Most Valuable Sooner?

Senior fullback J.D. Runnels may never earn a postseason award, but he just might be the Sooners' most valuable player.

Jason White would sit in the film room, watching replays of the Sooner offense, taking note of his reads and his receivers' movements. But then his concentration waned.

As the tape would rewind, White's eyes would fixate elsewhere. He would zero in on No. 38. White would go from student to fan.

A fan of fullback J.D. Runnels.

"I watch for him, to see who he's cleared out," White said.

White was not in danger of being chastised. Focusing on Runnels is a common crime among Sooners.

"All of us do," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "I've never seen anybody like him."

Runnels' blocking has taken on legendary status. In three years as the Sooner fullback, Runnels has become a Stoops favorite. Stoops constantly politicks the media to create a fullback slot on its all-star teams and consistently lists Runnels as the most overlooked great player on the OU roster.

"You have no idea — I'm not blowing smoke — how valuable he is," Stoops said.

Steve Owens knows. In 1969, Owens won the Heisman Trophy and made a celebrity out of his fullback, Mike Harper. Owens credited Harper for leading the way to daylight in three record-breaking seasons. Owens took Harper with him to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

Harper was an old-fashioned blocking back — a player with a backfield address but a lineman's mentality. A player in position to carry the ball but commissioned to clear the way for others.

That's Runnels' description, too. He has conditioned his attitude to accept the role of servant. He has embraced the blue-collar position of fullback. He has become the Sooner slobberknocker.

"I have to, in the offense I'm in," Runnels said. "It's no disrespect to me. We have so many other guys on the field in the skill positions, there are not enough balls to go around. I'm just happy to be on the field. I try to play every play 110 percent. I practice really hard."

Can Runnels mimic Harper and block Adrian Peterson to a Heisman in 2005? Well, Runnels almost did it last season, when Peterson was the Heisman runner-up.

"The sky is the limit for this kid, it really is," Runnels said.

Of course, Peterson will be without his quarterback, White, and much of the fleet of receivers that took pressure off the running game. And three senior offensive linemen that helped clear the way.

But Peterson will have his sidekick, Runnels, who in three years as the OU fullback has helped set a smashmouth tone. Tailback Quentin Griffin reaped the benefits in 2002 and Peterson in 2004.

No Sooner, offense or defense, is more physical than Runnels.

"In high school (at Carl Albert in Midwest City), I was real physical," Runnels said. "Played tight end. I did similar stuff to what I do now. I try to have a physical presence on the field. I want people to know I'm out there."

The Kansas State Wildcats knew it last October. White tells the story of mammoth KSU defensive end Kevin Huntley asking Runnels to give him a break during the game.

"J.D. loved it," White said. "What's amazing, you'd think a guy hitting like that would be dazed. He comes back, he's wide open."

Runnels pleads guilty.

"I'm a hard-nosed SOB," Runnels said. "I try to be such a nice guy off the field. But I think all great players have a light-switch in their head. My light-switch was on that day at Kansas State."

Maybe that's why Stoops is so partial to Runnels. Stoops was hard-nosed himself, as an Iowa safety and as a defensive coach. Stoops has taken on some CEO characteristics, but at the core he remains the feisty kid from the sandlots of Youngstown.

"Coach Stoops loves hard-nosed players," Runnels said. "He loves players that will stick their head in a dark hole.

"I really appreciate everything he says about me. Makes me feel I'm a key part of the team. I really feel like I'm doing something."

Part of Runnels' attachment to Stoops stems from his recruitment. Runnels was not considered the bluest of blue-chippers. He was a sub-6-foot tight end at Carl Albert, not a big demand for those in Big 12 football.

But Stoops eventually offered a scholarship, a phone call that still inspires Runnels.

"It all started that first day I heard his voice," Runnels said. "I'm doing everything I can to pay him back."

Consider the debt paid in full.

Runnels figured out that a guy 5-foot-11 1/2, 230 pounds wasn't going to impress coaches with suave moves. Somewhere around his sophomore year at Carl Albert, Runnels said he developed an aggressive, physical football personality.

"I think J.D. knows that this is what fits (his) talent and physical abilities," Stoops said.

And thus Runnels has crossed the great divide for running backs. He is more than an honorary member of the OU offensive line; he is a full-fledged member.

Runnels says Sooner linemen Kelvin Chaisson and Davin Joseph call him "The Pulling Guard."

"I try to get in good with the offensive line," said Runnels. "Jammal Brown's blocking was phenomenal. That's what I want people to say about me.

"Everything starts up front. I want those guys to know we're a unit."

Don't worry, J.D. They know it. And there's no better evidence than Runnels' career carries.

One. That's right. Three years, one carry, in the Rose Bowl three years ago against Washington State Runnels gained two yards and was ecstatic to get them.

"I can't lie, I love to have the ball in my hands," Runnels said. "But I like to open holes for Adrian or Kejuan (Jones), or pass protect for Jason. I try to find glamour in whatever I do."

The Sooners aren't adverse to putting the ball in Runnels' hands. He has 31 catches, four of them for touchdowns, in his career. But a running play to Runnels isn't even in the playbook, according to White.

That puts Runnels on a different plane than even his blocking-back brother. Harper, almost 40 years after the fact, still can recite his carries by year: 11 as a sophomore, 83 as a junior and 53 as a senior, which were fewer than Owens had against Oklahoma State alone (55). That means Harper has a 147-1 edge in career carries on Runnels.
v "I was a good blocker, I guess," Harper said. "But it was nice every once in awhile to get the ball. (Runnels), he's a good player. Blocks really well. I try to watch him."

He's not the only one.

Runnels' teammates and coaches sit amazed as they watch him on tape. What they see is more than just the Sooner slobberknocker. They see a player good on his feet. Runnels' blocking has an element of artistry.

"That's where guys of his stature don't get credit for being a great athlete, the way he can adjust and make his move," Stoops said. "A lot of times, people out there are doing their best to get out of the way; you usually don't get but a small piece of the (defensive) guy."

Runnels' stock isn't likely to dip after college. The National Football League has embraced the blocking back concept for more than a decade. Many an NFL fullback never carries the ball. They just open the holes for the high draft picks and award winners. And love every minute of it.

Sounds like right up Runnels' alley.

"I hope so," Runnels said. "I'd love to play football for a living. I hope the NFL does respect what I do."

Why wouldn't pro football? Oklahoma and Bob Stoops certainly do.

(The above article was published in the Summer edition of Sooners Illustrated. If you are interested in reading more articles like this one on Sooner players and coaches, click the link below for information on how to subscribe.)

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