tackles and is very physical, but his shoulder problems are holding him back."
Wolfe was ranked the top player in the state and the 8th best running back in the country a year ago. His appearance is a total wild card considering he is fresh out of high school and the Sooners coaches are just now getting him in camp.
"I am looking forward to working with D.J," said Gundy. "He had a chance to go through the offseason workouts and was able to step right in with the varsity and not only stay with those guys, but in many ways he was leading them in drills. There were many times during sprints that he won his heat. You don't see many freshmen that can step up and do that, especially against the type of speed that he is running against.
"He is a guy who is a great athlete. He is very skilled and he the type of athlete that you like to have at tailback because you can move him out in the slot and run routes with him. D.J. is that good of an athlete and he has great quickness and good hands. He is a great competitor, and he is also somebody who wants to compete. But the good thing about D.J. is that he loves the University of Oklahoma. He is willing to do what is best to be a part of the best team in the country and to try to go out and earn a spot on the team."
That was never more evident than when Wolfe helped in the recruitment of Adrian Peterson, the top-rated running back in the country.
At fullback, the Sooners have one of the very best in the country in junior J.D. Runnels, but no depth at the position. Dane Zaslaw has moved over from linebacker to fullback in an effort to develop some depth, but offseason knee surgery may keep him out of the spring.
Sophomore Dan Townsend was Runnel's backup last year and had a solid season. Townsend won't give up the backup spot without a fight, but he doesn't have the traditional size that teams look for in a fullback at 6-foot, 220 pounds.
The running back position will be crowded this spring, but after 15 practices the Sooner coaches hope to have a top two that goes into the fall looking to be the next franchise running back. However, no matter who comes out of the spring they know that laying ahead is Peterson, the nation's top high school running back. And even if they win the job in the spring, there is not guarantee they can hold off Peterson in the fall.
Spring Preview: Running Backs
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