NORMAN, Okla. — Maybe the loss can just be absorbed, right? Maybe Oklahoma, which might be the nation’s best team two games into the season, can just keep going.
Rodney Anderson ran for more than 1,100 yards last season and caught for almost 300, yet there’s no debating the Sooners’ depth at the position, nor the fact there was a time not so long ago Anderson’s being the best of the group wasn’t quite clear.
Only last year, entering the season’s seventh game, at Kansas State, Trey Sermon had run for 469 yards, Abdul Adams for 372 — on just 35 carries; too bad he's gone, right? — and even Marcelias Sutton (118) and Baker Mayfield (101) had galloped for more yardage than Anderson’s paltry 82.
Nevertheless, 19 carries for 147 yards against the Wildcats made Anderson the man and he’d been the man ever since, until suffering a knee injury against UCLA Saturday that only confirms his being the unluckiest college football player on earth.
Thus, here we are and Anderson’s saga runs deep. And, given what Lincoln Riley had to say at his weekly press luncheon Monday, that saga is rolling on three very different levels, all of which should matter to Sooner fans, one of which is entirely personal to Anderson and two of which will prove consequential toward OU’s ultimate fortunes, one taking place on the field and one taking place intangibly.
Riley opened the door on a story that may seem utterly obvious in retrospect, yet hit like a wallop the moment he said it.
Riley believes Anderson will return to football, even better than ever, yet where will that be?
“He’ll probably have a decision to make if it’s going to be at this level or the next level,” he said. “That will be an interesting one, but one that certainly doesn’t have to be made now.”
First, the question was about this season. Then, it became coming back next season. And here's Riley saying sure, but maybe not here but the NFL, via the route of Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham, who years ago decided were they to get hurt again, they'd be collecting checks when it happened.
That’s one level, is Anderson finished here?
Another is the one that began to be talked about before halftime.
Can the Sooners replace Anderson’s production? How big a loss is it? OU still has a lot of running backs, right?
Yeah, but maybe it won’t be so easy.
“He might have been the best player in the country last year,” Riley said, “the second half of the season.”
Hard to replace a guy like that.
The third level is almost hidden.
It’s about leadership.
You figure the quarterback’s the primary leader on most teams. If not the quarterback, maybe a senior who’s played a lot of football, who’s earned all the respect and can tell a teammate to get back to work with only a glance.
Well, more than anybody else, Riley also let slip Monday, Anderson has been that guy, too.
The coach was ticking off Anderson’s attributes when he said, “… team leader; probably, you know, the biggest individual team leader on the entire team.”
We knew he was a leader, but did we know he was that leader?
There it is.
Anderson’s return to football is not that simple. The race to replace his production may be simple, yet even a terrific committee will be hard pressed to duplicate the guy who arguably became the nation’s best player the second half of last season. Meanwhile, leadership may be hard to track, unless it isn't, the lack of it being so clear.
On that, Riley pushed back.
“It’s not like the NFL, where we cut a guy or traded a guy … He’s still here, he’s still alive, he’ s going to be around our guys a bunch, he’s going to be around our team, he’ll travel with us,” he said. “The only thing he won’t do is run out on the field with them … I know he will still have a large impact on this team.”
It won’t be the same.
It can't be the same when the guy you looked toward for direction isn’t out there on the field with you.
And while the Sooners are believed long on leadership, a new dynamic must still take hold given Anderson’s departure.
It’s bound to be different and it matters.
Where production’s concerned, OU has the horses, yet none of them are Anderson’s clone, physically nor intangibly.
What we know is whatever happened last season that allowed him to take off, something happened. Something clicked. Something made him the guy.
Will that happen now for Sermon or Sutton, for T.J. Pledger or Kennedy Brooks? Does it mean Kyler Murray will have to play more like Cam Newton than Baker Mayfield?
Also, being days away from playing a team beat you last season, this time in Ames, not Norman, may not be the optimal time to come to terms with such a loss.
Finally, have we seen the last of Anderson in crimson and cream? It’s hard to believe we haven’t.
His luck has been so bad, it may not be even what he stands to gain with one more big season, but about the possibility of risking all possible suitors should he lose a fourth season to injury.
It’s not worth it.
He's likely played his last college game.
Anderson walked off the field under his own power. He returned, sans uniform, heavily braced, yet hardly limping.
How can somebody so injury prone be so indestructible, too?
Perhaps ours is not to wonder why.
There’s no fair in football.
Not for Rodney Anderson.