Spring Position Preview: Running Backs

Cale Gundy previews Oklahoma's running backs heading into spring practice.

Going into the spring, despite the fact the Sooners lost two outstanding players who wanted to transfer, the running back position is one of the very best positions on the Sooner squad. That is what Adrian Peterson does for you. By himself, he makes the running back position the best unit on the team, and he alone makes the OU stable of running backs one of the very best in the country.

I realize that normally when you talk about a stable of running backs you mean more than one, and OU does have more than one running back, but it is because of Peterson's greatness that the Sooners will take the field next year with a great chance to win every game.

Peterson is coming off one of the best freshman years in college football history, as he was the first freshman in the grand history of Oklahoma football to be named an All-American. AD carried the ball an NCAA freshman record 314 times last year, proving that he was one of the most durable running backs in the country. He finished second in the nation in rushing with 1,843 just, which was just two yards behind rushing champ J.J. Arrington. Peterson also broke NCAA freshman records for 100-yard rushing games (9) and the most 100-yards rushing games (11).

The most amazing statistic of all for AD was that he rushed for 1,355 yards after contact, which means that 73.5 percent of his yards came after contact. The most important three yards of that total came late in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M, when he came back from the locker room after having his left shoulder popped back into place.

The Sooners faced a third-and-four around their own 30, and carried the ball on his first play back in the game sweeping left. The Aggies were ready for it, but fullback J.D. Runnels took out two Aggies and AD lowered his shoulder into three other Aggies. The Aggies buckled and AD lunged forward and just got the first down by inches. He didn't carry the ball again in the game, but that carry gave the Sooners a chance to run more time off the clock, and the OU defense defended Aggie hail mary tosses into the Sooner end zone to close out the game.

"Out of all my carries last year, that may have been my most favorite one," said Peterson at the March of Dimes Headliner Award Banquet where he was honored for his achievements in 2004. "I just remember so much about that run coming back from the locker room and just knowing that my team needed me to get back into the game. The coaches had so much confidence in me. J.D. blocked about seven guys and Bubba (Moses) got a couple, and I was able to run over a couple and we just got the first down. I wasn't worried about my shoulder, but now that I think back on it a little bit it was hurting. I knew we needed a first down and I just did my best to get it."

The fact a four-yard run means so much to Peterson tells you a lot about him. Despite now being one of the most celebrated college football players in the country, he is still a yes sir, no sir kind of person. And while confident, he still seems humble about all that he has accomplished.

"I have great teammates and a great coaching staff," said Peterson. "I have just put my talent into what this great team is doing and some good things happened for us. I would not have accomplished anything if it wasn't for them."

Peterson had shoulder surgery following the season and his rehab is ahead of schedule. However, he will still be treated with kid gloves during spring practice.

"AD is not going to be 100 percent by the time spring practice rolls around, but he will be able to do the non-contact stuff, and that is all we want him to do really," said OU running back coach Cale Gundy. "We want to be careful with AD and make sure that we don't get him hit too much when it doesn't count. He carries such a big load for us during the season and is such a physical runner that you don't want him to get hit very much in the spring.

"His shoulder injury will allow us to hold him out of all or most of the contact, but he will be well enough to go through the skelly stuff and through the conditioning. AD is a smart football player and he will use the spring to really study the game. When he hurt his shoulder during two-a-days and missed about a week, I was really impressed with AD because he watched and still learned a great deal about our offense. He actually improved as a football player while he sat out. He will do the same thing this spring."

Peterson says he still has a lot to learn and a lot to improve on. When you watch him you find that hard to believe, but in reality we have to remember he is only a sophomore.

"What is scary and great about AD is that he can get a lot better," said Gundy. "The more he watches, the more reps he gets, the more instinctual he will become as a runner. Many times last season he was trying to anticipate how the play was going to develop instead of letting the play develop in front of him. He got much better at waiting for that hole to develop as the season went on and he will get even better at that the more he plays.

"He can also become a factor in the passing game. I think that will be the next phase that you see him develop. We didn't throw the ball to him at all, not even on screens, but this year I think we will do that some. He has good hands and he can catch the ball. We think we can get him in some great positions in the passing game."

Peterson also realizes that he can get better, and he has never been afraid of hard work.

"Coach Schmidt is killing us right now, but that is OK with me," Peterson said. "It is hard, but that is what we need to be the best team in the country. We fell short of that goal last year and that left a terrible feeling in my mouth. We need to work harder to become better, and it is not just myself who thinks that. That is a team goal as well. I want to be stronger so that I can stay in the game longer and carry the ball more, if that is what they want me to do. I want to stay healthy next season, and if I can do that I know I can do even better."

Senior Kejuan Jones goes into the spring as the top running back on the depth chart with Peterson faced with limited duty. Jones saw significant playing time last year as the Sooners' No. 2 running back, rushing for 504 yards and four touchdowns at 8.3 yards per carry a year ago. Jones was the top receiver coming out of the backfield, catching 20 passes for 166 yards, which was also good enough for fifth on the team. Jones will once again be called upon to give Peterson a breather several times a game.

"Kejuan will play the same role he played last year," said Gundy. "He is going into his senior year and Kejuan has a lot to play for. He is one of our hardest workers and one of the most respected players on our team. Kejuan plays hard and knows what it takes for us to win. He understands his role, but he is competitive.

"He believes that he is the best running back on the team and wants a chance to prove it. Kejuan will get a chance this spring to be the No. 1 tailback with AD out. He will get a chance to shows us what he can do in that role."

D.J. Wolfe would have challenged Kejuan for that back-up role and he still might in the future, but for now Wolfe will give it a go at cornerback, which will eliminate all the redshirt questions about him for now.

"We have never considered redshirting D.J.," said Gundy. "He is too good on special teams for us and too good of a football player for us to redshirt. We can find a way for him to help us, and that is why we are moving him to corner.

"That doesn't mean that he will never be a running back for us again, but at this time with AD and Kejuan ahead of him we think this may be the best way for D.J. to get on the field. D.J. is going to help us win football games somewhere and for us on special teams, so there is no way that we can redshirt him."

Senior Donta Hickson will go through his final spring season still believing that he can be the running back at OU. Hickson has never been able to move above the No. 3 running back at OU, despite two good springs in a row and despite a few brief moments of glory when given the opportunity. Last season, he carried eight times for 33 yards against Colorado and broke off a 25-yard run against Oregon. He could have left many times and enrolled at a smaller school, but he has never approached the OU coaches with that option.

"Donta is a good football player for us. He enjoys playing football at OU and everything that comes with that," said Gundy. "We had two running backs (Tashard Choice and Coutney Tennial) transfer because they felt they could get more playing time elsewhere. Donta is competitive and he wants to play, but he likes the education that he is getting at OU.

"He feels the benefits of being a back-up at a great program like OU is more important that starting at a Division-II school somewhere. I appreciate and respect Donta a great deal, all of us as coaches do. We know if we have to go to him in a game that he will play winning football for us."

The departure of Choice and Tennial, and the injury to Peterson, opens the door for redshirt sophomore Jacob Gutierrez, who moves up to the No. 3 running back in the spring. Gutierrez has been a star on the Sooner scout team and he has earned the respect of the Sooner varsity and coaches for his hard work. We have a number of Gutierrez fans on OUInsider.com, and it appears he is finally going to get some carries.

"At OU, you have wait for your time or your opportunity to show what you can do, and this spring is that for Jacob," said Gundy. "We don't have much depth in the spring and he is going to get a ton of reps. We are going to get a great look at what he can do.

"I am not sure we have another football player on our team that works harder than Jacob. He has the ability to make defenders miss, good speed and he has very good strength. He is not tall, but we know that doesn't keep a running back from having success because Quentin Griffin was one of the best running backs in college football, and he was about the same size as Jacob.

"Jacob needs to not force things when he has the ball and he needs to let the play come to him. He is always looking for the big play and sometimes there is only a two-yard gain available on a play. If you don't take those two yards you can lose six, and he does that more often that we like. This spring he will get a chance to get into a groove and show us what kind of talent he really has."

All of the sudden, what was a deep running back corp is now one that is very shallow. Gutierrez is the only running back that really has a chance to change the coaches perception about him and is the only guy who can really make a move up the depth chart. Let's hope that neither Jones, Hickson nor Gutierrez gets hurt, or the Sooners will be forced to work on their no-back sets more than they want to this spring.

Sooners Illustrated Top Stories